Ideology and authenticity explain the 78-year-old socialist’s appeal to young Democrats.
What divides Iowa Democrats most starkly is not income, education, gender, or even ideology. Rather, age is the factor that most strongly correlates with whether an Iowa Democrat supports Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders.
In the latest Monmouth poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers, which shows Biden showing a six-point lead over Sanders (24 percent to 18 percent), the frontrunner is in fourth place among voters aged 18 to 49, but he’s in first place because he has an astounding 31-point lead among voters 65 years of age and older.
Sanders, by contrast, is powered by younger voters. His support among Iowa Democrats over 65 is in the single digits, but he is in first place, leading Elizabeth Warren 26 percent to 22 percent, among voters under 50, according to Monmouth. In 2016, when Sanders finished just 0.3 points behind Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus, he carried voters under the age of thirty 84 percent to 14 percent.
What explains the youth appeal of the 78-year-old socialist who had a heart attack a few months ago? It is partly, but not entirely, a matter of ideology. The share of Iowa Democrats under age 50 who describe themselves as “very liberal” is nearly twice as large as the share of Democrats older than 50.
“They’re looking for somebody who is strongly progressive — take-no-prisoners in their policy stance,” says Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young progressive star who endorsed Sanders, said earlier this month: “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.”
At a Sanders townhall earlier this month in Grundy Center, Iowa, I spoke to several young voters about their support for Sanders. Some talked not only about policies like Medicare for All but about the sense that they were part of a movement. “One huge reason I go for Bernie instead of Warren is that he has a very clean track record over all of these years supporting all of these things I believe in,” Cecilia Sileo of Iowa City told me. “I always think about how in the ’60s when he was in college he was arrested in a civil-rights protest for chaining himself to a black woman.”
Sileo, who is heading off to college in the fall, added Warren has “some good ideas now,” but “many years ago she was a Republican.”
But Sanders’s youth appeal isn’t simply a function of ideology: He is also the top-vote getter among self-described moderates under the age of 50. This group broke down, according to Monmouth, 23 percent for Sanders, 20 percent for Biden, 14 percent for Warren, and 14 percent for Buttigieg. Younger self-described moderate Democrats may be more drawn to Sanders’s authenticity and the sense that he’s committed to solving their kitchen-table issues.
At the same townhall event, I spoke to Olivia and Mitchell Boeck, who are married and both 26 years old. Four years ago they backed Marco Rubio in the Republican caucus, but voted for Hillary Clinton on election day and found their worldview become significantly more progressive since then. They brought their six-month-old twins in a stroller to the Sanders townhall event, where Mitchell asked Sanders a question about his paid family leave plan. At the end of it, Mitchell, who just finished graduate school to be an occupational therapist, remained undecided between voting for Sanders or Andrew Yang. Olivia, who holds three part-time jobs, was still trying to choose between Sanders and Warren. She said deciding which candidate has the best policies was the biggest factor in her vote.
Warren has the support of only 6 percent of Iowa Democrats over 65, while Sanders garners support of 8 percent of this group, according to Monmouth. And that means that the fight Warren picked with Sanders — in which she effectively accused him of sexism by alleging he privately said that a woman can’t win the presidency — will be won or lost based on how younger voters respond.
Warren’s closing message seems risky for two reasons: One, her decision to effectively abandon Medicare for All in favor of identity politics could allow Sanders to consolidate support among very liberal voters who care more about policy. Two, younger voters could find her claim to be a cynical ploy by a politician who has been caught telling falsehoods before. Sanders rebutted Warren by pointing out he recruited her to run for president in 2016.
With two weeks to go until caucus day, another big question mark about younger voters is how many will turn out. In 2016, under-30 voters accounted for just 18 percent of Iowa Democratic caucusgoers. In 2008, under-30 voters made up 23 percent of Iowa Democratic caucusgoers. If 2020 turnout is closer to 2008 than 2016, that could swing the election to Sanders.