A Former College President Explained Bernie Voters to Me

CLAREMONT, NH - FEBRUARY 02: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at the Claremont Opera House
CLAREMONT, NH - FEBRUARY 02: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at the Claremont Opera House on February 2, 2016 in Claremont, New Hampshire. The New Hampshire primary is February 9. (Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

There are a lot of things to be gleaned from the results of the Iowa presidential caucuses on Monday night, and one of those is that Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, indeed does have a ton of support among young people. He won Iowa's college town precincts, and the entrance polls showed that he absolutely dominated among voters under 30. The hopeful optimism of his slogan, "A Future to Believe In," is clearly resonating with college students. But are they being realistic in their expectations in what he can deliver?

Look, I am an idealist and a bit of a dreamer myself. Like most who are idealistic in their thinking, I usually eventually come around to facing reality, but always maintain a bit of idealism. For instance, I quit the Republican Party and rejected partisan politics two years ago, but I know that it will take years of hard work on the state and local levels before we have a political system where we don't have to join a party to participate. That's especially true at the presidential level.

Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator running for president, understands that reality. That's why, after being elected as an independent socialist, he is running in the Democratic Party's primary. The reality is that the Democrats have ballot access and infrastructure needed to be elected in all of the states.

Bernie Sanders has proposed policy proposals that offer a lot of hopeful optimism, but just don't seem to recognize political realities. His proposals for free college and single-payer healthcare recognize real problems facing our country, but he doesn't have realistic ways to pay for his solutions. I understand how his proposals appeal to voters, but I'm a bit baffled at how they look past the fact they aren't likely to be realized.

Those college students and young people are frustrated and anxious about their futures and they're looking for a way to dream big dreams in an uncertain economic climate. I get that. But even these young people accept reality when they have to. For instance, they succumb to reality by checking all the boxes and getting all the right recommendations to get into the best colleges and grad schools to set them on establishment paths in the future. So why are they not taking a realistic look at Sanders's policy proposals?

For help in understanding the energy driving the youth support for Sanders, I reached out to Frederick Lawrence, the former president of Brandeis University and Senior Research Scholar at Yale Law School. He certainly has experience working with the demographic groups driving the Sanders movement.

Bernie Sanders isn't the first presidential candidate to attract the support of college students. How does the Sanders movement compare to student-driven candidate movements in the past?

The excitement and energy for Sanders among so many students is reminiscent of the relatively recent campaigns of Howard Dean in 2004 and President Obama in 2008, and earlier campaigns of George McGovern in 1972 and Eugene McCarthy in 1968. In each case, young people were captivated by the possibility of significant, even radical, change. They were drawn to a campaign that appeared to broaden the options beyond those that the political system had generated. In some ways, it is therefore not surprising that the full practicality of programs those candidates were advancing was not the focus. The very focus on practicality is based on the existing options. To some extent, this is not about ignoring practicality but rather a sense that practicality should not be an initial threshold issue. Practical concerns should be raised subsequently, after the political discussion has been widened and new options are on the table. In the late 60s and early 70s this was largely about foreign policy and linked closely to the Vietnam War. In 2004 and 2008 opposition to the Iraq War played a major role. This year is has largely been about domestic policy.

The emotion of fear is certainly fueling the candidacy of Donald Trump, is the underlying emotion of the Sanders campaign fear as well? How is the anxiety and fear around economic uncertainty different for students than the general population?

There certainly is an anxiety and uncertainty driving much of the interest in Sanders' campaign, but I think that "hope" is a better word that "fear" to describe those drawn to his candidacy. The very belief that there "must be a better way" is inherently idealistic and optimistic rather than fearful.

I get that they are searching for a better way and want a hopeful future. I hear a lot about student loans and the need for reform of how we finance college. How much of that fear and anxiety related to student loans?

Again, I would not describe this as being about fear but it is about anxiety about the future. There is a concern among many people, not just students, about the cost of higher education. There are many responses to this, but one set of responses is to look to the Government to make a major investment in higher education. This is Sanders approach and it is not surprisingly very attractive to many students.

Do you think they'll grow up, get a job, and become Republicans once they overcome their fear of the future and realize that they can make it out there?!!?

First of all, let's remember that, although we have been talking about the Democratic primaries, there is plenty of energy about young Republicans as well behind some of those candidacies, so "they" does not mean all students. That said, those who support Bernie Sanders this year, just like those who supported Gene McCarthy in 1968 or Howard Dean in 2004 will go through many changes over the course of their lives. Often as not, however, it not just a straight line. If many liberal students become more conservative voters during the Reagan years, many free market advocates become more pro-regulation after the economic collapse that led to the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009. Growing up is not a single event -- it is a life-long process.

Thanks so much for your insights. I'm certainly interested to see how this important group of voters behaves between now and November.