Bernie Sanders Is Struggling With Older Voters

But the oldest candidate in the field still thinks his populist pitch can appeal to every generation.

CORALVILLE, Iowa ― Deborah Hampton, 63, likes Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) just fine. 

“I like his ideas,” she said. 

But Hampton isn’t supporting Sanders. She was checking out Pete Buttigieg’s rally earlier this month, and is deciding between Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

“It’s time to pass the baton. I would like to see him in the mix somewhere, but as president, I think we need someone else,” she said of Sanders, who is 78.

Among the four candidates currently leading in the polls, Sanders consistently has the lowest levels of support among voters over 65. 

In a Quinnipiac University poll released on Dec. 10, he had a grand total of 2% support among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters aged 65 and older, and 6% of the same voters aged 50 to 64.

For former Vice President Joe Biden those figures were 47% and 35%, respectively; for Buttigieg ― the youngest candidate in the race ― they were 11% and 12%; and for Warren they were 9% and 10%.

Of course, candidates can be competitive with lower support among older voters. Thanks to his vastly higher standing among younger voters, Sanders has a strong overall standing in the polls.

But seniors are generally the most reliable voters in elections, and it’s a constituency that can’t be ignored or discounted.

Sen. Bernie Sanders' base is famously young. But in a bid to improve his standing with older voters, he is increasing his out
Sen. Bernie Sanders' base is famously young. But in a bid to improve his standing with older voters, he is increasing his outreach efforts to seniors.

During the 2016 general election, baby boomers and members of older generations made up 43% of eligible voters but cast 49% of the votes, according to the Pew Research Center.

That’s likely to be even truer in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus, since the structure of the voting process tends to require people to take more time out of their day. In 2016, 64% of caucus-goers were aged 45 or older, and 28% were over aged 65 or older, according to entrance polls.

Sanders has staked much of his fortunes on a strong performance in Iowa. But his chances of winning there are much greater if he can improve his standing among older voters.

Sanders staffers conceded that older voters are the toughest demographic group for the campaign to crack and said they are working hard to change that.

The prescription, they argue, is a customized version of Sanders’ standard populist pitch.

“First and foremost, working class people in Iowa know that Bernie fights for them, and the funny thing about the working class is that we are people of all ages,” Sanders campaign senior adviser Pete D’Alessandro, 56, said in a statement. “There are young workers and there are folks like me, who get half-priced Grand Slams at Denny’s, and the only way that age comes into it, is which issue we highlight first. 

“For young workers, we might lead with student loan debt,” he continued. “For older folks, like yours truly, we might lead with expanding Social Security and Medicare to cover eyeglasses, dental and hearing aids, which you’ve seen in our ads airing across [Iowa].” 

To get insight into Sanders’ challenge with seniors and voters in late middle age, HuffPost examined the body of research about seniors’ voting patterns and spoke with some 20 Democratic voters aged 50 and older in Iowa and South Carolina who have ruled Sanders out or are undecided.

HuffPost identified three main reasons why older voters are less sympathetic to Sanders: They have a greater share of the national wealth and skew more ideologically conservative; they are more likely to identify with the Democratic Party as an institution; and they simply like other candidates.

The audience listens to presidential hopefuls speak at an AARP forum in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in July. Older generations vote
The audience listens to presidential hopefuls speak at an AARP forum in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in July. Older generations voted in disproportionately high numbers in the 2016 caucus. 

Richer, More Conservative And Warier Of Change

It is common for a certain breed of left-wing thinkers to downplay the importance of the generational divide, which they see as a distraction from the class conflict that separates the affluent and the struggling of all ages, races and genders. A case in point was left-leaning New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo’s exhortation of progressives to replace the popular “OK boomer” meme with the more populist “OK billionaire.”

But to the extent that age and generational placement reveal something about why older Democrats are cooler to Sanders’ pitch, it might be that age is sometimes a proxy for relative wealth and conservative ideology. Baby boomers had more than twice the share of national wealth as Generation X did at the same age ― and for millennials, the slice of the country’s assets is even smaller, according to a Washington Post analysis of Federal Reserve data.

Those older Americans who are less financially secure tend to die at younger ages, leaving their more prosperous and possibly more conservative peers to speak for “older voters.” Two-thirds of Americans in their 50s or 60s in 1990 lived until 2014, but that was true of only half of impoverished Americans over that same period, according to a Government Accountability Office study published in September.

In a phenomenon that is perhaps related, the older generations ― including members of the silent generation, who preceded boomers ― have much higher percentages of people who identify as Republican and who identify as conservative Republicans. The younger a person is, the more likely they are to identify as a Democrat, to say nothing of a “liberal Democrat,” according to Pew Research Center data from 2017. (There is some evidence that seniors have shifted to the left in recent years, but not dramatically enough to noticeably affect polling of the 2020 presidential primary.)

I don’t know if folks my age and above appreciate change. South Carolina state Rep. Terry Alexander (D)

South Carolina state Rep. Terry Alexander (D), 64, a Black preacher and top Sanders surrogate, posited that it’s not that older people are necessarily averse to Sanders’ specific policy prescriptions so much as they are fearful of major disruptions of any kind.

“Senator Sanders represents change and upsetting the applecart,” he told HuffPost after a Sanders town hall on the University of South Carolina’s campus in early December. “And I don’t know if folks my age and above appreciate change.”

Several older Democrats who spoke to HuffPost described being either personally put off by Sanders’ message or wary that someone who they perceived as a radical leftist could win the presidency. 

“We can’t keep tearing up and throwing away and starting over,” said Adelene, 79, a retired FedEx worker who saw Sanders speak at her church in Columbia, South Carolina, at the beginning of December, and who declined to provide her last name. “We need to start building on what we have ― even the health care system, build on that, because you are never going to get anywhere if you keep tearing things down.”

The proximity of some early-state voters to more conservative friends and family members only adds to their anxiety about Sanders’ electability. 

Bonnie Moothart, 69, a retired educator from Washington, Iowa, who plans to vote for Buttigieg, took note of how her Republican husband reacts to Sanders. 

“He’s definitely not a Trump fan, but he’ll say every time he sees Bernie on TV, ‘Oh, I’ll give everything to everybody.’ I mean that’s the attitude that, kind of, people have about Bernie,” Moothart said. She does not think Sanders is capable of winning the general election.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the youngest Democratic presidential candidate in the field, has considerably high
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the youngest Democratic presidential candidate in the field, has considerably higher support among seniors compared to Sanders.

Identification With The Democratic Party

A defining feature of the political landscape ― across the partisan and ideological spectrums ― is that older Americans are more likely to identify with one of the two major political parties. 

There are more millennials and Gen Xers who identify as political independents than identify as either Republicans or Democrats, according to a 2018 Pew poll. Among boomers, by contrast, Democrats make up the largest percentage of voters by a slight margin; and among members of the silent generation, Republicans are the largest group. 

Likewise, independents with a partisan leaning were more likely to be Republican among the silent generation; relatively evenly split between the two parties among boomers and Gen Xers; and vastly more likely to lean Democratic among Millennials. 

That means that older Democrats are generally more likely to feel attached to the Democratic Party as an institution than their younger counterparts. Sanders’ refusal to affiliate with the Democratic Party, even as he seeks the party’s presidential nomination for a second time, remains a selling point with the latter group, but it is a sore point with the former one.

I don’t know what he’s done for the party. Phyllis Peters, 60

“He’s not a Democrat, first of all,” said Marc Freeman, 68, a business consultant from Fairfield, Iowa, before launching into criticism of Sanders’ fulminations against the wealthy. (Freeman is supporting Buttigieg.)

Phyllis Peters, 60, an Ames Democrat who works for an internet service provider, sounded like she was clenching her teeth when asked about Sanders. The daughter of party activists, she has now become a prominent local partisan herself.

“I respect that he’s in the race and that he’s such a fighter. I don’t know what he’s done for the party,” said Peters, who is in the process of choosing from among the more moderate candidates.

A corollary to the partisan resentment of Sanders is a sense that he did not do enough to bring his supporters into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s camp in 2016.

“The people that were for him ― they didn’t do a lot to help Hillary,” Adelene said. “We may not agree with everything that goes on, but at some point we have to unite.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to supporters at a VFW hall in Oelwein, Iowa. He has the highest support among seniors
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to supporters at a VFW hall in Oelwein, Iowa. He has the highest support among seniors of any Democratic presidential candidate.

Just Not That Into Him?

Of course, there is also the same, more mundane phenomenon plaguing Sanders as other candidates: People who have no particular problem with him, but just like someone else more.

Thomas Anderson, 80, a retired John Deere worker from Waterloo, called Sanders “all right.”

“But he doesn’t have the communication with the foreign countries,” Anderson said. “Biden has communication with foreign countries. And we need that ― from day one.”

Desse Johnston, 69, a retired textbook company employee from Washington, is planning to vote for Warren. While she caucused for Sanders in 2016, she is now concerned about “his age and his health.”

Some other older voters were more explicit in their aversion to candidates who are closer to them in age. 

Adelene, the retired FedEx worker who is deciding between Biden and Buttigieg, wants Biden to make sure a young person is on the ticket if he is the nominee.

I don’t hang around with old people, because old people make you old. Adelene, 78

“I don’t hang around with old people, because old people make you old,” she declared.

Regardless, Sanders is doing his part to raise awareness of the elements of his platform that specifically aim to improve the lives of older Americans. In Iowa, he’s running a six-figure television ad campaign tailored to seniors that touts his support for higher Social Security benefits and tough measures to bring down prescription drug costs. In November, his campaign made seniors the focus of 20% of its events, and also drafted a guide for students supporting Sanders to try to persuade older family members, staffers told the Wall Street Journal.

Another new digital video emphasizes Sanders’ pragmatism, which could sway cautious seniors indirectly. The “Amendment King” plays up his accomplishments during a stint in the GOP-controlled House when he passed more amendments than any other Democrat. 

And in the interest of reaching those older Americans who still get information through the mail, the Sanders campaign is following the lead of Postcards for America, an upstart liberal group that nudged voters toward Democratic priorities ahead of the 2018 midterm election. The Sanders campaign plans to send postcards with a personalized pitch to 250,000 Iowans, focusing especially on seniors.

So far, the campaign’s efforts appear to be bearing some fruit. In the course of a week, Sanders’ support among voters aged 65 and older jumped from 2% to 6%, and from 6% to 9% among voters aged 50 to 64, according to the national poll Quinnipiac University released on Monday.



Bernie Sanders On The Campaign Trail