what the Sanders youth phenomenon means for the future

(En route from NYC to DC) Early reports from the New Hampshire exit polls suggest that Sen. Sanders won about 8 in 10 voters under 30. Follow CIRCLE tomorrow for exclusive estimates of the size of the youth turnout. That will be important for helping to sort out whether Sen. Sanders’ dominance so far is a sign of his appeal–or of Hillary Clinton’s weakness.

I drew the latter conclusion while talking about Iowa last week on WGBH’s Greater Boston show with Jim Braude. Here’s the video clip. He and the other guests were very excited about Sen. Sanders’ large lead among young voters, both in the Iowa results and the Nrw Hampshire polls. Although I should try to avoid the role of the graying curmudgeon, I drew attention to Hillary Clinton’s poor showing in Iowa. Less than 5,000¬†young people caucused for her in the whole state, which seems to me an alarming sign both for Democrats in November and for anyone who cares about youth participation.

Just to put my comments in a broader context, I do think that Sanders’ youthful following is important. True, only about 35,000 youth voted for Sanders in Iowa. That is about one percent of the state’s population, and it was favorable terrain for him. Still, thousands of young people are having formative experiences as activists on the American left through his campaign (even as others come up through Black Lives Matter or the Dreamers’ or Marriage Equality campaigns). We know from extensive research that such experiences leave lasting imprints. A classic work is Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer. It’s amazing how many leading figures of the left went to Mississippi in 1964, and McAdam shows how that summer shaped them for decades to come. I suspect when we read the biographies of leading progressive activists in 2030, many will say they worked for the Vermont senator in the winter and spring of 2016.

In the short term, the American left will struggle if Hillary Clinton is elected president (as I expect her to, unless a Republican beats her in November). While a centrist Democrat holds the ramparts against a Republican House, Republican statehouses, and a conservative judiciary, people to the president’s left will face constant pressure to pipe down. Concretely, the organized left may face a shortage of money, paid positions, media attention, technological innovation, and other forms of capacity–much as I recall from the Bill Clinton years, when I myself was young.

This is not ground for despair. Young activists can find solutions. For some of them, experiences with the Sanders Campaign will prepare them for the next four or eight years. Their activism will help President Hillary Clinton to do a good job, because (as FDR said) leadership is deciding who to cave to. She’ll need some pressure from that side.

All of which is to say that the youth support for Sanders is a real phenomenon that is worth following and caring about. But if one is interested in who will win the 2016 presidential election, I am afraid the Sanders phenomenon is likely to be something of a footnote as the primary campaign moves to larger and more diverse states. In that context, the important question is whether Senator Clinton can improve her showing with youth, whom she will absolutely need to win in November.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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