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Sanders’s fate sealed by the over 40 crowd

Greg Nash

With Bernie Sanders suspending his presidential campaign on Wednesday, Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. 

While Biden won his party’s nomination on the strength of his fellow senior citizens and with voters over the age of 50, Sanders was the clear winner among more than just college students , as many outlets reported.

My examination of voting patterns in this year’s Democratic primaries shows the real break between Sanders and Biden is not at college graduation, but at age 40.

Data from the Fox News Voter Analysis/AP Votecast of Super Tuesday found that Sanders finished first among voters between the ages of 30 and 39, with 43 percent of the vote. Among those in their 40s, Sanders only won 31 percent of the vote. 

This pattern continued in the remaining contests that voted in March. Sanders won 60 percent of the votes among thirty-somethings in Arizona, but only 39 percent of those in their 40s; a 21 percent difference. There were similar large differences between the views of those ages 30 to 39 and those 40 to 49 in Missouri (59 percent to 38 percent), Illinois (54 percent to 35 percent) and Florida (45 percent to 24 percent). The numbers show those 40 and up were much less likely to vote for Sanders.

What explains this sudden break in political views among voters at the age of 40? 

They’re millennials, the oldest of which are 39. Yes, the famed generation of twenty-something “ne’er-do-wells” is actually a set of people in their 30s and thus much more likely to be dealing with issues around child care, buying a home and paying off their college loans while saving for their children’s college education.

The Pew Research Center defines millennials as those who were born between 1981 and 1996. This group has a long history of voting for progressive candidates. In 2004, when the oldest millennials were 23, exit polls found that voters ages 18 to 24 were John Kerry’s strongest age group; he won this group with 56 percent.

Millennials were even more supportive of Barack Obama. He won voters ages 18 to 29 by a whopping 68 percent in 2008 and 60 percent in 2012.

Millennials continued to show their loyalty to the more progressive candidate in 2016. In the Democratic primary, Sanders won 71 percent of the vote among young voters — even greater than Obama’s share eight years earlier. But in a similar pattern to 2020, Hillary Clinton essentially tied Sanders among voters in their 30s (Clinton 50 percent, Sanders 48 percent). In the general election, millennials turned to the more progressive of their two options. They voted for Hillary Clinton by a margin of 55 percent compared to the 37 percent of young voters who voted for Donald Trump.

What is causing these millennials and young voters to break toward the more progressive option in large numbers? To answer this question, one must know that millennials have lived in a period of seemingly constant political crises and in a political system that has consistently rejected their issue priorities. 

A person born in 1983 would have graduated high school in Spring 2001, just in time for the 9/11 attacks to usher in a seemingly never-ending global war on terrorism. In 2008, when our theoretical millennial would have been 25 and just starting to get a foothold on her career path, the financial crises and great recession hit, stalling her career, her ability to purchase a house and plan a family. 

The stagnant economic recovery of the 2010s benefitted those at the top of the income scale and attempts to alleviate income inequality we’re stymied by the political establishment obsessively focused on reducing the federal deficit. 

Then in 2016, Donald Trump rose. The political establishment underplayed Trump while displaying sympathy to his voters by saying they were suffering from “economic anxiety.” 

While the political world kept moving from crisis to crisis, the everyday world of young people in the Twenty-First century featured rapidly increasing costs for college tuition, health care and home prices. To many, these are essential components of living the American dream. Yet they seem to get further and further away from the grasp of millennials.

While young Americans needed a focus on the economic hardships of modern life, government policy over the past 20 years has focused on the Middle East and the “forever war,” the wealthy (especially those who hold government debt), senior citizens and the racially resentful. The early Obama administration attempted to deal with some of the issue priorities of young Americans, achieving small bore success on student loans. But their boldest initiatives were either defeated entirely (climate change) or watered down to address the concerns of those who chose that moment to restart their episodic interest in the budget deficit (the Affordable Care Act and the economic stimulus). 

In this context, one can see why voters under the age of 40 have embraced progressive candidates. The moderate-to-conservative policies of the last 40 years have produced few benefits and great costs to young voters.

Their experience of the country moving from crisis to crisis also contrasts with those in their 40s. A person born in 1973, like me, saw the U.S. win the Cold War while in high school, establishing a unipolar peace that lasted until 9/11. The dot-com boom of the late 1990s raised incomes through all ranges of the socio-economic system.

Americans in their 40s have experiences with America working to the benefit of all its citizens. Those in their 30s do not. The experience of millennials is one of anxiety, political crisis, the seeming inability to get ahead economically and a political system that has focused its attention elsewhere.

Millennials will only get older and their successor generation — Generation Z — shows early political signs that they are just as progressive. These two groups will increase their share of the electorate. They were outvoted in 2020 by older voters with a very different experience of American life. But in the next contested Democratic presidential primary, these voters will play an even larger role, and their twenty years of backing progressive campaigns may finally bring their choice to the front, and with it, significant changes in not only American politics and policy.

Brian Arbour is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Bernie Sanders Donald Trump gen z Generation Z Hillary Clinton Joe Biden John Kerry Millenials Pew progressive Sanders voters

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