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Bernie's Bet On The Youth Vote


According to Senator Bernie Sanders, he should win the Democratic nomination because he'll bring millions of non-voters to the polls in November, especially young people. But the turnout rate for young voters continues to be far lower than the turnout rate overall.

NPR's Juana Summers is here. She's been looking at what that means for the Sanders campaign.



CORNISH: Eighteen states have held their contests, so I'm sure we've learned some information - right? - about turnout from young voters.

SUMMERS: Yeah, we have. Outside of California, there is little evidence that there has been higher turnout among younger voters. And when I say that, we're talking about folks who are under the age of 30. Bernie Sanders acknowledged that fact earlier today when he talked to reporters in Phoenix.


BERNIE SANDERS: Older people in general vote in fairly decent numbers in this country - not as high as I would like, but they vote in fairly decent numbers. Young people do not. Which campaign has the capabilities of mobilizing young people which may make all the difference in this general election?

SUMMERS: A point that Sanders has been making all week is that while his campaign has focused intensely on bringing out these young voters, they haven't had the success yet that they'd hoped for.

CORNISH: What has he said about this lack of traction?

SUMMERS: Yeah, so there's a couple of things to keep in mind here about Bernie Sanders. The first thing is that the young people that are turning out, Bernie Sanders is winning those people. He's trounced Joe Biden with younger voters in contests across the country. But the challenge is, as Sanders himself notes, that older voters turn out at far greater rates. And Joe Biden is winning those voters. That means that even though Sanders does well with the youths, they're not a large enough share of the electorate in many of the states have already voted to propel Bernie Sanders to overcome Joe Biden.

CORNISH: But there was that high turnout for the 2018 midterms, right? So what's the deal with 2020?

SUMMERS: Yeah. Youth turnout almost doubled from 2014 to 2018's midterms, and a lot of people were hoping that would happen again. But at least now, it hasn't happened yet. One thing is that in many cases, that - these aren't just young voters we're talking about. They're also new voters. So they're literally coming into the system for the first time. Registering to vote can be logistically confusing. And some of the experts I talked to also point out that there are some real legal barriers in parts of the country that impede all types of folks, but particularly young votes from voting.

This is also a primary election. So President Trump, who is not popular among young folks, he's not on the ballot. So that's one reason they might not be showing up. And there's also just a matter of simple psychology. When young people don't feel like their vote matters or they don't feel empowered, they don't show up.

CORNISH: What does this tell us about the general election, especially hearing that tape from Sanders, right? He's saying, hey, it'll all work out in the general.

SUMMERS: Yeah, he's really banking on that. We should be clear that youth turnout in the Democratic primary isn't necessarily predictive of turnout in the general election. I talked to a ton of folks, and they told me that what we're seeing now in this primary should be a warning sign for whoever Democrats nominate, that they can't take the youth vote for granted.

As you and I know, this is something that President Obama focused on heavily during the 2008 primary. Young people were a huge part of the coalition that lifted him to a primary victory and then in the general election. And we also know that in 2016, this wasn't a cohort that Hillary Clinton focused heavily on until after the primary and into the general. So she had to build a campaign for young votes essentially from scratch in the general, and that's something that experts say will only be to a Democrat's peril.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Juana Summers.

Thanks for the analysis.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.