In Iowa, Bernie’s Youth Movement Showed Up While Generation X Flaked Out

Rebel Codi, a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, tries to draw supporters over to the Sanders area of the Maple Grove Methodist Church in West Des Moines, Iowa, February 3, 2020. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

The final results are still unclear, but it seems certain that Sanders won the most caucus votes. He has young voters to thank for his victory.

Even as the Iowa caucus results are marred by reports of inaccuracies and it remains uncertain whether Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg won more “state delegate equivalents,” one thing that is clear is that Sanders won the most votes. The Vermont socialist beat the former mayor of South Bend, Ind. 24.8 percent to 21.3 percent in the first round of voting and 26.6 percent to 25.0 percent in the final round of voting (after caucus-goers for candidates who didn’t meet the “viability” threshold of 15 percent switched their support to candidates who did).

How did Sanders pull off the victory?

The weekend before Iowans caucused, Sanders predicted that he would only win with a historically high number of Iowans showing up on Monday night. “I believe if there is a low voter turnout, we will lose this election. If there is a high voter turnout, we are going to win this election,” Sanders told Iowans gathered in Des Moines the Friday before the caucus. “Our job is to create the highest voter turnout in the history of the Iowa caucuses.”

As it turns out, no such record turnout came to pass. The turnout was barely above 2016 levels and far short of the huge levels seen in 2008:

2004: 125,000

2008: 239,000

2016: 171,500

2020: 172,500

Yet Bernie won anyway. As I noted in this space two weeks before the caucuses, it was an open question how many young voters would show up: “In 2016, under-30 voters accounted for just 18 percent of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers. In 2008, under-30 voters made up 23 percent of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers. If 2020 turnout is closer to 2008 than 2016, that could swing the election to Sanders.” Despite the modest overall turnout, that’s exactly what happened. According to Iowa entrance polls, voters under 30 comprised 24 percent of the caucus-going electorate — up six points from 2016 and one point better than 2008, when young voters carried Barack Obama to victory. Those voters preferred Sanders to Buttigieg by nearly 30 points, 48 percent to 19 percent, as did voters age 30–44 by ten points, 33 percent to 23 percent.

If more young people showed up in 2020 than 2016, but the overall number of voters remained the same, who didn’t show up this time around? The share of voters over the age of 65 remained about the same: It was 28 percent in 2016, and 27 percent in 2020. Joe Biden ran first among this group, besting Amy Klobuchar 33 percent to 22 percent, but that wasn’t enough to overcome his weak overall performance. The group that shrank as a share of the electorate was voters between the ages of 45 and 64, who comprised 36 percent of Democratic caucus-goers in 2016 but only 28 percent in 2020.

Oddly enough, those voters were the only age group that Buttigieg carried: They preferred him to Biden by eight points, 26 percent to 18 percent. Whereas Sanders is strong among young voters and weak among old voters and Biden has the opposite problem, Buttigieg’s coalition was much more evenly distributed among voters of all ages in Iowa:

17–29 year-olds: 19 percent

30–44: 23 percent

45–64: 26 percent

65 and older: 21 percent

One of the puzzling questions from this week’s caucuses is why the share of voters between the ages of 45 and 64 shrunk. This cohort, born between 1956 to 1975, is obviously not the same as it was in 2016, but there is plenty of overlap. So what explains its lack of enthusiasm?

Have Gen-Xers and younger Boomers in Iowa simply become less Democratic? Did the cohort closest to retirement get spooked by Sanders’s relentless charges that Biden would cut Social Security and stay home? Were Gen-Xers so sad about the absence of the “quintessentially Generation X” Beto O’Rourke on the ballot that they sat out the caucuses in protest?

Perhaps the next few contests will give us a better idea of the answer. Onward to New Hampshire.

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