vision 2020

Could a Youth-Vote Surge Offset Bernie’s Vulnerabilities in November?

Youngsters love Bernie, but how many of them will turn out for him and no other? Photo: Matt Rourke/AP/Shutterstock

The argument over Bernie Sanders’s relative electability has skewed in his favor in terms of the empirical evidence marshaled by his fans and detractors. Bernie’s proponents have a wealth of general election trial heat polls showing him doing as well as any of his rivals — and better than some. They often add to this a less empirically based but plausible argument that Sanders can expand the general electorate by appealing to disaffected independent and ex-Democratic white working-class voters, and also by generating a big youth turnout.

Bernie skeptics often respond by pointing to well-established political science principles suggesting that moderate candidates always do better, though often don’t have data to back up its relevance to the current cycle. More recently, the loudest claim has been that Sanders is uniquely vulnerable to general election attacks based on his self-identification as a democratic socialist, and on associated controversial gestures of solidarity toward socialists elsewhere over the many long years of his career. That, too, is a plausible argument — though it isn’t necessarily any more compelling than similar arguments about other candidates’ vulnerabilities in facing the Trump Death Star.

But now comes a thoroughly empirical Bernie-skeptic case from political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla that suggests those rosy-looking general election trial heats may be based to a dangerous extent on young voters who claim they’ll show up for Sanders and no other candidate, but will more likely stay home as they always do. The duo conducted some large-sample polling focused on general election preferences, and definitely saw some parts of the electorate cooler to Sanders than to moderate Democratic candidates:

We found that nominating Sanders would drive many Americans who would otherwise vote for a moderate Democrat to vote for Trump, especially otherwise Trump-skeptical Republicans …

Democrats and independents are also slightly more likely to say they would vote for Trump if Sanders is nominated. Swing voters may be rare — but their choices between candidates often determine elections, and many appear to favor Trump over Sanders but not over other Democrats.

But Bernie makes up for that via Bernie-or-bust young voters who will turn out exclusively for him:

11 percent of left-leaning young people say they are undecided, would support a third-party candidate, or, most often, just would not vote if a moderate were nominated — but say they would turn out and vote for Sanders if he were nominated.

The large number of young people who say they will only vote if Sanders is nominated is just enough to offset the voters Sanders loses to Trump in the rest of the electorate.

To make the crucial difference for Sanders, Broockman and Kalla say, we’d need to see a totally unprecedented youth-turnout boom that no other Democrat could stimulate, and that outstripped the general turnout spike everyone expects in November:

[S]uch a turnout surge is large in comparison to other effects on turnout. For example, Sanders would need to stimulate a youth turnout boost much larger than the turnout boost President Obama’s presence on the ballot stimulated among black voters in 2008.

So primary voters have already begun to weigh in this year, with Bernie Sanders very much on the ballot and doing well among a broad range of Democrats and independents, most notably young voters. But as Sydney Ember and Nate Cohn of the New York Times observed this week, there’s no sign of some youth-turnout surge — or really of any other major reshaping of the electorate:

It is the most politically provocative part of Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign pitch: that his progressive movement will bring millions of nonvoters into the November election, driving record turnout especially among disaffected working-class Americans and young people.

And yet despite a virtual tie in Iowa, a narrow victory in New Hampshire and a big triumph in Nevada, the first three nominating contests reveal a fundamental challenge for Mr. Sanders’s political revolution: He may be winning, but not because of his longstanding pledge to expand the Democratic base.

The results so far show that Mr. Sanders has prevailed by broadening his appeal among traditional Democratic voters, not by fundamentally transforming the electorate.

There were a lot of excited young first-time voters wearing those Bernie T-shirts in the early states, but perhaps not as many of them as you might have imagined:

Among young people, entrance poll data showed that the share of those voters remained essentially unchanged across the three early states. Participation was basically flat in precincts and townships in New Hampshire and Iowa where 18- to 24-year-olds made up more than 50 percent of the population.

Now a vote’s a vote, and a win’s a win. If Sanders can put together not only a primary coalition but a general election coalition that’s enough to beat Trump, no one should really care whether he’s brought out vast armies of voters from the margins of American politics. But to the extent that some Sanders supporters seem to think they can thumb their noses at traditional Democrats and disdain any party-unity gestures because his real base is among previous nonvoters, they might want to take a closer look at the numbers.

It’s reasonably clear that if Sanders is elected president, it will be mostly because regular old-school non-revolutionary Democrats voted for him. If he does have some magic effect on the young and it adds to his vote, that’s gravy.

Could Youth Vote Offset Bernie’s Weaknesses in November?