The 2020 Democratic primary is so far the opposite of a youth movement. Though voter turnout among the under-30 crowd was up in some states, turnout among older voters surged even higher; as a result, Bernie Sanders’ campaign floundered on Super Tuesday and flopped last week in Michigan and other states, making Joe Biden the clear frontrunner, if not the presumptive nominee.
One way to look at these results is as a failure of the coalition of young people, leftists, and the working class that Sanders was trying to build, which couldn’t overcome Biden’s massive advantage among older Democrats, the most reliable demographic of voters. But Sanders doesn’t have a total monopoly on the young. A sizable chunk of young people are quietly backing the more moderate Biden, and a surprising amount of youth support helped him win in states like Virginia (where he got 26 percent of the under-30 vote, according to exit polls, versus 55 percent for Sanders) and South Carolina (where it was Biden 26, Sanders 43). Young Biden voters don’t necessarily agree with each other on everything—many were fans of other candidates who have since dropped out, from Cory Booker to Elizabeth Warren—but they share a skepticism of Sanders and a belief that Biden can work the levers of power in a way the democratic socialist can’t. They don’t constitute a full-on counterrevolution, but they might be able to stop Sanders’ crusade.
“There aren’t all that many of us,” admitted Graham Littlejohn, 24-year-old bartender from San Diego. Like several under-25 Biden supporters VICE spoke to for this piece, Littejohn has changed his mind about who to support, originally backing Kamala Harris and even moderating a forum for her fans, which he says attracted a lot of toxicity from Sanders and Donald Trump supporters alike. (“I got told to kill myself quite a few times,” he said.)
While Littlejohn said that he wasn’t a fan of Sanders, and disliked the way Sanders had continued campaigning against Hillary Clinton in 2016 when it was clear he had little chance of getting the nomination, he still considered himself a progressive. “I could get behind a single-payer healthcare plan,” he said. “Tax the rich, absolutely, all that stuff. The real reason I like Biden is if you look at his track record, he can get stuff done.”
Young Biden fans, like their older allies, often praise Biden’s much-touted dealmaking ability, which stands in contrast to Democrats further to the left who don’t see any reason to compromise with Republicans on anything. “It’s kind of pointless to call yourself a progressive if you never make progress,” argued Jessie, a nonbinary trans 24-year-old who attends Ohio State University. “You elect Sanders, and hopefully this stuff will happen. If you elect Biden you’re pretty confident that this stuff will happen.” (Jessie, like several others in this piece, did not want their last name revealed for privacy reasons; they said that they had seen other Biden supporters get doxxed on Reddit.)
Some said that they were driven to Biden because of a dislike of Sanders. Brandon, a freshman at the University of Missouri who comes from a conservative household and used to be a Trump fan, said that Sanders was too “extreme” for him and added his parents seemed relatively sanguine about his casting a primary ballot for Biden—which probably wouldn’t have been the case if he’d voted for the senator from Vermont. Ben, an 18-year-old political junkie from Connecticut who references Walter Mondale in his Reddit username and supported Martin O’Malley in 2016, was angry about Sanders’ history of praise for left-wing dictators like Fidel Castro. And Alex, a 25-year-old nonprofit education worker from New Orleans, said he would “reluctantly” vote for Biden in the primary in part because “I find (Sanders’) embrace of socialism and rejection of capitalism to be unsettling and off-putting.”
It’s important to note that this type of moderate view is not all that common among young people, many of whom enjoy more Sanders-like calls for revolution. The teens and twentysomethings who care about Democratic politics are likely to be “young people who have been fighting politically for change for years,” said Abby Kiesa, director of impact at CIRCLE, a nonpartisan research organization based out of Tufts University that studies youth civic engagement. “For all the criticisms of Senator Sanders and his campaign, he certainly talks about a lot of change.”
Still, Biden has found support among certain pockets of young people, particularly Black young people. According to CIRCLE’s analysis of exit polls, he won just 10 percent of white young voters in South Carolina but got 36 percent of young Black voters in a key, candidacy-saving victory. This gap between Black and white youth may also explain why Biden did unusually well among young voters in Alabama on Super Tuesday, and support from Black voters under 30 was likely why Biden managed to win a majority of youth votes in Mississippi.
Young voters may be coalescing around Biden partly in thanks to the dearth of options available, as the race has narrowed to pretty much him or Sanders. But even those who settled on Biden after considering other candidates find plenty of reasons to like, and even be inspired by, the former vice president. They cite his struggle to overcome his stutter, and the history of tragic family deaths that have haunted him. They defend his comments about how millennials don’t actually have it that bad as a bit of principled truth-telling. They also point out that Biden supports liberal priorities like a $15 minimum wage and a federal ban on private prisons. “His platform is still largely the most progressive platform a Democratic nominee will have run on,” Alex said.
Jessie also noted that despite Biden’s reputation as a relatively conservative Democrat, he has at times been out in front on LGBT issues, calling trans discrimination “the civil rights issue of our time” way back in 2012.
Even as these young Biden voters say they have largely the same goals as Sanders—to make America a better, more equal place—some hold Sanders fans in a kind of contempt and feel that their love for the Vermont senator is partly the result of peer pressure. “I feel like a lot of the young voters who support Bernie support Bernie because he’s popular among young voters,” said Ben, “whereas young Joe Biden voters are people who are more moderate and look at more policies and try to figure out their positions.”
Noel-Emile Pearson-Fountas, an 18-year-old from Maryland, even thought that Sanders’ recent struggles could be blamed on his supporters’ ignorance. “The reason why Sanders’ popularity among young people isn’t translating to the polls is because the young people that like Sanders are the ones that don’t even know what a primary election IS, let alone that they’re supposed to vote for Sanders,” he wrote in an email.
But in truth, any young people involved in the primary on any level are unusually engaged with politics. “The electorate that votes in November amongst young people is going to look very different and they’re not going to always have the same politics as young people who voted in primaries,” said Kiesa. Whoever the Democratic nominee is, they’ll have to work to appeal to under-30s who aren’t passionate about any candidate and may not have been paying close attention. That means things like hiring young staff (something that both Sanders and Barack Obama did, Kiesa said) and making efforts to appeal to young voters who might be apathetic—not to persuade them, but to just remind them this election is going on and that they should vote in it.
“A huge amount of this isn’t about candidates, it’s about whether they’re being reached out to to turn out.” Kiesa said.
She noted that Biden’s circumstances now are similar to those Trump faced in 2016, when he was out of step with the younger people in his party. Back then, despite winning primaries, Trump had limited appeal among young Republicans and seemed destined to lose millennials and younger voters by record margins. Instead, he got 37 percent of the under-30 vote, according to a CIRCLE estimate, no better or worse than Mitt Romney did in 2012, and apparently succeeded in getting young Republicans to buy into his candidacy. According to pre-election polling data from CIRCLE, 32 percent of young Trump supporters were “excited” by him, versus just 18 percent of young Clinton supporters who were excited by her.
It’s too soon to tell whether Biden will attract a decent level of youth support among his party’s base the way Trump ended up doing, or whether he’ll be a relative dud. But the teens and twentysomethings who are already aboard the Biden train very much want fellow passengers. He’s more progressive than he gets credit for, they say, he’ll get things done—and no matter what, he’s a lot better than the other guy.
“Biden doesn’t have to excite you,” said Pearson-Fountas. “Getting rid of Trump once and for all should!”
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