Bernie Sanders’ staffers are working to sell seniors on his plans to ease their financial burdens by increasing Social Security benefits and reducing the price of prescription drugs. | Scott Eisen/Getty Images
‘Sanders needs to find a way to connect with longer established Democratic voters, and that’s older voters,’ says one supporter.
By HOLLY OTTERBEIN
05/30/2019 05:04 AM EDT
Bernie Sanders, 77, has a problem with old people.
In poll after poll, he places a distant second behind former Vice President Joe Biden among the senior set, the demographic that has long had more sway over who becomes president than any other. His campaign acknowledges it’s a problem and is trying — so far, unsuccessfully — to fix it.Story Continued Below
It’s a familiar issue for the septuagenarian senator: In 2016, Sanders won more voters from young people than Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump combined. But Clinton crushed him among older Americans at the ballot box, denying him the nomination.
The possibility of the same weakness thwarting Sanders’ second bid for the White House looms over his campaign. Sanders’ team knows he needs to do better among older voters. The campaign is scheduling events to attract more elderly voters, including one on Thursday at a seniors community center in Nevada, and his aides are optimistic that his plans to expand Social Security and Medicare benefits will help.
But some of the same qualities that have made Sanders a folk hero among millennials could be repelling seniors. His embrace of democratic socialism and calls for a political revolution are likely a tougher sell to many older voters who lived through the Cold War and are generally more conservative. And in a year when Democrats just want to beat President Donald Trump, the Vermont independent is seen by some Democrats as less electable than, say, Joe Biden.
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“Sanders needs to find a way to connect with longer established Democratic voters, and that’s older voters,” said Bhaskar Sunkara, a Sanders supporter who founded the socialist magazine Jacobin and is a former vice chairman of Democratic Socialists of America. “It’s tricky. Biden has higher perceptions of electability, and it could be hard to convince people they should be voting for Bernie when they’re already familiar with this other guy, and their main concern is getting Trump out of office.”
In the latest Morning Consult weekly tracking poll, Sanders leads Biden by 12 points among Democratic primary voters under 30, and Biden has only a 1-point lead among voters aged 30-44. But Biden leads Sanders by 44 points among seniors, 53 percent to 9 percent.
Similarly, a Fox News poll conducted earlier this month showed Biden leading Sanders, 45 percent to 11 percent among Democratic voters older than 45. Among voters younger than that, Sanders was marginally ahead of Biden, 25 percent to 22 percent.
Iowa is a case study of how Sanders’ unpopularity with older voters could haunt him. In 2016, he came within three-tenths of a point of winning the first-in-the-nation caucus state. The shocking finish against the establishment-backed Clinton helped Sanders propel his campaign to heights that party leaders never expected. But it was his performance among older voters that prevented him from winning Iowa outright: Sanders overwhelmingly won voters under 45, but Clinton drubbed him, 69 percent to 26 percent, among those 65 and older, according to entrance polls.
Sen. Bernie Sanders talks with seniors at the Franklin County Senior Center in St. Albans, Vt., on Aug. 14, 2017. | Lisa Rathke/AP Photo
Mark Longabaugh, a top strategist to Sanders in 2016, said Clinton benefited from a decades-long relationship with many older voters. A similar dynamic could potentially play out with Biden, who has been in the national political spotlight for almost a half-century.
“I think Biden will benefit a great deal from this,” said Longabaugh. “Those voters that are 70 years old, they’ve gone through this long journey … they know Joe Biden. They might have voted for [Biden] in 2008 when he didn’t succeed.”
Part of Sanders’ challenge is persuading elderly voters he can actually win. Larger percentages of older Democrats want a nominee who can defeat Trump — even if they disagree with most of their views — than younger ones, according to a January poll by Monmouth University.
To that end, Sanders has been touting polls showing him beating Trump in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. His aides have also encouraged his younger supporters to lobby their older relatives to get behind him.
There’s also an ideological hurdle Sanders needs to clear. Older Americans tend to have dimmer views of socialism than people in their 20s and 30s. Sanders, a democratic socialist, has taken pains to explain his ideology, at times by embracing Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“What democratic socialism means to me is making sure that all people live with security and dignity. That was FDR’s vision over 70 years ago and it is what we must continue to fight for today,” he wrote in a recent tweet.
Sanders’ staffers are also working to sell seniors on his plans to ease their financial burdens by increasing Social Security benefits and reducing the price of prescription drugs, among other proposals.
“He has a particularly strong case to make about improving and strengthening Medicare, cutting prescription drug costs, talking about long-term care and home care for the disabled community, and expanding Social Security,” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager. “All of those issues … have an appeal to older voters.”
As he’s criss-crossed the country since launching his campaign in February, Sanders has talked about the need for Americans to retire with dignity and the fact that Medicare doesn’t cover dental and vision benefits. In a May speech to the International Association of Machinists, he vowed to block pension cuts. Some of his surrogates and well-known supporters are older, including the co-chair of his campaign, 68-year-old Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen.
Sanders has also begun holding more intimate town halls in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, which tend to be more of a draw for seniors than his rallies.
But none of those moves have made a significant difference so far among older voters, who tend to vote in larger percentages than the young. (In the 2018 midterms, however, Generation Z, millennials, and Generation X outvoted Boomers and older generations in raw numbers.)
Terry Alexander, a 62-year-old state representative in South Carolina who endorsed Sanders, said older people simply “need to get to know him a little better.” He said the campaign is planning to do that partly through an “intergenerational” field operation.
“A lot of African-Americans right now are living off their Social Security and Medicaid. He’s trying to clean that up so they don’t have to work all their lives and then worry,” Alexander said.
Sanders hasn’t always had a problem with seniors. When he first won elected office in 1981, ousting the incumbent mayor of Burlington by a margin of just 10 votes, a Vermont newspaper wrote that he pulled off the upset victory by lining up “a coalition of disenfranchised city residents — low-income and working people, students and the elderly.”
Some of Sanders’ allies said he doesn’t need to win seniors outright to secure the Democratic nomination. He just needs to lose less of them.
“Our inability to win Democrats and older voters is clearly the reason we came up short. We always try to encourage young people to get out and vote, but young people just don’t vote in numbers that older voters vote,” said Longabaugh. “If he can continue to galvanize working-class voters, independents and younger voters, then he just needs to get a larger slice of some of the other constituencies.”
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