Mar 5, 2020

Bernie Sanders and the Myth of Low Youth Turnout in the Democratic Primary

First and foremost, the 13% figure is for proportion of young (18-29 years old) voters among total voters that turned out to vote on election day. In other words, 13% of total voters that turned out were between 18-29 years in age. It does NOT mean that only 13% of registered young voters turned out to vote – which is what the pundits and channels are trying to spin.
By Saib Bilaval /
Bernie Sanders and the Myth of Low Youth Turnout in the Democratic Primary

One of the major tropes that have been used by the media and pro-Biden leadership of the Democratic Party is that on Super Tuesday (and before), is that despite winning most of the young people who did vote, Sanders has been unable to inspire the higher youth turnout he has been promising – and hence he would neither be able to win the primary, nor the general election. In fact, Rachel Maddow, in her 40 minute-long interview with him, herself accused Sanders of failing to mobilize youth turnout.

The argument is used to show that Sanders does not even have the base he did in 2016 – and is a huge blow to his current campaign. The number cited repeatedly by pundits and establishment figures is 13%, in a coordinated effort with full message discipline since Super Tuesday, parroted by every major cable TV news host.

This has become such a common, dominant myth in the recent discourse that even Sanders staffers and the candidate himself are struggling to defend against it. Even sharper news hosts such as The Hill’s Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti seem to have fallen for it.

The truth is: they don’t need to defend against it at all. They need to push back. Because the 13% figure being cited and the use to which it is being put to are two entirely different things – making the argument fatally wrong. It is simply fake news and media spin – and needs a thorough fact-check.

Here’s why:


13% of total voters, not 13% of young people

First and foremost, the 13% figure is for proportion of young (18-29 years old) voters among total voters that turned out to vote on election day. In other words, 13% of total voters that turned out were between 18-29 years in age. It does NOT mean that only 13% of registered young voters turned out to vote – which is what the pundits and channels are trying to spin. 

It simply means that other age groups turned out in greater proportions to their share in the population, which lines up with all historical data (65+ age voters are 20% of the registered voting population, but formed 25% of the turnout, 37% in Colorado). 18-27 year olds are 16% of the registered voting population, and being 13% of election day voters is not bad at all. [Say, 30% of young people turned out to vote but formed only 13% of total votes] It matches 2018 mid-term election levels, which were considered good.

Again, the 13% figure does not include the young people from ages 29-39 (most of whom backed Sanders and Warren), who have turned out historically in larger numbers than the younger age bracket, nor their share in total registered voter population.  Thirty-seven percent of the turnout was ages 18 to 44.


Election Day-only exit polls

Further, the figures were based on exit polls, which only included in-person votes on election day, and not mail-in ballots or early in-person voting, something younger people with tough jobs are more likely to do, than, say, the over-65 population which is freer to turn out in larger numbers on election day. Early voting is a majority of votes in California (65% as of 2018) and 50% in Texas, the two biggest states.


Early states

We should also deal with the low youth turnout allegation in terms of longer voting trends:

In Iowa, voter turnout was on similar levels to 2016. 2016 had seen Sanders with a good enough youth turnout, so the numbers in Iowa this time were not bad.

In New Hampshire, there was a historic turnout, so the allegation does not hold.

In Nevada, there was record-breaking turnout, especially due to early voting, and Sanders-supporting young and Latino voters dominated the election.

So, for the pre-Super Tuesday states, the charge that there was lower than usual young voter turnout does not hold. In whichever state that had high or low turnout, it was Sanders that turned out the youth vote.


Voter suppression, Super Tuesday and the south

Now, coming to Super Tuesday and the south,

We also have to note that the southern states are infamous for the amount of voter suppression that is engaged in. This also disproportionally suppresses minority votes and those of the working class and poor. These are also the states with the most voter registration issues, disproportionately affecting young people, and, being states that always go Republican, usually inspire low turnouts in primaries, especially among younger voters. South Carolina in particular had seen the closing of polling places.

In Texas, a good chunk of votes were early votes, and not in the purview of the exit poll. Hundreds (750) of polling stations were shut down in minority neighborhoods, drastically reducing their turnout on election day. Sanders, with a huge Latino base, suffered. The long lines disproportionally discouraged young and working voters, boosting the share of the retired elderly and the rich. It is also important to remember that one year ago, no one, not even Sanders would have imagined coming within 3% of snatching victory – or a certain victory had Warren dropped out – in a state like Texas.

No one could have imagined Sanders and Warren collectively getting 41% of the vote in Texas, or that 56% of Texans have a positive view of socialism. It is impossible to deny that a large amount of turnout happened because of progressive candidates – voters from a conservative state absolutely unwilling to vote for a moderate. How was that progressive turnout NOT inspired by Sanders?

Beyond the fact that 65% of votes were cast early, California also saw polling centers closed and long lines were to be found in many precincts. However, youth turnout and voteshare was fine in California, even for voting day.


Long run

When Sanders is talking about increasing youth and voter turnout, he is talking not just about now, but also about after the election. That means he seeks to enact automatic voter registration, give felons the right to vote, and also ensure that Election Day would be a public holiday.


2008 was never a fair benchmark

One more issue is that using the 2008 benchmark is rather unfair to gauge turnout. 2008 was an election year of identity politics, three strong campaigns (Edwards included in the early states) and the mission to succeed a Republican president who had served his two full terms.

While Sanders does have a cult, his campaign is not actively pushing to create it, unlike the Hillary and Obama campaigns of 2008. Further, unlike Sanders (even though he has more volunteers and donors), both the Obama and Hillary campaigns were drowning in corporate donations and spending them hard to boost turnout against each other, with no incumbent to train their guns on, while the media was painting both in glowing, inspirational terms.

It becomes more prudent to imagine what the youth vote turnout would have been were Bernie Sanders NOT running. Before Sanders entered the race, Elizabeth Warren was polling at 7%. Had Sanders not run in 2020 and 2016, it is doubtful that the youth primary turnout would have been anywhere near the exceptionally high 2008 levels in the first place. 2004 is a better baseline.


Too many dropouts

Another issue is that this race had far too many candidates and too many dropouts. Voters saw their first choice collapse and withdraw, settled on a second candidate only to see them, along with often their third choice, drop out after the first two states or before Super Tuesday. Switching candidates demotivates voters and makes them less likely to turn out when it comes their turn to vote.



So the bottom line is, the 13% youth turnout figure is incorrect, and is part of a media-party elite effort to undermine the Sanders candidacy. A good enough number of young voters turned out this election, and a huge proportion of them voted for Sanders. Low youth turnout is not a legitimate news story. Super Tuesday and half the early states saw record turnout, out of which youth were a major part.


The author is a PhD research scholar in Modern and Contemporary History at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University


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