Bernie Or Bust? Young Voters Fuel Sanders’ Rise

Bernie Sanders is the only presidential candidate 19-year-old Jacob Landsman says he can trust.

Sanders' push to right economic inequality, his aggressive stands on tackling climate change and campaign finance reform are all positions that the Vassar College student supports. 

“You can go back 30, 40 years and see him saying exactly the same things that he’s saying now,” Landsman said.

Ahead of the presidential primary in New York on April 19, Landsman is working to try to ensure a win for Sanders, canvassing and calling Democrats to convince them to vote as he will.

But if Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic candidate, he predicts he wouldn't be alone as a disaffected Democrat.

“She’s definitely not going to be able to capture the imaginations and hearts of progressive liberals,” he said.

Victories by Sanders in Wisconsin and Wyoming and by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in Wisconsin and Colorado have put even more pressure on Clinton and Donald Trump to perform well in the state which Clinton represented in the U.S. Senate for eight years and where Trump made his real estate empire. And for the first time in decades, both parties' primaries will be competitive in the Empire State. 

Young Democratic voters across the country are turning out overwhelmingly for Sanders, participating in fewer numbers than in 2008 overall but breaking records at the polls in Illinois, Florida and Michigan. In the Great Lakes state, for example, twice as many voters under 30 turned out compared to 2008 to give him an upset win.  

According to the NBC News Exit Poll, he was the choice of 81 percent of Michigan's voters ages 18 to 29. That split held up in Wisconsin on April 5, when exit polls reported by CNN showed Sanders winning among voters younger than 30 by more than 60 percentage points and 2 to 1 among those 30 to 44 years old. Again Clinton took the older voters.

Will young voters be able to achieve another victory for Sanders in New York? 

“There’s definitely a generational gap,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

Matthew Santucci is so staunch a supporter of Bernie Sanders that the 20-year-old changed his party registration from Republican to Democrat to vote for Sanders.

Santucci, a Fordham University student, had even worked on the national campaigns of two Republicans in his home state of Connecticut before deciding that the GOP did not reflect his beliefs. He lived in Italy for a year and learned to appreciate its much larger social net.

“That really put things in perspective to me,” Santucci said.

In Sanders, he also found a candidate whose consistency he admires and whose views he shares — on the Iraq War, gay marriage and campaign finance reform. He said he loved how passionately Sanders opposed fracking because he said climate change is one of the greatest crucibles facing his generation.

When Sanders held an outdoor rally in a park in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx last week, Santucci was there with thousands of other young people who like him were captivated by the 74-year-old senator. As Sanders stood on a trunk to address an overflow crowd, his supporters pressed against the barriers to cheer him on.

The race has taken a nasty turn as Clinton and Sanders snipe over each other's qualifications for the presidency — raising worries about party unity when the primary is over. Clinton is ahead of Sanders in New York, according to polls released by Monmouth and Quinnipiac universities in the last two weeks, though the Vermont senator has gained ground. Democrats allocate the state's 291 delegates through a mix of votes cast in New York's congressional districts and superdelegates who can change their vote. 

On the Republican side, Trump is positioned to win nearly every one of the 95 GOP delegates, according to a Monmouth University Poll released on April 6. Republicans award delegates based on the percentage of the vote a candidate gets in each congressional district, plus there are at-large delegates controlled by the party.

New York’s primary is a closed one, limited to registered Republicans and Democrats, and that could work against younger voters, half of whom are not officially affiliated with a party. Although the state’s deadline for new voter registrations was March 25, the deadline to change enrollments was last October. The tricky dates mean two of Trump's own children, Eric and Ivanka, will not be able to vote for their father. Both are registered but neither in a party, according to elections records.

“Our experience in New York, and inability to change our party affiliation so that we could vote for our father in the NY primary, was the reason that we proactively began making videos last year to educate voters on a state-by-state basis on what is required in order for them to vote in their own state primaries," the Trump siblings said in a statement.

As of April 1, Democrats added about 14,000 people to their rolls since the same day last year, according to New York state Board of Elections data, while Republicans added 12,000. Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in New York. 

The New York State Board of Election said last week it did not have numbers available on how many voters switched.

“Something this complicated always disadvantages young voters,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

Sanders' campaign says he has been focused on getting large turnouts from his supporters.

"In every one of those primaries and caucuses, a coalition of enthusiastic young people, working families and voters hit hardest by today's rigged economy have come together to defy expectations and build a political revolution," Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesperson for the Sanders campaign, told MSNBC. 

On the day that the line of people attending Sanders' Bronx rally stretched for blocks, former President Bill Clinton was making the rounds of New York unions on behalf of his wife. Although Jeremy Mellema, 27, and Sean Abbott-Klafter, 31, history teachers at the Bronx Compass High School, had been urged to attend a Clinton event at the New York City headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers, they bucked their union and brought a group of students to hear Sanders.

Nearby, two other teachers, 23-year-old Emily Tugwell and Jeremy Klughaupt, 32, both of whom work at the Academy for Environmental Leadership in Bushwick, said they felt misrepresented by the union, which has endorsed Clinton.

"Of the teachers we know there is overwhelming support for Bernie Sanders, especially among the younger teachers," Klughaupt said.

He said he would not support any candidate who did not make campaign finance reform a key issue, as Sanders has. Tugwell said Sanders was the only one who had not flip-flopped on his positions.

"In regards to Hillary, I'm really sick as a woman of being told to vote for a woman by older generally middle class or wealthy white feminists," she added. "Women have been told for most of history that we don't know what's best for us."

Many younger voters no matter their views are distrustful of politics as a way to affect change, Kawashima-Ginsberg said. Neither side is overwhelmingly supporting the front-runners, and although Republicans are breaking voting records in every state, they have failed to coalesce as definitively around one candidate, she said. Young Republicans are fiscally conservative but at the same time more socially progressive than the national party. Meanwhile young Democrats are asking for more liberal policies.

“Turnout really would be everything in New York and other primaries if young people were to have an impact,” she said.

Among young Democrats, 65 percent say they would vote for Clinton if Sanders were to drop out — a number Kawashima-Ginsberg warns is not high enough.

“You really need every single youth vote in order to win those key states in the general election,” she said.

During the Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina, in January, Clinton was asked why she was getting beaten by Sanders 2 to 1 among young voters — a question she did not answer directly.

She said only that she would keep working as hard as she could to reach as many people of all ages about her experience and ideas.

“And I hope to have their support when I'm the Democratic nominee,” she told NBC's Lester Holt.  

Of the 2,383 delegates needed to take the nomination, Clinton has won 1,756 to 1,068 for Sanders, as of April 11. But those include superdelegates whose allegiances could change, according to NBC News.

Twenty-year-old Angela Bujaj, a pre-med student at Fordham University, worries that too many of Sanders’ young supporters will stay home if he loses the nomination. Most young people are focusing on Sanders’ call for a revolution and falsely painting Clinton as an establishment monster who lies, she said.

“But this is real life,” she said. “It’s not Bernie or Bust. Someone will be elected president if he’s not."

A Clinton supporter, she likes the former secretary of state’s foreign policy experience and her positions on curbing gun violence. And Bujaj criticizes Sanders’ votes against gun control — against the Brady Bill and later to prohibit lawsuits against gun manufactures. The differences between the two candidates should be important to young people, she said.

“America is a hotbed for gun violence and the NRA and conservatives prevent any meaningful legislation from getting through,” she said.

Emma Maher Horvath, 25, and her 27-year-old brother, Ryan Horvath, are certain about their choice for president, but while she describes Hillary Clinton as the most sensible candidate, he has a tattoo of Bernie Sanders on his arm.

She says Clinton understands what can be accomplished in the country's polarized political climate. He likes Sanders' uncompromising stands on foreign policy and the environment.

She says Sanders should drop out before weakening the Democratic party further. He volunteers for Sanders' campaign though he knows Clinton has the advantage.

Maher Horvath, a student at the University of Albany, said she was at first excited about Sanders’ campaign but believes Clinton knows how to get changes made for the most Americans — on affordable education, women’s issues and gun rights. She said she could imagine Sanders as secretary of labor.

“I don’t really see him as a president,” she said. “And I don’t see him representing the issues that are closest to my heart.”

Her brother, 27, who lives in Vermont and works for the state's Agency of Natural Resources, voted for Sanders in his state's primary.

"He's the best chance of really taking some action on climate change, student-loan debt, minimum wage, foreign policy," he said.

Ian Baize, a 20-year-old sophomore at Hamilton College, at first thought he would support Clinton. But Sanders has tapped the issues most important to him — particularly an affordable college education, campaign finance reform and climate change.

“The Clintons have been at the summit of money and power for 20 years now, so it’s hard to see how there’s not going to be some influence going on there,” said Baize, who voted by absentee ballot in the Massachusetts primary.

Caleb Zachary, a student of Vassar College's class of 2018, has been volunteering for the Sanders campaign in New York though he will vote in his home state of California in June. He rejects criticism that Sanders' plans are unrealistic. Many European countries, for example, make university affordable, he said. And he especially likes Sanders' reliance on small donors. 

“He represents a pivotal change in American politics that a lot of people have been waiting for for a long time,” Zachary, 20, said. “And I know it’s not just young people who have been waiting for that change but it’s young people who seem to think that it’s realistic."

And Landsman said he thought that the 2008 recession and the Occupy Wall Street movement opened the way for Sanders' campaign.

"Bernie himself is a pretty unique guy and this was his time," Landsman said.

Photo Credit: Bloomberg via Getty Images
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