They grew up in the recession, watched their parents struggle and became anxious about their futures. They are graduating from college with huge debts and gnawing uncertainty about landing jobs and affording homes. They have little faith in government and other institutions they thought they could depend on.
They are the country’s gloom-and-doom generation of millennials — and they have found a gloom-and-doom candidate to love in the 2016 presidential election: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the democratic socialist who has attracted a stream of young people to his rallies in numbers unmatched by any other candidate from either party.
The campaign is aiming to match President Obama’s historic performance among this group of voters in 2008. Already, in polls in key nominating states, Sanders is outperforming Hillary Rodham Clinton, in some cases by lopsided margins, among young voters.
“We are definitely inspired by his example and what he achieved,” Sanders adviser Tad Devine said of Obama.
The trick is getting these young voters to actually vote. Obama mounted his 2008 campaign with an optimistic slogan — and largely before the economic collapse that defined his first term in office. Yet even then, in that year’s Iowa caucuses, young people accounted for less than one-fourth of the electorate that turned out for him.
The challenge is likely to be even greater for Sanders, whose message seems to tap into anxiety as much as hope. Nonetheless, drawing out these young voters with a vision of a more just country has become a central thrust of Sanders’s strategy to win the Democratic nomination.
Tara Reprogle is living proof of the opportunity. A college student in Indiana when Obama was elected in 2008, Reprogle, now 27 and the owner of a small online marketing firm in Columbus, Ohio, vividly remembers feeling that “it was like the beginning of a new era, that something big was happening.”
She also remembers the disillusionment that came with tougher times — and not enough evidence from the nation’s leaders that they were doing much to help. She was recently engaged to an Air Force veteran, and the couple collectively hold close to $100,000 in student loan debt, she said.
“I can’t foresee a future where we’re going to buy a house,” Reprogle said. “It’ll be 10 to 15 years, and by that time, we’ll be too old to have children. I don’t know how people afford to have children these days. We’re exactly the kind of people who should be looking at a middle-class lifestyle.”
That sense of hopelessness prompted Reprogle to largely tune out of politics after 2008; she reluctantly checked out Sanders on YouTube this year at the urging of her fiance.
“I was like, fine, fine, fine. I will go find out who this Bernie Sanders person is,” she said.
She fell hard. Sanders inspired Reprogle with policy prescriptions that spoke to her — measures to raise the minimum wage and provide workers with guaranteed family leave. Now she is devoting much of her free time to helping organize Sanders’s campaign in Ohio.
Reprogle’s point of view was echoed in interviews at more than a dozen recent events across the country, where young voters are being drawn to what they describe as Sanders’s idealism and authenticity — and his unvarnished take on their everyday realities.
“You know, it’s great to have someone from another generation seeing what we’re seeing,” said Cecilia Cherubini, a college student who came to check out Sanders at a recent rally in Greensboro, N.C., and walked away sold. “I wound up losing my voice for the next day because I was cheering at so many things he said.”
In Iowa, the nation’s first caucus state, Sanders — who at 74 is the oldest candidate in the race — has connected with voters such as Paige McKibben, a high school senior in Des Moines worried about whether she’ll be able to afford college.
The financial situation of her divorced parents looks better on paper than in reality, McKibben said, so it’s unclear what kind of aid she might get. Already, she’s watched her older sister leave the University of Minnesota after a year and enroll in a community college instead.
“It was purely because of financial reasons,” said McKibben, 18. “She’s an excellent student, but she . . . could barely afford to do her laundry.”
McKibben said she isn’t naive about what Sanders could accomplish as president. But she likes his passion, and his plan to offer free tuition at public colleges and universities gives her hope.
McKibben started doing volunteer work for Sanders more than a month ago and recently persuaded several friends to come with her to a Sanders event in Des Moines.
If Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, McKibben said it’s unclear whether she’ll support her in the general election. “I feel like nothing is going to change if Hillary gets into office,” she said.
Public polling helps explain why Sanders’s message is resonating. The latest in a series of polls of young voters conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics shows the economy topping a list of issues they are most concerned about — as well as a list of issues they think will most concern their children.
Among those currently in college, 73 percent said they think it will be very difficult or somewhat difficult for students in their class to find permanent jobs after graduation.
Only 25 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 expressed trust in the federal government. The figures were even lower for Wall Street (14 percent) and the media (12 percent). And the group was about evenly divided on whether the U.S. justice system could judge people fairly without bias for race and ethnicity.
The poll also made clear that Sanders is trying to engage a generation generally wary of politicians. Six in 10 said they think elected officials are motivated by selfish reasons, and fewer than 3 in 10 said they felt like they have a say in what the government does.
Even with Obama’s unprecedented success energizing the youth vote, those younger than 30 accounted for only 22 percent of Iowa caucus-goers in 2008 — and 14 percent of those participating in all Democratic nominating contests.
And this year, “the whole frame is different,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Institute of Politics. “These kids have grown up in the recession, not after 9/11.”
Sanders stressed in an interview that turning out young voters is only part of his focus.
“Traditionally, younger people aren’t a great group to bank on,” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “They tend to be the flakiest of voters.”
Still, Smith said, the enthusiasm of young voters can help a campaign, in part because “they work for beer and pizza” and they provide “good optics” for candidates arguing they are about the future.
Sanders’s team has launched several efforts to keep younger Americans engaged from now until it’s time to vote. The campaign has built a large community to discuss the election on Reddit, a social-media site whose users skew heavily toward the young. As of this week, the Sanders for President page had 128,000 readers, compared with 952 for the largest Clinton page on the site.
The campaign is also building an app that will provide carpool opportunities for supporters for campaign events and on Election Day. College students are among those most often without cars who could benefit from the technology.
Sanders’s campaign, which has proved far more sophisticated than his rivals anticipated, is also going to great lengths to harness the energy of those who attend his rallies. A recent rally in Boston, for example, drew more than 20,000 people, including thousands of millennials.
“We’ve got to exploit that and make sure these kids have something to plug into,” said Devine, the strategist who is advising Sanders.
Those who attend such rallies can expect to receive a steady flow of follow-up e-mails from the campaign, notifying them of volunteer opportunities. (Sanders’s campaign says it has already enlisted more than 36,000 college students as volunteers.)
Those still in school will be asked to join a college-students-for-Sanders group (there are more than 200 nationwide). And they’ll be invited to take part in a webcast Wednesday in which Sanders plans to address tens of thousands of students simultaneously at campuses across the country.
Hannah Cammoun, a student at the University of Iowa, traveled nearly three hours to attend a recent Sanders appearance in Mason City.
“Everything he’s ever mentioned, I agree with,” said Cammoun, 21, who was wearing a “Feel the Bern” T-shirt. “I was a Hillary fan. She was kind of the go-to candidate this election. But when Bernie started rising, it brought about a bout of passion.”
Cammoun acknowledged that it can be a challenge getting students who are tuned out of politics to start paying attention to the senator from Vermont.
“Even though he’s grown in popularity, there are still people who are ignorant of who he is,” she said.