Bernie Sanders, through three strong showings and a groundswell of support coming from liberal voters, has established himself as the clear frontrunner for the Democrat’s 2020 presidential nomination. And his pathway may get even easier, given the demographics of the states that go to the polls over the next month.
National support for the Vermont senator skews convincingly along generational lines, with 40% of Democrats under the age of 30 – and 39% of those under the age of 50 – listing Sanders as their first choice for nominee, according to the most recent Emerson College poll.
Sanders' support of universal health care coverage, reducing income inequality and free college tuition have found significantly more traction among Gen Z (18-22) and Millennial (23-37) voters - who tend to prioritize action and reform on those issues – than with Baby Boomers (55-74), who often have more wealth and less interest in expanding Medicare-style health care programs they may already – or soon – be eligible for.
But since Boomers vote at much higher rates than younger voters, the generational divides didn’t play oversized roles in the first few states.
Iowa’s average age is a mirror image of the nation’s (38.1 years old, according to 2018 census data), while New Hampshire’s second-oldest-in-the-nation electorate (43.1 years old on average) is still fond of the senator from neighboring Vermont. However, lowa youth turnout in New Hampshire and a wider field cut Sanders’ margin of victory in the state down to just 1.3% over Pete Buttigieg, compared to 22.5% over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Then on Saturday in Nevada, where the state’s average age is a middle-of-the-U.S.-pack 37.9 years old, new rules that added early voting for the first time seem to have benefitted Sanders greatly. Evening caucuses can be difficult for young workers to attend – especially in a state filled with 24-hour casino destinations – so the added accessibility helped turn one of the state’s largest - and what is believed to be youngest - caucus electorate ever. NBC entrance polls indicated two-thirds of voters under 30 chose Sanders. He also expanded his young, liberal base to win support of many moderate voters as well.
South Carolina (avg. age: 39.4) comes seven days after Nevada, where Sanders expects to be competitive, followed by Super Tuesday just three days later, where 14 states – representing a third of all delegates to be awarded in 2020 - go to the polls. Generational splits in those contests could help Sanders accumulate a delegate lead that is virtually impossible for his opponents to overcome.
Just two Super Tuesday states are among the nation’s 10 oldest: Sanders’ home state of Vermont, where the average age of 42.9 is the third-oldest in the nation; and neighboring Maine, with an oldest-in-the-nation average age of 44.7 years. Polls suggest Sanders will do well in both.
Conversely, four Super Tuesday states are among the nation’s 10 youngest, with Sanders leading in the polls in three of those contests, including youngest-in-the-nation Utah (30.9), Texas (34.6), which has the third-most number of delegates available, and California (36.6), which has the most delegates.
Most of the big states with older populations – states where Sanders has been lagging in the polls – fall later in the calendar. That includes Florida (avg. age 42.1), where Sanders has until March 17 to turn around poor poll numbers, and April 28 primary states like Connecticut (40.9) and Pennsylvania (40.7), where he has not yet taken the lead in any state polling.
Recent national polling from Morning Consult indicates Sanders holds a slight lead over President Donald Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup, but if the election comes down to close counts in a few key swing states, the demographics might not play to Sanders’ advantage.
Most of the key swing states skew older, including Florida (fifth-oldest), Pennsylvania (seventh-oldest), Michigan (10th-oldest), Ohio (14th-oldest [tie]) and Wisconsin (14th-oldest [tie]). There are no perceived “toss-up” states among the nation’s 15 youngest.
LX, NBC’s new digital news brand and soon-to-launch over-the air and streaming network, brings nationally-relevant stories from local communities to Gen Z (18-22) and Millennial (23-38) audiences across the country. Recent political storytelling has focused on how American adults – especially young adults – are embracing female politicians, as well how the student debt crisis is affecting Americans of all ages.
LX also recently profiled how some states allow 17-year-olds to vote and caucus if they will turn 18 before November 3rd – including Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina – but more than half the country does not.
Noah Pransky reports on national politics for LX. Previously, he covered politics and investigations in Florida for 14 years and was a recipient of the 2019 Walter Cronkite Awards for Excellence in Television Political Journalism.