Bernie Sanders struggles to win over older voters

Bernie Sanders struggles to win over older voters
© Greg Nash

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHouse Democrats to keep minimum wage hike in COVID-19 relief bill for Friday vote Sanders slams parliamentarian decision on minimum wage Parliamentarian nixes minimum wage hike in coronavirus bill MORE (I-Vt.) has a major problem on his hands as the Democratic primary unfolds: He lacks support from older voters, a major and loyal voting bloc in the party. 

While Sanders has been successful in winning over young voters, both in 2016 and in this year’s primary contest, recent polls show he’s in desperate need of courting seniors. 

A Quinnipiac University poll out late last month highlights the conundrum for Sanders, who is 77. Only 4 percent of likely voters over 65 — those in the senator’s age group — support him.  


The poll and others like it show the stark contrast between Sanders and his main rivals for the Democratic nomination — former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden 'disappointed' in Senate parliamentarian ruling but 'respects' decision Taylor Swift celebrates House passage of Equality Act Donald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' MORE and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenMinimum wage setback revives progressive calls to nix Senate filibuster Democratic strategists start women-run media consulting firm Becerra says he wants to 'build on' ObamaCare when pressed on Medicare for All MORE (D-Mass.) — when it comes to older voters. 

In the Quinnipiac poll, Biden wins 48 percent from voters over 65 years old, while Warren wins 20 percent. 

Democratic strategists say Sanders may just be too visionary for some older voters. 

“He supports a lot of really big and visionary plans that are appealing to a lot of younger voters but aren't necessarily accepted yet by older voters who are more used to the way things have always worked in politics,” said Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist who is not supporting a specific campaign. 

Because older voters are the most reliable voting bloc, even Sanders supporters are expressing concern about the lack of support.

Bhaskar Sunkara, a Sanders ally who is the founder of the socialist magazine Jacobin and the author of the book "The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality," said the lack of support from older voters is “definitely a problem.” 

“He can’t win a coalition with primarily young voters,” Sunkara said, adding that Sanders needs to highlight his record on "Medicare for All" and Social Security, while hammering home the fact that he can defeat President TrumpDonald TrumpDonald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' Schiff sees challenges for intel committee, community in Trump's shadow McConnell says he'd back Trump as 2024 GOP nominee MORE

Other supporters say the campaign needs to do more to convince older voters that the campaign isn’t just about issues concerning young people. 

“Seniors are often more concerned about not losing what they earned and fearful about what might lie ahead,” said Larry Cohen, a longtime Sanders ally who runs Our Revolution, an organization that began after Sanders’s 2016 campaign to champion his agenda. “We have to convince older voters that they can be ushers for the future not just ushers for the past."

“Sometimes older voters are fearful that change means change for the worse,” Cohen added. 

In the 2016 primary, Sanders had much of the same problem with older voters. While he won support from more than 70 percent of voters under 30 — even more than Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs O.T. Fagbenle to play Barack Obama in Showtime anthology 'The First Lady' Obama says reparations 'justified' MORE in 2008 — his opponent, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic strategists start women-run media consulting firm Pelosi top fundraiser moves to House Democratic super PAC Mean tweets may take down Biden nominee MORE, won the support of seniors by 70 percent. 

“It was one of the main reasons we lost,” said one Sanders ally. “We have to do better this time around.” 

A Sanders campaign aide says the campaign isn’t putting much stock in the recent polls, mostly because they only look at Democratic voters and not the wide swath of other voters who support them. 

The aide said they’re running a 50-state strategy and leaving nothing on the table as far as specific groups of voters. 

In recent months, Sanders has tried to target seniors specifically during visits to retirement communities, pushing his Medicare for All single-payer health care plan and his Social Security overhaul, which would raise taxes on people who make more than $250,000 in order to replenish the cash-strapped program.

Allies like Cohen say they are also trying to push Sanders’s policies on tuition-free college. While it is a proposal also aimed at young voters, they see it as also appealing to those young voters' grandparents. 

“On these issues and others, seniors are excited and supportive,” Cohen said. 

Sanders allies say they think they can ultimately win over Biden supporters. The Sanders campaign sees both their candidate and Biden appealing to working-class voters. 

His supporters say it’s likely Sanders and his surrogates will go after Biden directly, seeking to chip away at his electability argument and highlighting his ties to wealthy donors. 

Sanders could have his chance to start peeling away some of Biden’s support next week at the third Democratic debate in Houston. The two men will be standing alongside one another in that forum along with Warren for the first time. 

Sunkara said if Biden’s support crumbles, that will help Sanders. 

“If Biden does collapse, Sanders would be the main beneficiary,” he said.