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Jacobin - September 24, 2019

As in 2016, when he received more youth votes than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined, Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly boasts the highest levels of support from young people among candidates vying for the Democratic nomination.

Recent polling, in fact, suggests it’s not even close: according to the most recent poll capturing the period spanning September 13–20, he led his rivals among voters 18–34 with 34 percent support. Joe Biden was next, with 16 percent, followed by Elizabeth Warren, with 10 percent. Beto O’Rourke, his killer skateboard chops notwithstanding, is far behind, with 6 percent, followed by Andrew Yang, with 4 percent.

Readers of the New York Times, however, might have gotten a somewhat different impression thanks to a recently published report by Sydney Ember evocatively titled “Young Voters Still ‘Feel the Bern,’ but Not Just for Bernie Sanders Anymore.”

While young voters were seduced in 2016, Ember writes, by “Sanders’s rants against the elite and promises of free college tuition” (read: program that pledged to confront the scourges of life-crippling debt and the oligarchical nature of American society), the 2020 primaries are shaping up to be a different story: “With the race entering the crucial fall period, other candidates, including Ms. Warren and Andrew Yang, have begun siphoning off some of his support.”

Though the piece does acknowledge Sanders’s “continued strength with young voters,” even citing a poll to this effect, the reader is certainly left with an impression out of sync with the picture recent data paints. With 4 percent support among young voters, Andrew Yang is hardly eating Sanders’s lunch. Warren, according to the polling from Rasmussen, actually trails Biden — who goes unmentioned in the piece. When the data is limited strictly to Generation Z, Sanders commands nearly 50 percent support compared to 9 percent for Biden and 8 percent for Warren.

To be fair, the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey cited in the piece suggests the competition for young voters may be tighter, though Sanders still remains decisively in the lead.

The real issue, however, is a simple, qualitative one: the reason a smaller fraction of young voters support Sanders now is that there are vastly more candidates vying for the Democratic nomination than there were in 2016. The basic demographic trend that held for Sanders in 2016 — namely high levels of support from younger voters relative to his rivals — remains unchanged.

The same qualitative sleight of hand was invoked over the weekend by none other than Nate Silver, who was justifiably pilloried for suggesting:

Not sure Bernie should get credit for having more diverse support than last time given that he has far less support than last time. A lot of voters have left him. White liberals have been particularly likely to leave him (for Warren) so the residue of what’s left is more diverse.

Only in a media environment overwhelmingly hostile to Sanders and the program he champions could his strong support among young or racialized voters somehow give rise to claims about his declining prospects among young or racialized voters. ...
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