Oakland, CA — Before 2015, Alex Wolf-Root had never identified with a political party. But when a friend sent him a video of Bernie Sanders, a “white-hair, arm-wavy, angry-looking dude,” announcing his 2016 presidential campaign, he was hooked.
“In Bernie, I saw the only person running — who had a decent chance — who would really try to change things, not make things go back to ‘normal,’” he said. “Because the sad reality in this country is, for many folks, normal is horrible.”
Wolf-Root spent the next few months learning more about Sanders’ history and campaign platform at the University of Colorado. By March 2016 —about 10 months after the announcement video was released — he served as a caucus captain. His work for the campaign continued into the 2020 primaries, where he canvassed and campaigned for Sanders in his Colorado district.
When Sanders endorsed Vice President Joe Biden just a few days after dropping out of the race, Wolf-Root, a 33-year-old Ph.D. candidate, was not surprised. But he and many other Sanders supporters said this chain of events still stung. The two politicians’ vast ideological differences, emblematic of the leftist versus establishment split within the Democratic party, have led some progressives to question whether or not they will support Joe Biden in the general election.
In 2016, some of the blame for President Donald Trump’s win was placed on non-voting youth and Sanders supporters. Four years later, Sanders supporters, like Wolf-Root, fear they will be unfairly blamed again.
Wolf-Root said he doesn’t buy one of Biden’s main selling points: that he is the best candidate to beat Trump. He said he thinks the Democrats lost the last election because of their failure to reach out to the longtime non-voters who feel unheard by both parties. He said he’d noticed a similar pattern since Bill Clinton’s presidency, including during Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
“Why would this [year] be any different?” Wolf-Root said. “Yeah, it's hard to see why many longtime non-voters will get excited by Biden.”
But, according to Abby Kiesa, the director of impact for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, youth turnout in 2016 didn’t significantly slip even though the Democratic primary didn’t go the way many young people wanted.
"There were so many states in 2016 where young people really won it for Clinton or really kept it competitive," she said. "And so I don't think that this is a moment for young people to write off their ability to have an impact on the campaign."
The state primary electorates usually look different than those in a general election, she said. Kiesa expects most former Sanders supporters and self-identifying Democrats to vote with their party — a possibility supported by the fact that some of Sanders’ former aides have already formed a super-PAC backing Biden.
"We're talking about a small slice of young people ... who will or won't move from support[ing] Sanders to Biden," she said. "And a lot more young people can be turned out and mobilized who maybe didn't participate in the primaries."
But even those committed to voting for Biden in November feel disillusioned by the process. Stephen Baker, a 19-year-old activist and Sanders campaigner from San Diego, California, said the Democratic Party expects them to "vote blue no matter who," whether or not the candidate represents their values.
Many young Sanders supporters say they’re voting based on issues like healthcare, climate justice and wealth inequality. Sanders had modeled much of his campaign around Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal —both of which outlined systematic changes to address voters’ concerns. Biden hasn’t backed either initiative.
For Baker, the fact that both Sanders and Biden ran as Democrats isn’t enough. He sees extreme ideological differences between the two. If Biden wants his vote, Baker said, he will have to show more support for the working class and people of color — especially because of his past support for the 2008 Wall Street bailout and 1994 crime bill.
"[Biden] has to prove to us, regardless of the capital letter in front of his name, why you should vote for him," he said.
According to Baker, Sanders created real enthusiasm among his progressive base — a feat he thinks Biden has failed at because of his lack of "history of including everyday people" and the working class in his campaign outreach.
"[Biden] doesn't invest in community relations," Baker said. "I think the populist message is what will defeat Donald Trump. And I don't see it anymore."
Many other Sanders supporters agree. They said they feel like establishment Democrats have to listen to the more progressive side of the party if they want to count on their votes every four years.
"A lot of Bernie supporters are a little fed up with, you know, conceding to the moderate end," said Ayana Boyd, an 18-year-old from Seattle, Washington. "And it makes people a lot more inflexible, a lot more unwilling to put ourselves behind another moderate candidate when we've done that since 2016 — and it didn't go well."
Boyd doesn’t know who she’ll vote for in the general election. She’s only sure that she won’t vote for Trump. She said shaming voters into siding with one’s nominee is both unproductive and undemocratic.
"It doesn't work in building support for whoever your candidate would be," she said. "It's sort of a slap in the face to what democracy is in the first place."
Cassandra Branson, an 18-year-old from Bethesda, Maryland, said she won’t vote for Biden in November because of sexual assault allegations against him from former staffer Tara Reade, as well as his support for the Iraq War and Defense of Marriage Act.
"I just can't ever vote for someone like that," she said.
She said she understands why progressive voters would vote for Biden, as Trump’s potential re-election is also her concern. But it frustrates her when people blame young, left-leaning voters for Republican victories when she sees more compelling forces at play.
"At the end of the day, we are trying to be a democracy, and everyone has their own choices in voting," Branson said. "I don't like people who come after people like me who weren't going to vote for Biden."
According to researchers at CIRCLE, there are several ways to increase youth voter turnout regardless of the candidate: educating constituents about online and mail-in voting, reaching out directly to young adult voters and cultivating a cohort of young organizers and activists to spread a campaign’s message.
"Both parties should try ... to expand the electorate to include more people who are maybe first-time voters," said Kristian Lundberg, a CIRCLE researcher. "That really just means bringing more diverse voices into the fold and making sure that more young people have the tools and the capabilities they need to vote."
While youth are rarely a targeted constituency in national elections, the Sanders campaign did focus on youth engagement since his 2016 presidential primary run. While Biden ideally would have reached out to young voters earlier in his campaign, Kiesa said, there is still plenty of time to build a coalition of young supporters.
"We're down to a little bit less than seven months. We would have recommended that people start [engaging voters] way before now. But seven months is still a long time," Kiesa said. "There's a great deal of things that the Biden campaign can do to persuade some of those Bernie voters."