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Bernie Sanders’s real base is diverse — and very young

Sanders’s base going into the 2020 election, explained.

Sen. Bernie Sanders Holds Campaign Rally At Brooklyn College
People wait to hear Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at a rally at Brooklyn College at the start of his 2020 presidential campaign.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The “Bernie Bro” — the young, loud, angry white man that came to define Sen. Bernie Sanders’s base of support in 2016 — is looking a lot more diverse these days.

As Sanders begins to crisscross the country for his 2020 presidential bid, proving he can consolidate the Democratic base will be his biggest test.

“We were criticized for being too white; that was a correct criticism,” Sanders said on the Breakfast Club radio show in March. “We were criticized for being too male; that was a correct criticism. That’s going to change.”

It’s starting to. An analysis of recent polls from November of 2018 to March 2019 shows Sanders is more popular with people of color than white people, and women like Sanders as much as men do, if not more. He leads every other possible 2020 contender with Latino voters and lags behind only Joe Biden — who hasn’t announced a bid yet — with African-American voters. Sanders’ polling numbers with black voters are double that of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), according to a March Morning Consult poll.

The Sanders campaign has announced two women of color, Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and San Juan, Puerto Rico, Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, to be co-chairs of his campaign, along with Indian-American Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen. His campaign manager is Faiz Shakir, a longtime progressive activist.

Three years ago, Sanders lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton in part because he couldn’t win over black voters. Exit polls after every 2016 primary showed the same result over and over again: Clinton won black voters by large margins, even in states where Sanders claimed victory overall. Since then, reports of gender and pay discrimination in his 2016 campaign, allegations of sexual harassment against some of his campaign surrogates, and a dysfunctional and neglected black outreach team have continued to feed the narrative that Sanders was the white man’s Democratic candidate in 2016.

But race and gender weren’t the only defining demographic attributes in 2016. Rather, another — age — has proven to be among the most enduring factors. Women were actually split between Clinton and Sanders by age; young women liked Sanders, older women didn’t. By the end of Sanders’s 2016 race, he had improved with black voters — but only with young ones.

In a packed and diverse field of hopefuls — made up of women, people of color, and a millennial, and ranging the entire Democratic ideological spectrum — Sanders is a known quantity. This name recognition has undoubtedly buoyed him in early 2020 polls. But to keep these voters with him, he has to make the case that his agenda breaks through every demographic in a way his 2016 campaign couldn’t.

Age will likely prove Sanders’s biggest challenge

Sen. Bernie Sanders Holds Campaign Rally At Brooklyn College
Bernie Sanders supporters have always been young.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

That the “Berniebro,” as the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer coined in October 2015, became one of the most pervasive tropes of the 2016 presidential election cycle spoke to a certain reality. Sanders’s base was young — and some of the young white men stood front and center.

“The main dividing line was age more so than ideology or any other demographic attribute,” Matt Grossmann, a political scientist with Michigan State University, said, noting that the age factor drove other demographic assumptions about economic status. “The quintessential Bernie voter was a grad student: high in educational level but low in income.”

That hasn’t changed much.

Take this January 2019 poll from Politico and Morning Consult: Support for Sanders is split evenly between men and women, and he polls better than every other 2020 contender with Hispanic voters, with 21 percent saying they’d vote for him if the election were held in January. He picked up 12 percent of African-American voters, far behind Biden’s 33 percent but just ahead of Harris’s 11 percent, and leaps and bounds ahead of Booker’s 6 percent.

But in this poll, Sanders’s support is driven by voters ages 18 to 44, more so than any other candidate in the race right now. The older, and wealthier, the voter gets, the less interested they are in Sanders. These results are consistent with five national polls between November 2018 and March 2019 — and with exit polls from 2016 primaries.

“It’s younger. It’s more diverse. It’s people of color,” Joshua Ulibarri, a partner with the Democratic research firm Lake Research Partners, said of Sanders’s coalition. “It’s still pretty Anglo, [but] he has made some inroads with African Americans.”

A Harvard/Harris poll in November 2018 found Sanders polling favorably with Latinos and black voters by 58 percent and 66 percent, respectively. Forty-seven percent of white voters viewed him favorably in that poll. Among those 18 to 24 years of age, 59 percent supported Sanders. But in the 65-plus age range, his support dropped 10 points, to 49 percent.

That age gap had grown by January 2019, when another Harvard/Harris poll showed a 23 percent drop in favorability for Sanders between the oldest age group and the youngest. That poll again showed people of color liking Sanders more than white voters.

If anything, age — across race — is going to be Sanders biggest hurdle in 2020.

Sanders’s agenda hasn’t changed. Can he change the way he talks about identity?

Bernie Sanders discusses the Medicare-for-all bill in San Francisco.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a health care rally.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sanders has always prioritized ideology over identity politics.

“It’s not that Bernie didn’t have policies to the benefit of African Americans, of Latinos, but he just didn’t see race as the center of American politics,” Grossmann said of 2016. “He didn’t talk about inequality in that way.”

It’s the same with gender. After Clinton lost the 2016 election, Sanders on his book tour said, “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ ... What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

While Sanders has made strategic changes to the people running his campaign, his agenda has stayed the same. He is still running against corporate greed and for Medicare-for-all, free college, a $15 minimum wage, and so on. And his views on identity politics appear consistent; in having to make the case for another old white man for president — himself — he told Vermont Public Radio recently that voters have “got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender, and not by their age. I mean, I think we have got to try to move us toward a nondiscriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for.”

He got a lot of flak for the comment, including in an article headlined “Bernie Sanders’ Sexism Problem” in Harper’s Bazaar.

That said, now, when asked directly if he has an “agenda for black people” on The Breakfast Club, Sanders said “absolutely,” noting the specific racial inequalities within the general disparity within the United States.

“A friend of mine, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina — Rep. Clyburn — came up with an idea which I think we should build on,” Sanders said. “He called it 10-20-30, which says that you focus federal resources on those communities most in distress and at the same time you got to deal with institutional racism.”

In the last presidential cycle, it was only toward the end of the primaries — possibly after a repeated beating with Southern black voters — that Sanders moved to a much more traditional style of Democratic campaigning, Grossman said.

“It talked about each constituency and what he would do with each demographic,” Grossman said. “This time, the pre-campaign has been more how he ended, than how he started — consciously appealing to the wider base.”

But this kind of campaigning Grossman says, “has a potential cost: He might be less focused if he has to do that.”