What is it about a 74-year-old balding politician that has young voters so excited?
A New York Times Iowa poll of Democratic voters entering the caucuses throughout the state showed that a staggering 84 percent of those 17 to 29 years old supported Senator Bernie Sanders, while Secretary Hillary Clinton garnered just 14 percent.
In the age 30-to-44 category, Sanders also beat her, winning 58 percent to Clinton’s 37 percent.
The tide turns with the 45-to-64-year-old crowd, who supported Clinton 58 percent to Sanders’ 35 percent. And those over 65 went for Clinton 69 percent, with only 26 percent for Sanders.
These numbers are consistent with later polls.
The enthusiasm young people have for Sanders was in abundance at a Sanders rally at Rancho Buena Vista High School in Vista May 22, where young people, some not old enough to vote, were ecstatic to see the senator from Vermont.
The beaming faces of the 40 or so RBV marching band members when Sanders stepped over to thank them after his speech, said it all. So did their fervent cheering from the sidelines throughout the rally.
The high school, with 3,300 students in grades 9-12, was well represented at the rally.
At the conclusion of the nearly hour-long speech, one young man standing at the fence began squealing, “Here he comes! Here he comes!” as the candidate turned toward the fence to greet adoring fans.
I thought my eardrums would burst when Sanders reached in to shake his hand. “Oh my God, oh my God!!” he screamed in all directions. “I shook Bernie Sanders’ hand!!”
What is going on here?
Some speculate that young voters have a more favorable view of socialism than older voters who remember the Cold War and have negative associations with socialist movements.
The students I spoke with at the Sanders rally didn’t mention that specifically, but their concerns mirror the democratic socialist’s primary points: that the traditional two-party system has become corrupt, that government and politicians are controlled by wealthy contributors and lobbyists, and – perhaps as they see future prospects for successful careers and well-paying jobs dimming – that income inequality is growing to intolerable levels.
What’s more interesting is that these young people aren’t terribly concerned that Sanders’ chance of getting the nomination is slim.
“His goal is to create a whole new generation of voters with different priorities,” one young man told me, insisting that the Sanders movement is about more than just Bernie.
Sanders himself said as much in his speech, when he said his campaign “is about transforming a nation.”
Those of us old enough to remember Eugene McCarthy in 1968, and to a lesser extent John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992, lived through what seemed to portend revolutionary upheavals in the democratic process.
And yet, here we are today, many of us having replaced youthful idealism with complacency and cynicism.
Can the Sanders movement survive past the 2016 election?
When the loudest cheers at the Sanders high school rally came when he spoke about legalizing marijuana and guaranteeing free college, those who base their support for Sanders primarily on his stance on income inequality and corruption in politics worry.
Certainly decriminalizing marijuana and relief from burdensome college debt are galvanizing issues for young people. But it’s questionable if that can sustain a revolution for the longer term.
RBV students in the press bleachers who were credentialed as members of the school’s yearbook, journalism and photography clubs, provided enlightening insight.
They were all excited to be there, naturally, agreeing with one another that Sanders represents a movement that’s not going away and saying there’s a lot of support for Sanders at their high school.
But what specifically appealed to them about Sanders?
“He wants to legalize marijuana,” said one girl not yet old enough to vote. And certainly the notion of free college tuition was attractive.
But digging deeper, I asked Skylar, an RBV 11th-grader, what was it about Sanders more generally that made her a supporter.
“He’s not like every other candidate,” she said, in a subtle criticism of establishment politics. “Hillary has a record of being a liar, and Trump is a racist and misogynist.”
But a 74-year-old man?
“Despite his age, he still has goals and ambitions,” she said thoughtfully, putting the kibosh on the notion that kids are shallow and only interested in pot and free college. “He is showing that anyone can do anything despite their age.”
Eerily, Sanders, as if hearing her words, told the crowd an hour later, “Establishment always tells people their dreams and aspirations are impossible.”
Not enough credit
There was genuine fervor and zeal from the young crowd at the prospect of a candidate who they believe is honest, speaks for them and has real concerns for their future.
Truth be told, there’s also the appeal of being part of a revolution that blows up (figuratively) traditional establishment politics. Upending the status quo and rebellion against the machine is a surefire draw for kids looking for something to protest and a social justice cause to rally around.
That’s not to trivialize the Sanders phenomenon which has engaged millions of young people and brought them into the political process with palpable energy.
Actress and Sanders supporter Shailene Woodley, 24, connected with the young crowd in her introduction of Sanders at the rally, urging people to go to the polls on election day.
“Our greatest defense against tyranny is our right to vote,” Woodley said, reminding the crowd of thousands that conformity didn’t win the Revolutionary War, women’s right to vote or civil rights.
Sanders continued the theme. “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” he said, adding, “Real change never takes place from the top down – always from the bottom up.”
Comparing his campaign to Clinton’s, he said, “The enthusiasm, energy and drive is with us.”
But for how long?
Change may be possible if the youth demographic can sustain momentum beyond 2016 for the issues Sanders has highlighted throughout his campaign. But history is against them.
Nevertheless, the youthful excitement for Sanders and his platform is nothing short of astonishing, and their power, should they actually vote, should not be underestimated.
Regardless of one’s political persuasion, it’s fair to say that anything – or anyone – who can attract the under-30 crowd into politics and get them enthused about their role in creating an American dream that works for them is exactly what this country’s principles of democracy were founded upon.
Perhaps the older generation and media don’t give young people enough credit.
Let’s see where this may lead.
Senior Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.