Why Bernie Sanders Appeals to Young Voters

January 30th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

DES MOINES, Iowa — The enthusiasm for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is most clearly represented through his young supporters. The 74-year-old Vermont senator leads Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in support of people aged 18 to 24 by a ratio of 2:1.

But those are just numbers. In an effort to understand Sanders' appeal among Millennials, I asked around in Iowa, where voters are set to vote in the caucuses for their candidate of choice in less than a week.

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clinton sanders

On my flight to Des Moines, I interviewed a 27-year-old woman, Sarah Loll, who graduated from Iowa State University and voiced her unreserved support for Sanders. She's caucused three times in the past and said that, with Clinton, she expected the "same old stuff," whereas Sanders' vision of a political revolution offered an alternative future that was irresistible, even if she generally liked Clinton.

That's more or less the answer I've received from Sanders supporters in the state. It's not that they dislike Clinton, it's just that Sanders advocates for a more compelling vision of the future — one where Wall Street is held accountable, college is made affordable, and income inequality is leveled. Loll's comment, that a Clinton presidency would only maintain the status quo of the Obama administration, is no conspiracy theory. It's part of her campaign strategy.

clinton rally

"I want to build on what we have achieved," Clinton said at a rally at Grand View University in Des Moines on Friday. "[Sanders] wants to start over."

To young people, this message falls short of their high expectations for the presidency. They want somebody who will challenge the establishment and reinvent the political wheel. They want Sanders, who has made a stronger impression on young voters by talking about issues that resonate with them and isn't afraid to take it to the next level, so to speak.

I visited Sanders' campaign headquarters in Des Moines and asked his state campaign coordinator, Pete D'Allesendro, what he thought about Sanders' millennial appeal.

Sanders HQ

"Elections, when they're done right, are about the future, and young people have the greatest stake in the future," D'allesendro told me. "The candidate that is able to stake out the authenticity and the ideas — that is actually talking about making the future better — is always going to have an advantage with young people."

"[Sanders] is the messenger of a message that says, 'We can do better and we should be doing better and we should strive to do as well as we can, not just what we think we can reach,'" D'allesendro added.

Sanders has speculated about why young people appear to favor him over Clinton. In a recent interview with CNN, he credited the idealism of youth, stating that "[t]hey understand that something is wrong in this country when our middle class continues to decline and when they may end up with a lower standard of living than their parents. They want us to do something about it."

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To her credit, Clinton appears to be ramping up efforts to reach millennial voters and tackle many of the same issues that have attracted young people to Sanders. At Grand View University, she addressed college affordability, climate change, and emphasized her pro-Main Street/anti-Wall Street agenda. Students and young volunteers filled the arena, and several of the people I talked to said they were still undecided. They wanted to hear what Clinton had to say, to see if she could persuade them that she cared about their issues.

Eugene Shulski, a freshman at Grand View University, said he planned to compare the candidates after hearing each of them speak at his school (Sanders has an event scheduled at the same location on Sunday). "I want to see what kind of attitude — how she approaches us," Shulski said. College affordability was he number one concern.

However, it appears Sanders is heading into the Iowa caucuses with the admiration (and potentially votes) of many Millennials.

I sat down with Bob Mulqueen at a popular cafe in the capital (the locally famous Smokey Row) to hear what he thought about the subject. Mulqueen is a lobbyist who represents nonprofit organizations in Iowa and has volunteered for Sanders' campaign since he announced his candidacy last year.

smokey row

"I think that his appeal to young people is partly due to their lack of being jaded," Mulqueen said. "The idea of shaking things up appeals to young people, as it should. But I think more than that, something comes through — even if they don't know very much about his background — that testifies to his authenticity."

"He doesn't have a lot of baggage and despite the fact that there's been a lot of kidding about him being a grumpy old guy, I think that grumpiness itself displays someone who doesn't try to be light, airy, and happy just for the sake of getting along with people," Mulqueen said.