Sanders Electrified the Young. Can Dems Keep them Charged Up?
Policy + Politics

Sanders Electrified the Young. Can Dems Keep them Charged Up?

REUTERS/Scott Morgan

Bernie Sanders’ hopes of winning the Democratic nomination were all but extinguished on Tuesday night, but will his ideas and convictions burn on and continue to energize young voters–at least through the November election?

New research from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics shows how profound an impact the democratic socialist has had on the way young Americans think about politics.

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An IOC poll, surveying the political attitudes of more than 3,000 citizens between the ages of 18 and 29, found that Sanders is by far the most popular presidential candidate among this group. Additionally, these millennials have adopted a much more progressive ideology over the past year in the most significant shift to the left since Harvard began polling all people in this cohort, not just college students, in 2009.

“Sanders deserves a lot of responsibility for reshaping political discourse in America,” says Polling Director John Della Volpe.

Last year, 43 percent of this age group agreed that “basic necessities, such as food and shelter, are a right that government should provide to those unable to afford them.” The percentage jumped to 47 percent in this year’s poll.

The percentage who agreed that “the government should spend more to reduce poverty” increased to 45 percent this year, up five points from last year. The share who concurred that “basic health insurance is a right for all people” was 45 percent in 2015 but bumped up to 48 percent this year.

For the first time in five years, many more young people referred to themselves as Democrats in the poll than those who called themselves Independents. Around 40 percent of respondents identified as Democrats, while 36 percent called themselves Independents. Just 22 percent said they were Republicans.

Della Volpe says that a combination of Sanders’ persona and policies is why young people are so in awe of him and in agreement with his ideology. “His persona is clearly authentic and passionate. He’s certainly hopeful and optimistic in many ways.”

Related: What Bernie Sanders Gets Right

In addition, Sanders is talking about policy initiatives that young people are interested in, like breaking up banks and creating a stronger safety net for those who have difficulty supporting themselves.

Although Della Volpe says that the vast majority of the shift is due to Sanders, he acknowledges that another factor is how heavily the election is dominating the news, with everyone offering up their opinions. 

Particularly in this election cycle, with candidates staking out positions on the far ends of the political spectrum, people are compelled to think about politics even more. “The combination of Sanders contrasted with Trump perhaps was a bit of a force multiplier. Sanders is the one that’s ignited a spark…with young people,” Della Volpe says.

Still, Della Volpe says he is cautious about suggesting that the study signals  any long-term gains for the Democratic Party. While young people are responding to what Sanders is saying, the Dems can’t count on the automatic support of his followers if he is out of the race.

“If young people are ignored and nobody is tapping into the platform that Sanders is advocating for, we may not see significant change,” Della Volpe says.