Roundtable: Which Democratic presidential candidates will most appeal to young voters?

Hustler Opinion staff talks about young people’s concerns about policy, electability and identity politics


Bernie Sanders (pictured here in 2016) launched his second campaign on February 19, 2019.

Opinion Staff

Content warning: sexual harassment

The transcript below has been edited for clarity and flow.

Voters won’t hit the polls to select the Democratic nominee for 2020 for about a year, but most of the major candidates have already jumped in. Young voters are a key constituency in the Democratic base and will be instrumental in deciding the eventual nominee. As such, some of the Opinion staff (Opinion Editor Max Schulman and staff writers Miquéla Thornton, Zeke Berger and Oliver Cendella), which is composed of young voters, sat down to discuss which candidates will have the best appeal to our group and the 2020 primary in general

Max Schulman: We’ve already had 10-some-odd major Democratic candidates declare for the 2020 race looking to take on Trump. He is very unpopular among the young cohort of Americans – of which we are a part. So, going in, who do y’all think is going to have the best sway among people between the ages of 18 and 31/32. My first take, elephant in the room: Bernie Sanders.

Zeke Berger: Just based on name recognition, I think Bernie Sanders is clearly the number one candidate. If you look at the 10 candidates who’ve already declared, you might hear people say things like, “Kamala Harris or Cory Booker have the same kind of name recognition” and I just don’t think that they do. If you’re plugged into politics you could definitely look at them [Harris or Booker] that way, but I think Bernie Sanders has by far the biggest name recognition. In a loaded Democratic primary, that’s kind of a lot of sway.

Max: Yeah, he’s got a high floor.

Miquéla Thornton: I agree with the Bernie Sanders sentiment specifically because of his stances on issues that I think are really specific to college students – like Medicare-for-All and free [public] college tuition. So I think college students will vote for him for obvious reasons.

Oliver Cendella: Bernie has a clear path to the hearts and minds of college voters, but at this point in the game I can’t say that I clearly favor Bernie. But I’ll qualify that. He does have his virtues.

For me, determining who’s going to win young voters is about electability: who’s going to win. Additionally, it’s about who can convey a message that resonates with my – I say this as a college student – values. I think Bernie is clearly the frontrunner in both of these respects. And while his past experience can shape the dialogue of this race, I don’t think that means this election cycle is going to be as Bernie-centric as it was in 2016.

Max: While I am on the Bernie Boat for this one, I do think that there is something to be said for some of the other candidates. Young Democrats care a lot about the #MeToo movement (and women’s issues in general) and racial justice. Bernie A) didn’t do well with minority voters when he ran in 2016 and B) identity-wise, he is an old white man from a rural, white state. Yes, this puts policy aside, and Bernie’s very liberal, which matches up with young people’s liberal tendencies relative to the rest of country. But I think Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, even potentially Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand, have a shot just because I believe young people’s social values lead them to want a woman, a person of color in the White House. I think that’s 100 percent something that young people will take into account.

Zeke: I think that’s super overstated. I actually think, although I’d love for a woman or a person of color to be president, identity is not as big of a deal as people think. I think that oftentimes – and I’m speaking as a white man, which I acknowledge – we don’t take into account that if someone likes a policy they’re going to vote for someone who supports that policy best. I don’t think that we should say, “This person’s a minority, they’re clearly going to get the support of this minority base.” Or, “This person’s a woman, they’re clearly going to get the support of women.” So I don’t think you can automatically say, “Bernie’s a white man, he doesn’t have the identity to connect with women, with people of color.” But I do see your point.

Miquéla: I think it’s also important to acknowledge that this is the the most diverse pool of candidates we’ve ever seen. There are five Congresswomen running. There are two Black candidates, a Hispanic candidate and a Hindu candidate. So that counts for something.

Oliver: It is a diverse field. But that doesn’t make diversity matter more. I think it actually makes it matter less. In a field where there are so many different voices, you’re going to gain prominence in this field by making yourself relatable to the voters, not by magnifying your identity.

At the end of the day, I think it comes down to taking a step back from the mindset of the young college voter. There are several polls showing that Democrats care most about who’s going to win the general election against Trump. They’re so dissatisfied with this president right now – has an approval rating that’s consistently underwater – their chief concern is getting somebody who can win. That means that the color of someone’s skin is not as important as their ability to forge a dialogue and reach out to voters beyond the Democratic base.

Max: Absolutely. I think that point could be used to buttress the idea that young voters might mobilize around Biden (who hasn’t officially declared). First, young voters loved Obama: they voted for him in droves in 2008 and Biden was his VP. Second, primary voters tend to be more educated and more interested in politics than other people. Therefore, they’re more likely than other people to recognize that most head-to-head matchups of Biden vs. Trump have Biden walloping Trump. Biden in a general beats Trump. He can appeal to the Midwestern swing voters that Trump needed to win in 2016. So considering how dissatisfied young people are with Trump, Biden could potentially be their candidate if they just want someone who can win.

Zeke: I have two points to make. One is that, yes, I think Biden does poll well against Trump, but I think that you’re totally ignoring the fact that Bernie polls well against Trump, too.

Second thing, more of a question for y’all: when I was growing up, Biden was seen as kind of a dope. He had all the gaffes on television and I don’t know where it changed – I still think he’s kind of dumb. He does some kind of weird things: you’ve seen videos of him touching women a little bit inappropriately – whether that’s valid or not – I just don’t know where the inflection point came where we stopped thinking that he was kind of dumb.

Oliver: To quickly answer that, we’re at a time in our country where we feel that continuity has been disrupted. The normal sense of governance and the respect for the institutions of our democracy have changed. We can argue about how they’ve changed, but there’s no denying that something has changed. And Biden represents the adult in the room, the man who has served in Congress the longest out of potential candidates. But I get what you’re saying. It’s funny how he came from cursing when they were announcing the Affordable Care Act –

Max: “This is a big f**kin deal

Oliver: Now, he’s the respected senior in the room. I think he also represents this Midwestern vibe, this old Midwestern sort of statesman that is able to go above some of the pettiness of partisan politics. And I think new liberal voices like Kamala Harris – and to an extent Bernie – represent some of that partisanship. That’s why I think Biden and also Klobuchar both are actually a pretty good meter for where the Democratic party could be headed in the primary.

Max: Absolutely. With reference to the “not demonizing republicans” kind of vibe, if you recall in 2008, Obama didn’t run as the unabashed liberal that people make him out to be. He ran on a message of a New Politics – trying to say that Republicans and Democrats have more in common than we think we do, that we can work together. In terms of bipartisanship, Biden has the best chops and is the most similar to Obama in that extent. In 2018, he campaigned for a Republican candidate in a swing district in Michigan. He got a lot of flak for that. But for young people who are dissatisfied with the polarization in political system, Biden can come across as someone who can make us say, “Alright, this is someone who can work with republicans, he can fix things.”

Zeke: I don’t really think that’s going to happen at all. I think the general vibe from the Democratic Party is “whoever we send out there is gonna beat trump, so let’s vote for whoever we think is the best candidate.” I don’t see people going out and being really excited to vote for Biden. The only way that I can see Biden winning is if the Democratic Party establishment really pulls their weight and puts their money behind him and get people out there to vote for him. I don’t see many of my friends saying “Oh boy, I get to vote for Biden today!”

So, anyway, who are you guys voting for?

Max: If the primary were today?

Zeke: Yeah.

Max: If it were today I’d probably flip a coin between to decide between Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders and hope that the coin went for Bernie Sanders.

Miquéla: That’s kinda the same story for me, too. With Kamala Harris I agree with most of her policies, but it’s weird for me because I don’t like her as a person. But with Bernie Sanders I agree with his policies and like him as a person as well. And some people really do vote for someone because they like him/her as a person. Who someone is as a person – not just their policies – matters a lot if they’re going to lead a whole country.

Max: Yeah I think that’s something that’s getting left out. Obama didn’t run on policy that much in ‘08, people were like, “Oh he’s cool, he’s young, he smoked weed in college, that’s sick –”

Zeke: Hey! So did Kamala Harris! She smoked weed in college!

Max: Yeah, with Tupac, too!

Yeah, so I think Bernie has the “vibes” on his side because he “says what he means” while Kamala Harris, can come off as a Hillary Clinton type – fake and inauthentic. It makes you think, “Does she really believe in what she’s saying? Or is she opportunistic?”

Oliver: I totally feel that. The whole Hillary vibe – Hillary failed because she had that whole history with her, she had Bill, she had all that.

In a way, Klobuchar could get around that. I’m not saying that I’d vote for Klobuchar today – no one really knows about her. She’s got an upside: she’s the most productive Senator in the Senate and she has the experience, the backbone and the drive of the best candidate. Additionally, she has the willingness to reach out. She’s not going to box herself in by committing to policies that aren’t popular among middle-of-the-road voters. And by doing that, she’s being strategic by not cutting herself off from either liberals or moderates. But she will likely go on to represent very liberal policies in the White House if she wins.

Max: Alright, to conclude, let’s put that all aside. If the election were right now, who do you think is going to win a plurality of the people between the ages of 18 and 32. I’d still say Bernie Sanders.

Miquéla: I completely agree with that. Every time I see Bernie Sanders – I’m on Twitter a lot – I see a lot of pictures of him in his 20s at rallies. He was at civil rights protests. I see pictures of him getting pulled back by police at protests. I think those pictures alone appeal especially to young voters.

Oliver: Biden. He can reach out to a broad coalition of voters. And he’s experienced.

Zeke: Bernie. Because he’s old.