October 2018

Are Millennials Still Feeling the Bern?

In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders was far and away the favorite candidate of young people in the US. Two years later and two years closer to 2020, is Sanders and his message still resonating with millennials and would they support him again?

by Michael T. Barry Jr.

During the 2016 presidential primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders won more votes among young people than both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined. 

More than 2 million millennials cast their ballots for Sanders, greatly assisting Sanders’s improbably competitive run against Clinton. In many contests, Sanders won among young people by historically large margins. For example, in the Iowa caucuses Sanders scored an astounding 84 percent of the young vote and in the New Hampshire primary he garnered 83 percent.

If Sanders does choose to run in 2020, young millennial voters will again be vital to his success or failure. In 2016, Sanders resonated with millennials for a variety of reasons including soaring college costs and student loan debt, support for policies like a living wage and marijuana legalization, desires for social justice, and favorable opinions on democratic socialism.

There is no doubt Sanders captivated the hearts and minds of young people in 2016, but could he do it again? Are young people still “feeling the Bern,” or have young people moved on from Sanders and his message?

Enthusiasm and support remain high for many young people who voted for Sanders in 2016. They have not forgotten the hope Sanders inspired two years ago and are optimistic he will run again in 2020.

Kyle Bridge, a 28-year-old doctoral student from Gainesville, Florida, describes Sanders as “practically revolutionary” and “an uncompromising, iconoclastic voice in an era characterized by widespread political and economic uncertainty.” John Donegan, a 28-year-old City Council Candidate (D) from Cranston, Rhode Island, states, “There is no perfect candidate, but I believe and share in the core principles of Sanders’s vision for a more just and equitable society, and would be supportive of his run in 2020.”

Iziah Topete, a 25-year-old graduate student from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says he would support Sanders in 2020 for three major reasons: “immigration, education and environmental issues.” Topete believes Sanders is uniquely situated to rectify Trump’s problematic immigration policies, stating, “Given Bernie is a son of a Jewish immigrant, I cannot imagine someone more motivated to eradicate the precedents set by Trump. Naturally, I am concerned with the general trajectory of this country, but also as a person of color, I find that Bernie is in a position to empathize and attend to the problems facing immigrants, especially minority immigrants.”

Enthusiasm and support remain high for many young people who voted for Sanders in 2016. They have not forgotten the hope Sanders inspired two years ago and are optimistic he will run again in 2020.

Topete also went on to explain why he supports Sanders on education, stating, “Bernie is concerned with a massive problem facing the next generation of citizens: student debt. If we desire to be a country predicated upon innovation and promoting the fecundity of great minds, then this problem must be resolved, the alternative will either leave graduating students totally disenfranchised economically, or will push students from domestic institutions (or both).”

Laura Auk, a 26-year-old doctoral student from New York, is optimistic recent elections could signal a progressive wave in 2018 and 2020. Auk states, “We have witnessed a political shift that may signal Democrats are moving more to the left, and Bernie Sanders definitely played a role. Progressive Andrew Gillum became Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee and could become Florida’s first Black governor. His nomination may indicate young voters have been waiting for a candidate they can believe in. Gillum, endorsed by Sanders, represents a more hopeful future for many young, disenchanted voters. Gillum’s life story is more relatable to the working class, his political platform promises health care for all and a better minimum wage, and he resonates with many of the Party’s minority voters. It is too early to say where the Democratic Party is heading, but if it is heading progressive, than it may be going there with Sanders in 2020.”

Auk concluded, “I also think many young people are sick of the hateful, and truly racist rhetoric of some candidates like DeSantis (R) in Florida.”

Barry Image 1.jpg
Courtesy of BrandonCarbaugh.com.

Mark Mondani, a 26-year-old escalation specialist from Boston, is also unsatisfied with the tone of the nation. He states, “I feel that the emphasis on the individual has unfortunately grown to cripple our great country. … We have lost our ability to help each other. I believe that Sanders’s approach to government respects our individuality, but at the same time embraces a national communal feeling we seem to have forgotten. No hard-working American should go without food, medicine or education. No job should pay an unlivable wage, and no employer should reap the benefits of this type of abuse. I believe Bernie presents the best stance to ensure our country’s unified success, and he certainly has my support for 2020.”

For other former Sanders voters, the failures of the Trump presidency have informed and reshaped their ideology heading into 2020. As Leo Kennedy, a 26-year-old inside sales/trade show manager from Steamboat, Colorado, states, “I do not believe I would support Bernie in 2020. I think [Trump] is an abhorrent man and I do not support him. … That being said, [Trump] has pushed me to the right in that I want to move away from a large federal government. … I would like to take as much power away from the executive branch as possible so that men like Trump cannot have their way with our country when they stumble into the highest office in the land.”

Kennedy, who caucused for Sanders in 2016, concluded, “Seeing both the way the Republicans have fallen in line with Trump and the frankly pathetic response from the Democrats, I have lost all faith in the competency of our federal government and in the belief that they have our best interests in heart. … I would not support Bernie or anyone who wants to strengthen and centralize the federal government. … Perhaps my views will change when they gain my trust back, but for now I am disillusioned with the whole thing.”

For other former Sanders voters, the failures of the Trump presidency have informed and reshaped their ideology heading into 2020.

For other young people, it is too soon to tell. This is the case for Michelle Nam, a 27-year-old teacher and graduate student from Washington, DC, who says, “I honestly do not have any predictions (on Sanders). … After the outcome of the last election, I think America is a wild card.”

Some individuals, like 24-year-old Washington, DC, resident, Lauren Hibbs, wonder how Sanders would fare in a general election. Hibbs, an early-childhood educator, says what is most important to her in 2020 is “winning the election, and other Democratic candidates, like Joe Biden, may have a better chance of making that happen.” She remains open to Sanders, who she said better reflects her political beliefs, but she concluded by stating, “time will tell who I vote for, but right now, it is too early.”

In 2016, young people were historically united in support of Sanders. Just two years later, opinions on the senator and a 2020 run appear more varied or at the least, less sure. Recent polling suggests 59 percent of young people still view Sanders favorably, a bit down from 2016 when he was winning amongst young people by as high as 84 percent. This is not to say a successful run is impossible, as 59 percent is still a respectable number, but it does appear the Trump presidency has shaped young people’s mindsets heading into 2020. It also remains unknown how new “Generation Z” voters will embrace Sanders. Young people will always be intrinsically tied to Bernie Sander’s 2016 run, but whether or not they will be tied to him and his ideas in 2020 has yet to be seen.

Barry Bio PicMichael T. Barry Jr. is an award-winning filmmaker and doctoral student in modern American history at American University. His films have screened at film festivals and historic venues across the country. Barry has contributed writings to outlets like Black Perspectives, The Activist History Review, The Gainesville Sun, Truthout, The Blackprint, and The Worcester Telegram & Gazette. His new film U Street Contested is currently screening across the country. Follow him on Twitter: @MTBarryJr.

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Michael T. Barry Jr., Editor, is a doctoral candidate in history at American University in Washington, DC. Michael is also a documentary filmmaker, specializing in oral history. His films “U Street Contested” and “The Universal Soldier: Vietnam” have won and been nominated for numerous awards, as they have screened at film festivals and historic venues across the country. He teaches American history at Montgomery College in Maryland. Follow him on Twitter at @MTBarryJr.

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