Op-Ed: Biden appeals only to older voters; Sanders only to the young. That has to change

Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden chat before a Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, S.C.
Bernie Sanders, left, and Joe Biden chat before a Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, S.C.
(Associated Press)

The Democrats have a problem: Neither Joe Biden nor Bernie Sanders has yet put together a coalition that can defeat Donald Trump. Each has a clearly delineated generational base — Bernie, the young; Biden, their elders — with a distinct ideology rooted in differing life experiences. Each is bombing with the other’s base.

And unless whichever one of them becomes the nominee can reach across this ideological and existential chasm, Democrats will face an uphill slog in November.

For the better part of a decade, a significant core group of young Americans has been telling pollsters they prefer socialism to the only capitalism they’ve known: a financialized, globalized system that rewards the few and has done particularly poorly by them. Most older Americans, having experienced at least the waning years of the more regulated and equitable capitalism created by the New Deal, don’t share that radicalism.


As the exit polls in one Super Tuesday state after another make depressingly clear, neither Biden nor Sanders has made inroads into the other’s age group. In Texas, Biden won the support of just 17% of voters under the age of 45, while Sanders won only 19% of voters over 45. In Colorado, Biden won a mere 8% of the under-45s, while Sanders pulled down just 20% support among their elders. In California, Biden’s support among sub-45 voters came to a bare 9%; Sanders won only 22% of those over 45.

Worse yet, those exit polls reveal a reluctance among a number of both Sanders and Biden supporters to vote for the eventual nominee should it not be their preferred candidate. Depending on the state, somewhere from 12% to 20% of the Democratic primary voters said they weren’t sure they’d vote for the party’s nominee. While proportionately more Sanders supporters expressed this hesitation, a number of Biden backers were similarly reluctant.

To date, Sanders’ efforts to win older voters have fallen flat. The rhetoric of revolution invariably plays best with the young, and it’s a rhetoric and mindset to which Sanders is unalterably committed. The most he’s capable of, I suspect, are some tweaks in presentation. In making the case for “Medicare for all,” for instance, he could emphasize how he would expand Medicare’s coverage to dental and vision care, for which seniors now have to shell out. I’d bet, however, that such changes in emphasis wouldn’t turn many seniors’ votes.

As the more likely nominee, Biden faces an even more urgent challenge in trying to win young people’s votes. Unfortunately, he sometimes seems to have virtually no connection to the world of the young.

In his victory speech on Tuesday night, he even sounded for a moment like Trump: not, I hasten to add, by saying anything cruel and bigoted but rather by displaying a mindset stuck in the mid- (or even early) 20th century. He’d help the “Dreamers,” he vowed, and immigrants, and workers. All good as far as it went, but then he went on to talk about the kind of workers he’d help, mostly in construction trades that have dwindled since his youth. He didn’t mention gig economy workers, nurses, teachers, fast-food workers — the fields in which young people are disproportionately represented.

Closing the gap between Biden and the young requires more, of course, than curtailing his parades down memory lane. If Biden wants to prompt enough young people and progressives to come to the polls, here are a few suggestions:


Right now, Biden supports making two-year community colleges free, but unlike Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, he’s not committed to making all public colleges and universities tuition free. He should be. As a matter of policy, placing financial barriers before young people trying to build a life for themselves only stunts the economy, as well as those young people’s lives. As a matter of politics, tuition-free public higher education is wildly popular.

Tuesday’s exit polls showed that 77% of Democratic voters in Texas, 73% in Tennessee and 66% in Virginia — all states Biden carried — supported the idea. Moreover, one way that Biden could deliver a massive economic stimulus (at least $1.5 trillion) to the economy, and to direct that stimulus to the generation of Americans who need it most, would be to abolish student debt.

Precisely because he’s now the race’s designated moderate (and if he gets the nomination, the man who defeated the socialist), Biden has the political space to move left on the many progressive economic issues that are widely popular, like instituting a wealth tax and requiring corporations to put workers on their boards. Biden needs to better align his I’m-for-ordinary-Americans-against-Wall-Street rhetoric with his actual policies. Embracing a financial transaction tax would be a step in that direction, as would a pledge not to hire Wall Street bankers — as the last three Democratic presidents did — to run his economic policy.

And because he’s the champion of construction workers, Biden can make a distinctive case for a cause of paramount importance to the young: saving the planet. He should go beyond his pledge to rejoin the Paris accord by extolling all the projects that a Green New Deal would cause to be built. Trump hasn’t delivered on his promise of rebuilding our infrastructure; Biden could more credibly vow to bring together disparate constituencies — across class and generational lines — by rebuilding it green.

Conventional wisdom holds that candidates appeal to their bases during the primary and then move to the center for the general election. But Biden has already cast himself as a moderate, and his strong Super Tuesday support in politically purple suburbs makes clear that he can win moderate voters, including, I’ll wager, the college-graduate Republican women who voted Democratic in 2018 and who are appalled by Trump’s total lack of decency and empathy — qualities Biden has in abundance.

Biden must strive to solidify that moderate support. To defeat Trump, though, he also needs to bring more of the disproportionately progressive young into his camp.


And he needs to begin that work today.

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and a contributing writer to Opinion.