The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Power Up: Young voters are turning out in lower numbers than Bernie Sanders expected

with Brent D. Griffiths

Good morning and welcome back. Tips, comments, hand sanitizer? Reach out and sign up. Thanks for waking up with us. 

The Campaign

NOT FEELING THE BERN? Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) conceded yesterday that young people haven't turned out in the numbers he needs to win the Democratic nomination. It was a stark departure from his campaign's bullish bet just weeks earlier, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, that it could “expand turnout in a way that few other Democratic candidates can do.” And the problem could have strategic implications for Sanders going forward. 

  • “Have we been as successful as I would hope in bringing young people in?” Sanders remarked at a news conference in Burlington, Vt., after his disappointing Super Tuesday performance. “And the answer is no, we’re making some progress.” 
  • “It is not easy,” he added about mobilizing young voters.
  • He later told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow appeals to young voters would resonate more strongly in the general election. “To his credit, and I wish we could do better, [Joe Biden] is doing very, very well with people 65 or older. We're not. We're doing phenomenally well with people 30 or under. Now, which group of people is there more potential to grow the base, to bring people in?”

But the exit polling from this year's contests so far shows a more challenging picture for Sanders.  Youth turnout compared to 2016 is either flat or down in a majority of states that have voted, according to the Harvard Institute of Politics, meaning young voters both form a smaller share of the overall Democratic primary vote and turned out in smaller net numbers. Sanders could end up seeing better data for him from the final results in Colorado and California, however.

The lack of enthusiasm among younger voters was especially pronounced with turnout up 33 percent from 2016 among every group across Super Tuesday states. 

  • “For example, in North Carolina, overall turnout was up 17 percent youth turnout was down 9 percent,” John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Institute of politics told Power Up. “There's not evidence to suggest that Sanders has expanded the electorate among young people in important ways.” 

Time to panic?: The picture isn't entirely clear, however. Groups tracking young voters are debating whether Tuesday night was really a downturn, depending on the benchmark with which it's compared.

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University told Power Up that youth turnout overall in 2020 is mostly higher compared to 2012 turnout the most recent election cycle in which there was only a single competitive primary. 

  • “How to register to vote and having that basic information is all increased when there are two parties having a competitive primary,” Abby Kiesa, CIRCLE's Director of Impact, told us. 
  • Heather Greven, a spokesperson for NextGen America, Tom Steyer's group aimed at mobilizing youth, told Power Up there's “no need to sound the alarm on youth turnout just yet. She argued in some states where youth turnout was down compared to 2016, youth-dense precincts actually saw an increase.
  • Della Volpe disagreed:I think that we do a disservice to young voters if we spin and we make excuses for these numbers and for their lack of engagement in this primary. 
  • David Sirota, a Sanders adviser, said on CNN last night that turning out young people is going to be a challenge for the entire Democratic Party: “The success of that is not going to happen overnight.” 

It's true that Sanders is doing very well with young people — especially in comparison to Biden. But we don't yet know exactly why they haven't turned out in the droves Sanders predicted to form the new coalition he boasts will help him surf into the White House.

Hazy campaign rallies-turned-indie rock band concerts featuring appearances by progressive icons like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are simply not enough, experts who track youth vote participation argue about voter contact efforts with 18 to 29 year-olds. 

Pollsters and experts in young voter behavior said a variety of things could be responsible for how young voters are behaving so far this cycle: from a misconception they're as progressive as people think they are; to the idea that Barack Obama's win with them in 2008 can be replicated.

  • “It's not entirely clear why there should be an expectation that the turnout of young voters for Sanders would be much greater than the last time he ran in 2016 — he's essentially running the same campaign as he did before,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “The gold standard for candidates for mobilizing and exciting young voters is Barack Obama in 2008 and there aren't a lot of Barack Obamas and not a lot of moments like that one.”
  • “There are myths that have to be broken all the time about voter universes,” John Anzalone, Biden's campaign pollster, told Power Up. “The primary cycle started out with a narrative that Democratic primary voters were disproportionately liberal and they aren’t. They are actually a little more moderate/conservative than liberal. But that is what the media was reporting. ”
  • “In states where you don't belong to a political party or you've never voted in a primary before, then you need a whole lot of information to turn someone out,” said Kiesa. “That's a lot of field work so you really need to start pretty early in doing that. I'm sure the Sanders campaign was thinking about all of those things. But it's a big lift that requires a lot of time to make happen.”
  • “Work has to be done, frankly, by both candidates with young voters to beat [President] Trump in November,” Sarah Audelo, executive director of Alliance for Youth Action and Hillary Clinton's millennial vote director in 2016, told Power Up, pointing to gaps in youth contact programs.
  • For example: Only one in three Texans under age 40 (34 percent) have been contacted by campaigns or parties in the last six months, which by contrast is much lower than was reported in Iowa,” according to a Texas youth poll released in February CIRCLE. “It’s even worse for Latinos under 40, 75 percent of whom have not been contacted in the past six months.” 

Radical: Della Volpe said data doesn't necessarily support the idea that all young voters want the kind of sweeping policy changes candidates like Sanders are calling for.

  • Problematic for Sanders?: “When looking at young Democratic primary voters, bold structural change is preferred, but not by as much as you might think, Della Volpe told us at the time after an IOP study released in November.
  • Voter suppression: Audelo also speculated that long voting lines may have depressed youth voter turnout on Tuesday. 
  • “Lines on polling places on college campuses in real-time is unacceptable,” Audelo told us. “Nobody should have to wait in line for hours to vote it's incredibly discouraging and demoralizing to see a broken democracy.” 

Most agreed, however, that youth turnout in the Democratic primary is not necessarily predictive of turnout in the general election. But the results are a warning for whoever becomes the Democratic nominee — especially for Biden, who has not seen much youth excitement thus far. 

  • “I was the millennial vote director for Hillary in the general and one of the biggest lessons each campaign should take from that campaign is that the Clinton people didn't invest in young people in the primary, Audelo told us. “There are consequences of campaigns having to build a youth vote apparatus from scratch in the general.” 
  • Anzalone expressed confidence Biden can make the inroads necessary to bring out young people against Trump: “I think given what is at stake is huge — beating Trump — we will see young voters and black and Latino voters come out in 2020,” he said. “I don’t think it will be easy but it never is with those groups of voters. I think beating Trump will be a combination of better turnout among tough groups (and non-voters who fell off from 2012 to 2016) and persuading a small universe of ‘up for grabs’ voters.”

Note to readers: We eliminated a graphic we originally used to compare youth turnout in 2016 to 2020. The exit polls now use a different method to weight samples by age and education, and so the numbers may not be comparable.

The People

WARREN ALLIES IN TALKS WITH SANDERS, BIDEN: “Top surrogates and allies of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and [Sanders] are discussing ways for their two camps to unite and push a common liberal agenda, with the expectation that Warren is likely to leave the presidential campaign soon, according to two people familiar with the talks,” our colleagues Annie Linskey and Sean Sullivan report.

The talks largely involved pro-Sanders lawmakers reaching out to Warren's team: The conversations involve a potential endorsement of Sanders, our colleagues report. Sanders told Maddow he spoke to Warren himself in a “very cordial” phone call. He reiterated that Warren has more than earned the time to consider what comes next, but added “essentially she has run her campaign the way we have” and they agree “on major issue after major issue” even if there are some “nuances and differences.”

  • Biden's team is also talking about a possible endorsement: “Warren associates and [the Biden camp] also had talks about a potential endorsement if she drops out, according to two people familiar with the conversations,” our colleagues write.

BLOOMBERG DROPS OUT, ENDORSES BIDEN: Billionaire Mike Bloomberg will put his resources “in the broadest way possible behind [Biden’s] candidacy,” Tim O’Brien, a senior adviser to the Bloomberg campaign, told our colleagues Amy B Wang and Michael Scherer. “We have long-term leases and long-term contracts with the team and the intention was always to put this big machine we have built behind whoever the nominee is.”

The former New York mayor spent more than $100 per vote in most states: That's based on Bloomberg's more than $200 million invested in advertising in the 14 Super Tuesday states and analysis of Advertising Analytics data, our colleagues Kevin Schaul and Alyssa Fowers report.

  • Here's how Bloomberg performed across those states:


THE HEALTH CARE SYSTEM ISN'T READY: “The growing coronavirus outbreak in the United States is revealing serious gaps in the health system’s ability to respond to a major epidemic, forcing hospitals and doctors to improvise emergency plans daily, even as they remain uncertain how bad the crisis will get,” our colleagues Christopher Rowland and Peter Whoriskey report.

Here are just some of the gaps, our colleagues reported. One of the most startlingly, and arguably preventable, is the lack of protective equipment such as masks for health-care workers due to panic buying and hoarding. 

  • Nursing homes: There are more than 15,000 nursing homes nationwide that house more than one million residents, many of whom are frail. (Seven of the 11 deaths in the U.S. have been linked to a nursing home in Kirkland, Wash.).
  • Smaller and rural hospitals: Not only do they not have access to test kits, but such hospitals are hours away from central labs needed to test samples and are unlikely to have intensive care units, which are necessary to keep the sickest patients alive.
  • A lack of space: “Nationwide, worries are growing about a lack of hospital beds to quarantine and treat infected patients. Major medical centers are typically full even without a flood of coronavirus patients,” our colleagues write.

California declares state of emergency: Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced the state is holding a cruise ship off the coast of San Francisco because it has two links to suspected coronavirus cases — one of which was fatal. He also declared a state of emergency to help mobilize resources as his state now has the most cases in the U.S. at 54, the New York Times reports.  

On The Hill

House passes over $8 billion in funding: House lawmakers passed an $8.3 billion emergency package to fight the outbreak by a 415 to 2 vote, our colleagues Erica Werner and Mike DeBonis report. The Senate may pass the bill as soon as today and Trump is expected to sign it into law.

  • The deal includes over $3 billion for research, $1 billion for health-care supplies and efforts to boost preparedness and $1 billion to subsidize small business loans to help companies affected, our colleagues write. The legislation dwarfs the White House's initial $2.5 billion proposal panned by lawmakers from both parties.
  • Mask off: During the vote, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) wore a gas mask on the House floor. Some of his Democratic colleagues mocked his fashion choice. (Gaetz ultimately voted for the funding measure).

At The White House

TRUMP SENDS MIX MESSAGES. AGAIN: The president doubted the World Health Organization's finding that the covid-19, the disease that results from the coronavirus, has a 3.4 percent mortality rate on a “hunch” during an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity. The WHO recently increased the estimated global mortality rate from 2 percent, but Trump mused that it was “way under 1 percent.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told conservative justices on March 4 that they would release a “whirlwind” if they voted to restrict abortion access. (Video: Reuters)

From the Courts

ROBERTS REBUKES SCHUMER: “Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. issued a rare rebuke of a sitting member of Congress, chastising the Senate’s top Democrat, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, for saying at a rally outside the Supreme Court that [Trump’s] two nominees to the court would ‘pay the price’ for a vote against abortion rights,” our colleagues Robert Barnes and Colby Itkowitz report.

  • The chief justice's statement: “Justices know that criticism comes with the territory, but threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous. All members of the court will continue to do their job, without fear or favor, from whatever quarter,” Roberts said, addressing Schumer's comments that called out Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh by name. (Video of Schumer's comments.)

Republicans demanded an apology: But Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said on Twitter Schumer is incapable of expressing such remorse. So instead, Hawley vowed to introduce a motion to censure the minority leader for his comments. For his part, Trump suggested if a Republican made comments similar to Schumer's that they would “be arrested or impeached. (Senators can't be impeached.)

  • So far, Schumer isn't backing down: A spokesman for the minority leader suggested Roberts was unfair in deciding when to speak out.

Background to the flap: The Supreme Court was hearing its first major abortion-related case since Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh were confirmed, our colleagues Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow report of oral arguments regarding a Louisiana law that requires admitting privileges at nearby hospitals for abortion-clinic doctors.

Why this could be a big deal: The court's four liberal justices appear to be convinced the Louisiana law is identical to a Texas law the court struck down four years ago. But a decision upholding the law could “be momentous if it signaled that the court was ready to revisit past decisions,” our colleagues write. A ruling is also expected to come before the end of June a.k.a. in the heat of the presidential campaign.

  • Roberts appears to be the swing vote in the case: But the chief justice's questions left him inscrutable, our colleagues report.