As Sanders refuses to bow out, Millennials urge him to keep fighting

While Bernie Sanders has been mathematically eliminated, the ability to appeal to Millennial attitudes is only going to grow more crucial in future elections, political scientists say.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders is hugged by a supporter after addressing the crowd following the closing of the polls in the California presidential primary in Santa Monica, Calif., June 7.

Garner Jarrett never used to care much about politics.

The massage therapist and actor, who is in his late 20s, had been an indifferent voter at best and never before voted in a presidential primary.

But the promise of change that Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders brought to the national stage – and the access to information about him that the Internet made possible – moved Mr. Jarrett enough to not only cast his vote at his neighborhood polling station in Koreatown on Tuesday. It also propelled him to reevaluate his view of the American political process, he says.

“This election changed the way I participate on a deeper scale,” he says. “I started seeing stuff about a candidate I cared about. It inspired the hope that things could get better.”

Jarrett’s remarks articulate in part the attitudes that are coming to define Millennial voter concerns and behavior. Those attitudes first emerged in the 2008 presidential election: a tendency to lean toward liberal values; a drive to champion social justice issues and call for change in established processes; and a reliance on the Internet and social media for information, communication, and political mobilization.

As the generation comes into its own – already Millennials match baby boomers in their share of the US electorate – those perspectives will more heavily inform the issues and processes that determine future elections, political analysts and generational experts say.

What has grown more pronounced since 2008 and 2012 – and which Senator Sanders’s campaign underscored – is a push away from even the perception of being part of “the establishment,” whether it’s Washington or Wall Street. Such a drive, if sustained, could have lasting influence on the way Millennial voters engage in elections and the kinds of issues toward which they steer conversation, says Jan Leighley, a professor who specializes in political behavior at American University in Washington.

“The likely consequences of Millennial support of a Bernie candidacy is that a) you may have mobilized a generation more than they would have otherwise, and b) you may just have pulled Hillary to the left,” she says.

Tuesday, Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to top a major party ticket by securing the number of delegates she needed to clinch the Democratic nomination – even before the last six states went to the polls, according to the Associated Press. Three of the states – New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota – have been called for her, while she holds a commanding lead in the night's biggest delegate prize, California.

“Tonight caps an amazing journey – a long, long journey,” Mrs. Clinton said in her victory speech. “Thanks to you, we’ve reached a milestone. The first time in our nation’s history that a woman will be a major party’s nominee.”

Sanders, who won in Montana and North Dakota, refused to bow out, vowing to fight on until Washington, D.C., goes to the polls June 14. While he has been mathematically eliminated, his success in galvanizing young people like Jarrett speaks to the value of a politician’s ability to verbalize Millennial concerns in a passionate way.

“[Sanders] struck a chord that this generation is receptive to,” says Michael Hais, a veteran market researcher and co-author of three books on Millennials. More and more, he notes, leaders will have to speak in a language and communicate using methods that this generation understands – as the senator has done.

“They’ve had these basic attitudes … and that’s going to persist,” Mr. Hais adds. “They are going to shape the policy of the future.”

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Garner Jarrett, shown at St. Barnabas Senior Center, a polling station in Koreatown in Los Angeles, voted in a presidential primary for the first time on June 7, 2016. Mr. Jarrett, a massage therapist and actor, says this election changed the way he views American politics.

'Change is good'

Despite their numbers, only 46 percent of Millennials, 18-to-34 year olds, are likely to vote. They make up just  17 percent of likely voters in California.

That’s not unusual, as voters tend to participate more in elections as they grow older. Baby boomers today have higher rates of voter turnout than Millennials, but boomers came out to vote at about the same rate as Millennials when they were the same age, according to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a nonpartisan research institute at Tufts University in Boston.

“The reality is youth are very small percentage of the vote,” says Professor Leighley. “That’s true even in [presidential] election years … [and] even under the most generous assumptions.”

Still, Millennials did show up at polling stations across Los Angeles on primary day – making it more likely that they will vote again.

“The biggest predictor of participating in a future election is if you participate in a previous one,” says Jeff Gulati, a political science professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.

And those Millennials who spoke with the Monitor echoed Jarrett, the Koreatown resident, when it came to their hopes for and expectations of a leader – and the reasons they came out to vote.

“This [election] makes me want to be more aware,” says Serenity Self, 26, as she walks out of Bellevue Recreation Center, which served as a polling station in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood. “Bernie bringing up delegates and superdelegates made me question the whole [electoral] process. I think finally people are seeing the light.”

“This is the most active I’ve ever been in a campaign,” says David Hemphill, 33, a children’s book publisher who spent primary day canvassing for Sanders in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. “He gave a voice to things that I have felt for a long time and haven’t really heard someone speak to.”

“I’m looking at our power structure in this country through a different lens than I was a year ago,” he adds.

Elementary school teacher Angelo Gonzales, 28, says he wavered between Mrs. Clinton and Sanders, but ultimately chose the latter because of his bold vision.

“I guess I wanted to make a statement,” he says. “Ten years ago I would’ve scoffed at Bernie Sanders. I would have said he wanted too much change. But change is good. It’s a powerful thing. We want someone to step up.”

Lasting effects

Some political analysts are wary of making definitive statements about the long-term impact of this election – and of Sanders’s campaign – on Millennial attitudes, and vice versa. Though the senator did manage to energize a large swath of the demographic, Professor Gulati says, not all Millennials are Sanders supporters, or Democrats for that matter.

They’re also young, and therefore still developing their views and political stances, says Professor Leighley at American University.

“You’re talking about individuals who don’t have firmly-held attitudes and don’t have much experience,” she says. “The issues that they’re raising are issues that every other age group are raising – economic security, jobs, some aspect of maybe the role of government in allowing or helping individuals to get ahead. That’s not much different from what elections usually are about.”

Another enduring effect of this election, analysts say, is the role of the Internet and social media – not just in terms of how candidates are reaching potential voters, as they did for Obama during his campaigns, but also how voters are informing themselves about the candidates and their issues.

They are, says Hais, the generation expert, “the best way of appealing to Millennials, more than anything.”

“There’s so much information out there,” video editor Andrea Otto, 27, says. “You can look into the money of campaigns, you can be better informed. You don’t have to take what mainstream media outlets are telling you.”

“I think this election is unique in that social media is coming to be huge,” adds Jarrett from Koreatown. “You can take a person nobody knows about, and through social media, he’s able to become an important candidate.”

Mr. Hemphill, the children’s book publisher, goes a step further.

“We’re the most educated, connected generation in the history of the world,” he says. “We have the Internet at our fingertips. We can look at things that any leader said five years ago, 10 years ago. We can track someone that easily.”

“People really discount what the Internet voice is. I think it’s very short sighted,” he adds. “I think that people are [now] awake and alive and I can only hope that it continues. We can’t go back.”

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