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During 2020 Bid, Sanders Looks To Convince Young Voters To Turn Out In Record Numbers

Sen. Bernie Sanders at a podium before a crowd outside in Fort Worth, Texas
Michael Ainsworth
/
Associated Press
Sen. Bernie Sanders stands at a podium before a crowd in Fort Worth, Texas, on April 25.

A key element of  Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign strategy is to engage young voters in unprecedented numbers, but that means Sanders is relying on a group of voters who historically do not turn out in large numbers for presidential elections.

There's no question that Sanders is making a strong, emotional connection with many younger voters; his reception is often described as approaching "rock star" status. Thousands of people chanted “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie” as Sanders approached the podium at a recent campaign event in Fort Worth, Texas.

Faiz Shakir, Sanders' campaign manager, acknowledges that banking on the support of young voters is a challenge for the campaign, because traditionally only about 40% of them vote in presidential elections. In comparison, the turnout rate for voters over the age of 60 is roughly 70%.

But Shakir sees a huge opportunity when he looks at younger voters.

“Young voters get fired up about Bernie Sanders and fight for him, volunteer for him, door knock for him, in ways that they just don't for other candidates,” Shakir said. “Bernie Sanders has very unique appeal amongst that generation and can inspire, I think, a bunch of them to vote in percentages that they have never voted before."

 

"Bernie Sanders has very unique appeal amongst that generation and can inspire, I think, a bunch of them to vote in percentages that they have never voted before." — Faiz Shakir, Sanders presidential campaign manager

Shakir is encouraged that a majority of the donors to Sanders' 2020 campaign to date are under 39.

"That is unprecedented," Shakir said, "and again when you think of the growth of this campaign, the long haul, what we are building to win the White House, that is huge for us."

But Ted Kohn, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Norwich University, said he's skeptical of the ability of the Sanders campaign to turn out a lot of young voters.

"As we know, historically young people don't vote. ... It's a heavy lift for the Sanders campaign to pin your hopes on a very fickle voting block in the United States," Kohn said. 

However Kohn is impressed with the number of young people who have already contributed to the Sanders campaign.

"If this is something that can be maintained, you have younger voters actually putting their money where their mouth is, I think that is a very good sign for Bernie Sanders, for a number of other progressive and younger candidates in the Democratic Party,” said Kohn.

"As we know, historically young people don't vote. ... It's a heavy lift for the Sanders campaign to pin your hopes on a very fickle voting block in the United States." — Ted Kohn, Norwich University

Middlebury College political science professor Matt Dickinson is doubtful that Sanders can attract young voters in 2020 the way that he did in 2016 in his race against Hillary Clinton, because there are so many candidates seeking the nomination this time.

"But I would worry if I was Bernie, that you can't count on that monolithic support among the under-30 crowd the way you could in 2016,” Dickinson said.

He notes that there are also several younger candidates in the Democratic field who share Sanders' progressive agenda. Dickinson said he thinks a number of younger voters will be drawn to some of these other campaigns.

"A lot of people are saying 'Bernie's message is appealing to me.' A lot of my students are saying, 'But the messenger I don't identify with. There's other candidates out there who appeal to me more in the sense of they're more of my generation,'" Dickinson said.

More from VPR's Vermont Edition — Take Two: Constrasting Sanders' 2016 And 2020 Presidential Runs [April 26]

But campaign manager Shakir is convinced that many young voters will stick with Sanders because he's been working on the same policy agenda for his entire political career.

"And the things that he has been saying are stemmed directly from the radical injustices that we experience in America," said Shakir. 

The campaign has set an ambitious goal of signing up more than a million people to volunteer to help Sanders. If the campaign achieves this goal, it could have a big impact on how well Sanders does in the early primary states.

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