Young progressives flock to Sanders – but their grandparents prefer Mayor Pete

Monica Almeida/Reuters
Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters during a campaign rally at Venice Beach in Los Angeles Dec. 21, 2019.

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The 2020 Democratic field of presidential candidates has made history for its number of women and candidates of color. It also stands out for its age diversity. If elected, Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, would be the youngest president ever on Inauguration Day. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders would be the oldest.

And just as Mr. Buttigieg and Senator Sanders are decades apart, so are many of their supporters – only in reverse.

Why We Wrote This

The Democratic field features candidates who would be the oldest and youngest presidents ever. Many of their supporters seem to value qualities in candidates that complement, rather than mirror, their own.

The bold policies and uncompromising style of Mr. Sanders, a democratic socialist, have captivated many young people, with one recent Iowa poll showing him in the lead among likely caucusgoers between the ages of 18 and 29. Meanwhile, Mr. Buttigieg’s more centrist approach and his calm, thoughtful demeanor have drawn the support of many baby boomers – with those over the age of 65 in the same poll favoring him.

“You might think people my age would automatically choose someone our age, but I feel like we are ready for a new generation to lead,” says Kathy McCue of Iowa City. “His age is not a problem for me – it’s an asset. There is this idea for fresh, new hope coming from him.” 

Kathy McCue has been asking undecided voters a question: What kind of world do they want for their grandchildren?

Most of the time, the response has less to do with policies than values – such as responsibility, truth, and respect. And that’s her segue to talk about Pete Buttigieg, her favorite 2020 candidate and the person she thinks would usher in the best future. Even though he’s the same age as her children. 

The 2020 Democratic field of presidential candidates has made history for its number of women and candidates of color. It also stands out for its age diversity. If elected, Mr. Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, would be the youngest president ever on Inauguration Day. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren would all be the oldest.

Why We Wrote This

The Democratic field features candidates who would be the oldest and youngest presidents ever. Many of their supporters seem to value qualities in candidates that complement, rather than mirror, their own.

And just as Mr. Buttigieg and Senator Sanders are decades apart, so are many of their supporters.

Mr. Sanders’ 2016 primary campaign famously saw the rise of “Bernie Bros,” the passionate young supporters who #FeeltheBern and are once again fueling the almost-octogenarian’s candidacy. Meanwhile, grandparents such as Ms. McCue are flocking to Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign. 

Much of it has to do with ideology. The bold policies and uncompromising style of Mr. Sanders, a democratic socialist, are in line with the views of many young people today, who lean further left than their elders. Mr. Buttigieg, by contrast, has tried to define himself as a more centrist figure, and projects a calm thoughtfulness on the stump that older voters say they appreciate.

At the same time, many specifically point to qualities in candidates that complement – rather than mirror – their own. Young voters praise Mr. Sanders’ life experience and time-tested commitment to ideals, and are less concerned about his health and stamina, despite his heart attack this fall. Older voters wax enthusiastic about Mr. Buttigieg’s youthful vigor and dazzling intellect and aren’t as worried about his relatively short résumé. 

“You might think people my age would automatically choose someone our age, but I feel like we are ready for a new generation to lead,” says Ms. McCue. “His age is not a problem for me – it’s an asset. There is this idea for fresh, new hope coming from him.” 

“We need a uniter”

Many Buttigieg supporters – like Linda and Bob Ofner, both retirees – point out that his youth means he has skin in the game. Compared to the “old men” in Washington, Mr. Buttigieg will actually be alive long enough to feel the long-term effects of his policies, says Ms. Ofner from her kitchen table in Bettendorf, Iowa, as the couple’s two dachshunds bark to be held.

Most important, she adds, Mr. Buttigieg understands that the country needs to stop fighting and come together. “More than anything we need a uniter,” says Ms. Ofner. “I think a lot of boomers feel that way.” 

Nestled between Christmas pillows in her living room in Iowa City, Ms. McCue expresses disappointment that she would have to miss an event with Mr. Buttigieg because it coincided with her oldest granddaughter’s fourth birthday, and “Nana” had promised to be there.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
At their home in Bettendorf, Iowa, Bill and Linda Ofner, both retirees, chat about the youngest Democratic presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg. When asked if Mr. Buttigieg's age is a liability for his candidacy, they both quickly reply, "Not at all." "His policies will affect him long after the other candidates have retired," says Ms. Ofner.

She, too, highlights his ability to bring people together, suggesting it comes from a willingness to admit when he is wrong. That kind of humility and open-minded approach to problem-solving is “refreshing” in a politician, she says, and reminds her of her years as a teacher, when she encouraged her students to act in a similar way.  

“He’s how you hope all young men will grow up to be: truthful, trustworthy, responsible, no put-downs,” says Ms. Ofner. “At one of his first events people were saying, like, ‘Oh, I wish he were older, I wish this, I wish that’ – but then by the time he was done talking, everyone was cheering and crying.”

A Civiqs and Iowa State University poll last month of likely Democratic caucus attendees found that 25% over the age of 65 say they will back the young mayor – more than any other Democratic candidate – while Mr. Buttigieg’s lowest levels of support are among those between the ages of 18 and 29.

The opposite is true for Mr. Sanders. The poll found that 35% of young Iowa Democrats say they’ll support the Vermont senator – more than any other candidate – while just 9% of the oldest cohort favor him.

For most of these voters, the candidates’ main selling points are their policies, says Stella Rouse, an associate professor of politics at the University of Maryland. “This whole idea of, ‘We want someone from our generation to represent us,’ is overblown and over-simplistic,” she says. “Millennials see [Sanders’] energy and his politics, and they are drawn to that. There is a huge cross-generational appeal.”

Millennials and the appeal of socialism

Mr. Buttigieg casts himself as a centrist, which baby boomers like Ms. McCue and the Ofners see as a good thing. They miss the “old days” when compromise was still possible in Washington. They also oppose “free everything,” which they believe other Democratic candidates are promising. The candidate who comes in second place with this age group, Mr. Biden, holds similar positions on these issues and is selling himself as able to win over moderates and anti-Trump Republicans, as well as those who feel nostalgic for a past America

Conversely, Mr. Sanders calls for a “21st-century economic Bill of Rights,” a reassessment of the country’s vast income inequality, free college, and “Medicare for All.” These proposals resonate with America’s youth, says Ms. Rouse, co-author of “The Politics of Millennials.” Having come of age in the shadow of the 2008 economic crisis, millennials now find themselves the best-educated generation in American history – and the worst paid. 

Gallup poll from 2018 found that 51% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have a positive view of socialism (the largest percentage of any age group), while just 45% have a positive view of capitalism (the smallest percentage of any age group). 

Rachel Mummey/Reuters
Supporters watch Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg during a campaign event where he is endorsed by actor Kevin Costner, at a high school in Indianola, Iowa, Dec. 22, 2019.

Waving a Bernie poster outside the New Hampshire Democratic Party state convention earlier this fall in Manchester, a cat ears headband adorning her pink hair, Alycia Tsoukalas says Mr. Sanders’ age doesn’t matter to her. 

“He’s for a $15 minimum wage, health insurance, LGBT rights, free college tuition – I mean, I’m in my final year and I’m scared to graduate,” says Ms. Tsoukalas, a New England College student who works at a tattoo shop. “I think it’s one of the coolest things ever that he is one of the oldest candidates but he’s for us, the young people.” 

Indira Gonzalez and Alana Lamontagne, nursing assistants from Manchester and Pelham, New Hampshire, respectively, agree. They support Mr. Sanders because his proposals would make their lives tangibly better, they say, which makes it feel as if he really cares about them.

“Erasing student debt. Like, if he can get rid of that, then that’s a lot of peace of mind for us,” says Ms. Gonzalez. “He’s the only one really rooting for college students and people our age.”

When Ms. Tsoukalas does think about Mr. Sanders’ age, she says she sees it as a good thing. He actually participated in the civil rights movement, she notes, whereas she has only read about it.

Just as Ms. McCue appreciates Mr. Buttigieg’s having a personal stake in the future, Ms. Tsoukalas appreciates Mr. Sanders’ firsthand knowledge of the past. 

“It means he has more life experience,” says Ms. Tsoukalas. “Age is just a number.”

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