Bernie Sanders has a turnout problem: Young people can lead a movement, but they rarely send candidates to victory

A great percentage of young people, despite their enthusiasm, never bother voting — and this is brutal for Bernie

Published February 23, 2016 10:58AM (EST)

 (Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich)
(Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich)

It's a risky proposition, relying on young people to vote. Eighteen-29-year-olds are a lot of things – savvy, innovative, industrious. What they don't do, however, is vote – not nearly enough, at least. The numbers are as revealing as they are depressing.

In 2012, the turnout rate among 18-24-year-olds was 41.2 percent. In 2008, when Obama was elected, young people turned out in record numbers, but still only 48.5 percent voted. By contrast, the turnout rates among adults ages 65 and older in 2012 and 2008 was 71.9 percent and 70.3 percent, respectively. And in the last midterm election (2014), youth voter turnout was a paltry 19.9 percent.

The numbers in previous presidential elections are equally dispiriting. With the exception of 2004 (when the number was 44 percent), the average turnout rate among 18-29-year-olds in the previous four presidential elections (from 1988 to 2000) was close to 35 percent. Given what's at stake, there's really no excuse for that. Young people, for all their enthusiasm, just don't give a damn – or they're too alienated from the process to bother voting.

This is a serious problem for Bernie Sanders.

Sanders' political movement has been propelled by millennials; a cursory glance at social media confirms that. The only major demographic that Bernie is consistently dominating is young people, including young women. In New Hampshire, for example, 83 percent of voters between 18 and 29 choose Sanders. Even more telling, Sanders won 78 percent of first-time voters. The numbers are similar in Iowa. According to entrance polls, Sanders won 84 percent of the youth vote in that state as well.

But this only matters if a sufficient number of young people make it to the polls – otherwise Sanders is winning a tiny and irrelevant demographic. He knows it, too. After his loss in Nevada, Sanders emphasized the lack of youth voter turnout:

“Over the last five weeks...we came from 25 points down. As I understand it, we actually won the Latino vote yesterday, which is a big breakthrough for us. But the voter turnout was not as high as I had wanted. And what I've said over and over again, we will do well when young people, when working-class people come out. We do not do well when the voter turnout is not large. We did not do as good a job as I had wanted to bring out a large turnout.”

As the Washington Post reported, only 80,000 people showed up to caucus in Nevada, compared to 117,600 in 2008. Sanders won 72 percent of voters under 45, but he lost African-Americans by 54 points and, even more problematic, he lost voters over 45 by a staggering 34 points. And this was in a crucial state with enormous implications moving forward.

That won't cut it for Sanders, who has said repeatedly that bringing new – and young – voters into the process is the only way he can win this nomination. So far they haven't showed up the way he needs them to, and there aren't many reasons to suppose that will change. Baby boomers - many of whom were once liberal but surrendered to the Reagan fantasy in the 80's -  have dropped the generational baton, bankrupting the country and plundering their children's futures. But they'll show up this year, as they have in previous elections, to vote for the status quo. Millennials are quickly running out of time to make a dent in 2016.

All of this is depressing, of course. Sanders is talking about issues that disproportionately matter to young people. College tuition, student debt, universal healthcare, climate change, campaign finance – no one has as much at stake as millennials. And they appear to be genuinely moved by Sanders' message. If they still vote at the rate they always have in this election, they're utterly useless as a voting bloc – and they'll deserve their fate.

And this isn't an anti-Hillary piece. By all means, young people should vote for the candidate they trust the most – whomever that is. So far it appears Sanders is that candidate. If young Americans showed up in record numbers and voted for Clinton, that would be no less encouraging. But all indications are that young people will do what they always have: make a lot of noise but fail to show up when it really counts.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

MORE FROM Sean Illing

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Election Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Hillary Clinton Millenial Vote