The Kids Still Love Bernie

Despite the hostility of the pundits, Bernie Sanders still has the most donors, the biggest reach, and the most young people supporting him.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders shakes hands with supporters after addressing an audience on the campus of the University of Chapel Hill during a campaign rally on September 19, 2019 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Sara D. Davis / Getty Images)

As in 2016, when he received more youth votes than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined, Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly boasts the highest levels of support from young people among candidates vying for the Democratic nomination.

Recent polling, in fact, suggests it’s not even close: according to the most recent poll capturing the period spanning September 13–20, he led his rivals among voters 18–34 with 34 percent support. Joe Biden was next, with 16 percent, followed by Elizabeth Warren, with 10 percent. Beto O’Rourke, his killer skateboard chops notwithstanding, is far behind, with 6 percent, followed by Andrew Yang, with 4 percent.

Readers of the New York Times, however, might have gotten a somewhat different impression thanks to a recently published report by Sydney Ember evocatively titled “Young Voters Still ‘Feel the Bern,’ but Not Just for Bernie Sanders Anymore.”

While young voters were seduced in 2016, Ember writes, by “Sanders’s rants against the elite and promises of free college tuition” (read: program that pledged to confront the scourges of life-crippling debt and the oligarchical nature of American society), the 2020 primaries are shaping up to be a different story: “With the race entering the crucial fall period, other candidates, including Ms. Warren and Andrew Yang, have begun siphoning off some of his support.”

Though the piece does acknowledge Sanders’s “continued strength with young voters,” even citing a poll to this effect, the reader is certainly left with an impression out of sync with the picture recent data paints. With 4 percent support among young voters, Andrew Yang is hardly eating Sanders’s lunch. Warren, according to the polling from Rasmussen, actually trails Biden — who goes unmentioned in the piece. When the data is limited strictly to Generation Z, Sanders commands nearly 50 percent support compared to 9 percent for Biden and 8 percent for Warren.

To be fair, the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey cited in the piece suggests the competition for young voters may be tighter, though Sanders still remains decisively in the lead.

The real issue, however, is a simple, qualitative one: the reason a smaller fraction of young voters support Sanders now is that there are vastly more candidates vying for the Democratic nomination than there were in 2016. The basic demographic trend that held for Sanders in 2016 — namely high levels of support from younger voters relative to his rivals — remains unchanged.

The same qualitative sleight of hand was invoked over the weekend by none other than Nate Silver, who was justifiably pilloried for suggesting:

Not sure Bernie should get credit for having more diverse support than last time given that he has far less support than last time. A lot of voters have left him. White liberals have been particularly likely to leave him (for Warren) so the residue of what’s left is more diverse.

Only in a media environment overwhelmingly hostile to Sanders and the program he champions could his strong support among young or racialized voters somehow give rise to claims about his declining prospects among young or racialized voters.

Indeed, while some pundits have been open and direct in their dislike, a more subtle bias has taken shape in the form of meta-narratives about the Vermont senator’s stagnating momentum or his flagging popularity — conveniently ignoring things like his lead in fundraising, his 1 million individual donors, and the polls suggesting he leads in key primary contests (for example, New Hampshire). Like Silver, Ember’s implicit hostility to Sanders has been all too apparent, despite the ostensibly neutral purview of her beat.

As Katie Halper noted in July:

Ember is supposed to write reported articles, not op-eds, but she consistently paints a negative picture of Sanders’s temperament, history, policies, and political prospects in the over two dozen pieces she’s done on him . . . [She] has a multi-prong approach to undermining Sanders: She went to great lengths to avoid calling him the frontrunner until he was “no longer” one; she attributes his political positions to attention-getting, self-serving ulterior motives; frames even his victories and the popularity of his ideas as weaknesses; cherry-picks polls; presents opinions as facts (claiming he’s “outflanked on the left by rising stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Beto O’Rourke”); and creates false equivalency between Sanders and Donald Trump.

The latest round of media spin notwithstanding, there’s only one candidate who can reasonably claim young voters as his base or claim overwhelming support among them — and his name is still Bernie Sanders.