Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders make their presence known in the front row Saturday as the Democratic presidential hopeful spoke at a rally at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H.
Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images
University of New Hampshire students Emily Wilcox, left, and Summer Auvil, who are supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, hold signs near the site of the Democratic debate on Thursday.
By Tracie Mauriello / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
DURHAM, N.H. — She draped herself in an American flag borrowed from a dorm-mate, used a black eyeliner to write “BERNIE” across her forehead and rounded up the across-the-hall neighbor she had enthusiastically converted into a Berniephile.
Emily Wilcox, 18, didn’t have tickets for Thursday’s Democratic debate at the University of New Hampshire, but she had campaign slogans aplenty and energy to spare as she joined 200 classmates screaming their support for Bernie Sanders as his motorcade passed.
“I’m just die-hard Bernie,” said Miss Wilcox, a freshman from Burlington, Conn.
She isn’t the only one.
Optimistic young voters are putting their hopes on the unlikeliest of characters: an angry curmudgeon who prefers Beethoven to Bieber, who calls his iPad a “gizmo” and who grew up before the advent of rock ‘n roll or the proliferation of color television.
None of that matters to Berniephiles like Ms. Wilcox who says candidates’ ideas are what matter, not their age.
Recent polls show that Mr. Sanders is capturing the hearts, the minds and — most importantly, the votes — of young adults like her in New Hampshire and across the country.
“Young voters are disillusioned with the political process, and Sanders is perceived as an outsider,” said Wake Forest University political scientist Katy Harriger.
Democrats under 29 prefer him to Hillary Clinton 52 percent to 29 percent, according to a national poll last week by The Morning Consult.
For those age 30 to 44, those numbers flip with 55 percent supporting Ms. Clinton and just 32 percent for the Vermont senator. And it’s worse among the oldest voters. Those over 65 prefer Ms. Clinton 59 percent to 24 percent, according to the poll.
Older voters are turned off by Mr. Sanders’ brand.
He proudly and defiantly calls himself a “socialist,” but that’s a dirty word to voters who grew up during the Cold War. Even if they agree with his principles, Mr. Sanders loses their support simply by labeling himself.
“Bernie is honest. He’s a good guy. Too bad he’s a socialist,” said Vinnie Salerno, 85, a pizza shop owner from Concord, N.H., who supports Republican candidate Ted Cruz.
“For older voters, the word socialism has a lot of connotations that are negative, but younger voters don’t get that. The term doesn’t hold the same ideological weight,” Ms. Harriger said.
These are voters who came of age during the recession and who are leaving college with high student debt and low job prospects.
They blame the system, and even though Mr. Sanders is a member of the Senate they see him as an outsider because he is one of two senators who identify as independent and who makes no apologies for his views, his approach or even the rumpled suits he wears.
“He doesn’t pretend to be anyone he’s not. He’s real. He’s not afraid to be who he really is,” Ms. Wilcox said.
Young supporters of Hillary Clinton largely support Mr. Sanders’ agenda. They just aren’t confident he can get it done.
“Bernie has got a plan for free college. I don’t think he can do it though,” said Clinton campaign volunteer David Todisco, 19. “He is a great senator, but I don’t think he’s someone you want for president of the United States.”
A lot of Democrats his age disagree, and they aren’t just in New Hampshire. Even in Pennsylvania, where the presidential primary is nearly three months away, there is enthusiasm for Mr. Sanders.
“What young people are looking for is authenticity, someone who is a real human being. He’s somebody with a 40-year progressive track record that you can’t fake,” said Adam Wells, 26, of Aspinwall, who runs the Twitter account @PittsBern and has helped the Sanders campaign.
For some, Mr. Sanders also represents a rebuke of two-party politics and a threat to establishment candidates that their jobs are in danger if they don’t listen more to constituents and less to corporations and their lobbyists.
“The establishment right now is out of touch on both sides of the political spectrum and people are looking for something authentic,” Mr. Wells said.
“The fact is: Bernie Sanders is a frumpy guy. He doesn’t comb his hair. He doesn’t care about any of that. This guy has been busy fighting his entire life for things he believes in, and whether you like the guy or not you have to admit he’s an honest human being,” he said.
“He’s not fringe. He’s not a radical,” Mr. Wells said. “He is exactly what the party was in the times of Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt.”
It isn’t just young liberals like Mr. Wells who are fawning over Mr. Sanders. He also has managed to strike a chord with young Republicans, even those who disagree with some of his major platforms.
For example, Republican Natalie Mishkin, 19, disagrees with Mr. Sanders’ proposals to raise taxes to make college free, but his approach is refreshing and genuine enough to make her cross party lines to support him.
“I like his character, and character is something we need right now,” said Ms. Mishkin of Los Angeles who is in New Hampshire, this week with a group of Hofstra University students studying the primary process.
The question is whether millennials, who so strongly support Mr. Sanders, will turn out to vote.
Fewer than 20 percent of voters under 29 cast ballots in 2014, the lowest of any federal election, according to Tufts University’s Center for Information on Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, known by the acronym CIRCLE. In the last presidential year, 45 percent turned out, down from a record 51 percent in the 2008 presidential election.
Democrats like Mr. Wells soured on the political process after they elected President Barack Obama, who promised hope and change but struggled to deliver.
“There’s a narrative that he faced GOP obstructionism that was unprecedented, and that’s true, but he could have done more to lead the grassroots movement that he built in 2008,” Mr. Wells said.
Democratic millennials expected Mr. Obama to be a protest leader who would inspire Americans to pressure Congress to pass legislation that put constituents above corporations, but that didn’t happen.
“Bernie talks about a political revolution, and he’s going out and doing what Barack Obama had an opportunity to do,” Mr. Wells said. “I really feel he might be our last chance to fundamentally change things.”
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org; 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.
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