The Youth Vote Emerges as a Problem for the Democrats

Young voters preferred Sanders on Super Tuesday, but they didn’t turn out at the same rate as older citizens.

Super Tuesday voting concluded only a few hours ago, but political archeologists are already turning over the rubble. An early narrative focuses on the failure of young voters to turn out. According to the exit polls, youth turnout did not increase in a single Super Tuesday state. In fact, the profile of the electorate skewed much older than in recent primary elections. German Lopez of Vox explains:

Consider Texas: According to NBC News’s exit polls, the Democratic electorate actually skewed older in Tuesday’s primary compared to past primaries. In 2008 and 2016, 13 and 18 percent of the electorate, respectively, was 65 and older. In 2020, it was 24 percent.

Texas is getting older, but not at a rapid enough rate for that increase to be tied solely to state demographic trends. In fact, the share of the population that’s 65 and older is just 12.6 percent. Given Biden’s strength with this group of Texas voters — 46 percent support Biden, while just 16 percent support Sanders — that surge in older voters helps explain Biden’s narrow victory in the state.

Many commentators are questioning how Bernie Sanders expects to sell people on his revolution if he can’t even mobilize the kids to cast their votes. It’s a reasonable question, but Sanders did at least accomplish half of his goal. For example, among California voters age 18-29, Sanders beat Biden by a staggering 72 percent to 5 percent. In Texas, the margin was 65 percent to 11 percent.

So, Sanders really does have the overwhelming support of young voters and it’s undeniable that he’s produced some excitement among them, but somewhere this formula broke down. To get a clue of what happened, we might want to look at Virginia.

Turnout in Virginia’s Democratic primary surged to more than 1.3 million voters, from about 783,000 in 2016 and 986,000 in 2008. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who won the state decisively, said Tuesday night that “the turnout turned out for us” in Virginia, and “there is some evidence he is correct,” The Washington Post reports. “Of the voters who sat out the 2016 primary and cast ballots in 2020, Biden won nearly 60 percent, according to a Washington Post statistical model.”

The surge in turnout was fueled in suburban areas, particularly in Northern Virginia. It looks like suburbanites were chomping at the bit to race to the polls. When they got there, they opted for Biden, and this swamped Sanders’s advantage with young voters. It also drove down young voters as a percentage of the electorate, making them appear apathetic.

But if they were apathetic by comparison to their parents and grandparents, they were also emphatic that they want more change than Biden is promising. What else can you say when only 1 in 20 Californians under 30 voted for the former vice president? I think there are some major warning signs in that number. The youth vote is one of the Democratic Party’s strongest demographics, and that means every slight uptick in their participation pays off in a major way.

Biden showed that the suburban strategy can dominate in Democratic primaries, but he’s going to need young voters to both support him in November and to turn out in big numbers. There’s nothing in the exit polls from Super Tuesday to suggest that he’s on track in this respect. If even Sanders struggles to get them to vote at their punching weight, what hope will Biden have?

There’s a lot of piling on of Sanders and mockery of his promise of revolution, but youth turnout is now a clear challenge that must be solved. Sanders’ supporters have a point when they warn against ignoring the strong consensus of people under 30, as they represent the future of the country. I expect them to emphasize this point in the next phase of the campaign.

Having said that, Biden just annihilated Sanders even while being slaughtered with the youth vote, and Sanders clearly didn’t deliver on his effort to reshape the electorate in his favor. Anyone who preferred Biden because they want the Democrats to protect and expand their suburban-based House majority was completely vindicated.

What the Democrats need is to pull these two parts of the party together, and that’s something Sanders will never be able to do. If Biden can’t win over more young voters, the convention might want to find a third option.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com