You think Bernie Sanders has got troubles? Hey, you only know the half of it.

The half you know, of course, is Joe Biden’s come-from-behind, coming-out-of-nowhere, come-to-Jesus, coming out party, thanks to centrist Democrats’ sudden, powerful Super Tuesday unity kumbaya in his favor.

This week’s primaries pretty much sealed the deal.

Still, it’s important to look at the other half of Bernie’s problems, because his issue goes beyond Sanders and will definitely affect Biden.

The accepted wisdom that young voters would turn out in droves for Bernie Sanders has proven to be untrue. Roeder

It’s this: The very group that most passionately supports Sanders is not likely to vote in 2020.

Isn’t the Sanders surge about the loyalty and enthusiasm of Bernie’s bros? Yes, but Sanders’ challenge is that there is a real disconnect between youthful passion and youthful percentages.

The media loves to dramatize the Bernie story — a preternaturally un-hip guy close to 80 capturing the hearts and minds of people young enough to be his grandchildren.

Such enthusiasm! And for a guy who’s been eligible for McDonald’s senior coffee for over ten years already.

As Sanders likes to say, it’s a movement!

No, it’s not. From his lips to God’s pollsters.

More accurately, it may be a movement, but a presidential campaign is all about winning an election, which requires that your supporters actually cast their ballots.

A movement is long-term. An election is today. A movement, you strive for emotion. An election, you count votes.

You have probably heard or read dozens of stories about why young people support Bernie. The New York Times had one on its Sunday front page just this week.

How many profiles of a young person who doesn’t know or doesn’t care about Sanders have you come across?

Disinterest stories are less compelling than human interest stories, but the numbers favor the former.

Many Young Voters Simply Tune Out Politics

So let’s do the numbers, as the Knight Foundation’s recent national non-voter study does. The Knight study surveyed or interviewed about 12,000 people, including those who regularly vote and those who don’t.

Before we do that, though, you need to remember this: Young people consistently have the lowest voter turnout of any age group, and there is every reason to think that this is not likely to change appreciably in 2020.

In fact, compared to other years, youth voter turnout has been on the low side in the 2020 primaries. According to an exit poll of voters in the recent Texas primary, the percentage of 2020 older primary voters went way up while the share of young voters went down.

Most of the study’s findings reinforce what we already know about non-voters. There are a lot of them, like 100 million. In the 2016 presidential election, a higher percentage of people chose not to vote (41%) than the people who voted for either Clinton (29 %) or Trump (27%).

Overall, non-voters make less money than voters and have less education. Non-voters have less faith in politics and are less trustful of elections.

Non-voters are less connected to their community’s civic life — more likely to be single, less likely to be religious and less likely to do volunteer work.

All that is important but, for the most part, already quite well-known. What the study shows in more detail is just how disconnected non-voters, especially young ones, are from political life.

And when you take a closer look, as the survey did with its sub-poll of younger people eligible to vote, it even more clearly shows how age factors into all of this.

All of those previously mentioned non-voter characteristics apply in spades to this 18 to 24 group, which Knight calls “the emerging electorate.”

As the study puts it, compared to non-voters, “The emerging electorate is even less informed and less interested in politics.”

“Young eligible citizens (18-24 years old),” it says, “are even less likely than non-voters to report following political news and feel less informed than non-voters come election time. Fewer are interested in voting in 2020 than non-voters, principally because they don’t care about politics.”

There are non-voters all over the political and social map. They form six clusters. Three of these clusters are in the study’s term “plugged in,” which means they make some regular attempt to discover what’s going on politically even if they don’t vote.

Knight calls the other three groups “disconnected.” Two of these three disconnected groups (“unattached apoliticals” and “unemployed unsures”) are on the young side.

Non-voters differ according to how likely they are to say they will vote in 2020. Members of those two relatively young disconnected groups are least likely to vote of all.

Actually the Sanders campaign is not all about the young. He has done a remarkable job of putting together a broad coalition of supporters. In most head-to-head polls against Donald Trump, Sanders has done about as well if not better than the other Democrats running.

There is debate over just how much Sanders would have to rely on the youth vote if he got the nomination.

VIce President Joe Biden gestures to look for his city council person in the audience. 23 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Joe Biden may find himself looking far and wide for young voters. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Whatever the numbers, young people have been the Sanders campaign’s most visible and emotional heart and soul, and it has certainly been conventional wisdom that the passion indicates that this time, in November 2020, the kids will turn out.

Our heart may say yes, as it often does regarding voter turnout. But our heads should say no. You can do things to affect turnout, and in a close election even a small change one way or the other can be significant. But the Sanders phenomenon, which is such a compelling story about youthful liberal insurgency, turns out to be an object lesson about its limits.

If Biden gets the nomination, he will face the youth vote problem, too, but with a serious twist.

The young people who voted in the primaries, few that they were, overwhelmingly supported Sanders. The crust of his support may be thin, but it’s at least a crust.

Biden has no layer of young support at all. Looking at his totals, you’d think that the only way you could vote is if you’re an AARP member.  According to this week’s primary exit polls, only 19% of the young Michigan voters and even fewer in Washington state favored Joe.

Joe and Bernie — two old guys confronting their own versions of, as we called it in my own youthful voting days:

A generation gap.

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