The Tylt

Road to 2020: When Bernie Lost It All

A single Yale student approached us. She was holding a “Yale Dining” bowl filled with three bananas and some mint sprigs. 

“They had them for decoration, and I want to make cocktails tonight,” she told us, laughing at her ingenuity. We met Catherine Yao, a sophomore at Yale, inside of a courtyard lined by a low brick wall and intricate ironwork. She was the sole student in the area, braving the late February cold.

When we first entered the campus, we marveled at the church steeples, stained-glass windows and the quiet. The coronavirus pandemic, which would lead to the closure of college campuses nationwide, was still a few weeks away. Students were simply in their Friday afternoon classes.

Yao’s generous spirit – she offered more than once to share her frangipane bars, another item she’d thrifted from the dining halls and one she’d learned to love after watching “Great British Baking Show” – was our introduction to the Yale student body and to an entirely different perspective on the presidential race. Yao, a Gen Z voter at a “stereotypical” liberal, elite college, believed Sen. Bernie Sanders was not the right nominee for the Democratic party. And many of her peers and professors, Yao told us, agreed.

After The Tylt’s trip through middle America, we realized we were witnessing a tipping point in this election as we hit the road along the Northeast corridor to Super Tuesday. Just a couple of years younger than our team, Yao reflected on a number of opinions from Gen Z voters that stood in contrast to young people we met along the Rust Belt. Prior to and immediately after the Iowa Caucus, Sanders was polling as the favorite in the presidential race. On the ground, voters who were passionate were most often passionate about Sanders – with Sen. Elizabeth Warren a close second. He gave many first, second and third-time voters hope that their future might be salvaged.

For example, just a few hours before the Iowa Caucuses began, one Iowa native, RyAnne Gill, 24, shared her reasons for supporting Sanders during her morning shift at Jimmy’s Pancake House in Bettendorf. Gill, who also works as the Environmental Educator at the local Parks and Recreation Department, said her top concerns were criminal justice reform, environmental policy, education and student loans. When asked which democratic candidate could cover each of these issues adequately, Gill responded: “I think Bernie.”

Yet, when we traveled through New England, we found students who had reservations about Bernie for one main reason: He would be too divisive, paving the way for Donald Trump to win re-election.

Yao, who wants to go into healthcare policy after graduation, said campaigning on a message of “healthcare for all” was irresponsible. According to Yao, even some of her professors warned this crucial component of Sanders’ campaign is impossible in practice. Nevertheless, when asked what she believes is the most important issue in the 2020 election, Yao responded definitively: “Healthcare for people my age.”

For Yao, the desire for healthcare for all does not come down to a candidate who simply promises they will make it happen. “It’s such a multi-layered, deep-seated issue,” Yao told us, saying a promise of healthcare for all is “not really the solution.”

“You’re going to find Bernie supporters on campus, but…” Yao’s high energy diminished for a brief moment, “most people are kind of resigned to the fact that [Democrats are] not going to win the 2020 election, which is...sad.”

The Tylt’s audience has appeared similarly uncertain. When recently asked “Do you think Bernie Sanders can defeat Trump?” only 53 percent believed he could as of mid-March. The journey through Yale’s campus – a collection of stone buildings over three centuries old and a reminder of the country’s institutional history – was our team’s first indication that perhaps young people in America are not eager for a revolution. However promising and hopeful, revolutions are often chaotic and unsettling to norms. As we approached Super Tuesday, we saw signs of a shift toward a candidate who felt safe: Joe Biden.

In October of 2019, nearly 73 percent of Tylt voters preferred Trump over Biden. To say nothing of Trump's own controversies, this vote took place at a time when Biden struggled to stand out in debates and was followed by a number of scandals, including waffling on the Hyde Amendment and longing for the “civility” enjoyed by senators with certain segregationist colleagues, as well as allegations of inappropriate advances on former staffers.   

Biden is still not free from controversy. In late March, a former staffer claimed Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993 – a story that received little coverage amid the coronavirus news cycle. In the same week, The Tylt audience indicated concerns that Biden would not impact the presidential race should he become the nominee. Nearly 62 percent agreed, however, Biden would beat Trump.

This swing toward Biden was clear two days into our trip: Biden would win the South Carolina primary, sparking one of the greatest comebacks in election history and changing the nature of the 2020 race. The victory seemed out of nowhere, but the signs were there – even as the Bernie followers gathered in rallies before Super Tuesday.

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It was Friday, February 28, when Sanders held a campaign rally in Springfield, Mass. The line to get in wrapped around the entire building, which was no small feat, considering the building also served as a hockey arena.

In line stood many excited, hopeful voters of various ages, but lacking diversity. Not all attendees had completely made up their mind about Sanders; it’s still true that some voters attend rallies simply to learn more about a candidate’s platform. But for those firmly in Sanders’ camp, they believed no other candidate would be capable of moving the country forward.

As Clare Sheedy, a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, shared, “Last election, I wasn’t too confident in [Sanders], and now with the new candidates, I think he’s one of the best fits.” Sheedy said Sanders’ views on the debt crisis, climate change and Medicare for all separated him from the rest of the Democratic primary candidates, believing he took the issues more seriously and with much more urgency than his competition.

Herein lies a paradox. Some young voters in the country – such as Sheedy, Gill and others in line to hear Sanders speak – desire a more progressive approach. Others simply want to stop the full-on sprint and just walk at a comfortable pace. For these voters, Joe Biden is the only remaining answer, even if he lacks the magnetism of the Sanders grassroots movement.

Sanders’ rally in Springfield checked a lot of boxes: people held signs, Sanders paused for applause, and everyone took pictures of the candidate raising his arms from behind the podium. But Sanders’ message did not land with the same passion he is largely expected to produce. The repetition of voice inflection, cheers from the crowd, and sign-shaking began to drone. The room, an empty concrete structure devoid of any decoration beyond what attendees themselves sported, felt anticipatory, not electric. And promise after promise, from legalizing weed to taking on the fossil fuel industry, from breaking down the military industrial complex to guaranteeing a $60,000 annual salary for teachers, and from free public college to winning the primary in Massachusetts (which Sanders failed to do), our team detected a subtle undercurrent of hesitation.

We saw many shirts with slogans like “I knocked on doors for Bernie,” but very few people who looked like they’d been on the other end of such an encounter. Perhaps more voters felt Yao’s hesitation than previously believed; perhaps voters at large were not ready for his revolution. For young people in particular, the suspicion of false promises is strong no matter who is speaking; it just so happens that Sanders makes more promises than any other candidate in the field.

Still, another candidate remained who many young people felt they could trust. The next morning, we were introduced to an entirely different style of campaigning in the form of Elizabeth Warren’s Northampton, Mass. field office. When we arrived for an early morning canvassing session, we were welcomed with Hershey’s kisses, buttons and a healthy mix of both students and women about Warren’s age. Two high schoolers led the training on how to go about canvassing. They introduced themselves to the crowd with ease and acted out what it would be like to knock on a stranger’s door and engage in political discussion. They didn’t mention whether they were of voting age themselves.

The mood of Warren’s field office and Sanders’ campaign rally could not have been more distinct. Warren’s office felt warm, while Sanders’ rally felt frantic. Warren’s office was filled almost entirely with women, while the line for Sanders’ rally was manned by young men with clipboards. Both featured local elected officials speaking on their behalf, and neither had much to say by way of diverse crowds – by Super Tuesday, diversity would be an issue for both Warren and Sanders.

We pictured Sanders’ rally feeling historic, but as our road team – anchored by social media manager Aasha Collins and producer Jon Musgrave – would put it, we left feeling “hungry and unimpressed.” Sanders’ campaign speech sounded like one that had been repeated a thousand times – tired and uninspiring. We didn’t know it then, but our observations would foreshadow a swift and nearly insurmountable demise of the Sanders 2020 campaign. 

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We learned not every Sanders supporter craved the Bernie Bro label in the days between the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday. One young voter in Brattleboro, Vermont – a typecast of the “Bernie Bro” population sporting a beanie, a thrifted sweater and at least three earrings – even said he found the thought of being a “bro” of anything to be a “pretty foul idea.” Although this individual was certainly a Sanders supporter, moments like these hinted at an enthusiasm gap among young voters. According to a number of experts, this gap is not candidate specific; young people are simply not as motivated to vote as they seem.

In the primaries conducted prior to the coronavirus self-quarantines in the United States, the media and even Sanders himself acknowledged low turnout among young voters.

According to Pew Research, Gen Z and Millennials comprise over one third of the electorate in the 2020 election. By comparison, Boomers and Gen X account for 28 and 25 percent of voters respectively. It’s no secret to the Sanders or Biden campaigns that voters aged 39 and below carry new weight in this presidential election; Sanders’ campaign in particular hinges on their mobilization.

On March 4, the day after Super Tuesday, the New York Times’ Sydney Ember and Maggie Astor reported: “In no state did people younger than 30 account for more than 20 percent of the electorate, based on exit polls, and in most states they accounted for 15 percent or less.”

But it’s possible the voting power of Gen Z and Millennials is split across two age categories in exit polls. As a result, young voters’ influence in the election is likely stronger than what these statistics reflect.

Pew defines Gen Z voters as ages 18 through 23, Millennials as ages 24 through 39, and Gen Xers, Boomers and the Silent Generation as voters ages 40 and up. Most exit polls, however, split voter age ranges into only four categories: 18-29, 30-44, 45-64 and 65 and older. The narrative regarding the primaries thus far tells a story of younger voters failing to turn out for any Democratic candidate. In reality, the "15 percent" of voters, those ages 18 through 29, reflect Gen Z and some Millennials, but certainly not all.

It’s not that Millennials and Gen Z are not turning out to vote. Instead, one issue is clear: They aren’t as motivated to commit to Sanders’ revolution as many pundits had assumed.

On March 11, Democrats and pundits waited with bated breath for Sanders to address the nation during a 1 p.m. press conference from his hometown of Burlington, Vermont. It was the day after another string of primary losses for Sanders, and he used the opportunity not to bow out of the race, but to lay a mantel down for Joe Biden to either pick up, or risk failure.

“Joe, what are you going to do to end the absurdity of the United States of America being the only major country on earth where healthcare is not a human right?” Sanders declared, rattling off his stump speech in the form of debate topics for Biden to address during the first two-person Democratic primary debate. Given the tone of Sanders’ speech, it might be the last. If Biden can take these cues from Sanders and combine their coalitions adequately, perhaps Sanders will put his support behind Biden as the Democratic candidate for president. If, however, Biden fails, Sanders’ actions are anyone’s guess. To some, remaining in the race runs the risk of further dividing the party, while to others, Sanders’ persistence will look like a continued fight for progress.

As of late March, The Tylt’s audience had made up its mind. When asked “Does Bernie Sanders still have a chance?” nearly 90 percent of respondents agreed the Democratic party should “unite against Trump” with Biden at the helm. In a time of global crisis, and with the country’s inequities on full display, Sanders’ choice to remain in the race or to drop out holds implications not only for the future of the nation, but for the path ahead for his supporters.

One Massachusetts voter we met on Super Tuesday, Thomas Hart, who was clad in a tie-dye shirt and a fishing hat, chastised the Sanders supporters of 2016, saying they were at least partly responsible for Trump’s election. Once Hillary Clinton won the nomination, Hart explained, they did not come out to the polls to support her as the Democratic candidate. “It was all sour grapes,” he said, “I think this time around they’ve got a better idea of what could go wrong.” If Biden is the nominee, Hart believes Sanders followers will understand the stakes. “I won’t be pouting,” he added.

The question remains whether Sanders supporters will turn out for Biden if he does clinch the Democratic nomination this summer. Biden’s comeback narrative looms large as state primaries are postponed one by one and as allegations against him simmer beneath the surface, but he has voiced his appreciation for Sanders’ passionate and progressive supporters – a group he’ll need if he is the nominee facing off with Trump.

At his home in Wilmington, Delaware, on March 17, Biden spoke directly to these voters: “I hear you. I know what’s at stake. I know what we have to do.” His priority is simple: to unify the country. But what if young people believe unity lies at the end of a path Biden is not on? They might ask themselves if he is truly listening to their wishes, or simply joining the ranks of politicians speaking at a generation, without connecting to the sense of urgency they so desperately feel.

What is certain thus far in the primaries is the power of momentum. We witnessed its wild swings from Iowa to Super Tuesday. In truth, the Biden revival has humbled many experts – from pundits to politicians. The coronavirus pandemic, with primaries on hold, seems to have all but sealed the fate of the Sanders’ campaign. If so, one question remains: Will young voters join Joe to beat Trump, or will it once again be Bernie or bust?