College students put down their Sanders signs, wonder what’s next

With Bernie Sanders all but out of the picture as a presidential candidate, his crowds of T-shirt-clad, “Bernie”-chanting college supporters are left wondering – what next?

The answer may not be what Hillary Clinton hopes.

At the finish line of a race ending closer than most anticipated, former Secretary of State Clinton has become the presumptive Democratic nominee, leaving Sanders’ many university-going supporters searching for what comes next. Notorious for attracting younger and first-time voters, the 72-year-old senator from Vermont has crafted a campaign that’s drawn thousands of college students.

Those students now are faced with the possibility of a ballot without Sanders’ name on it and they must make a decision: Vote for Clinton, vote for a third party or don’t vote at all.

“They’re not into politics – they’re into a movement,” Robert Guttman, professor and director of the Center for Politics & Foreign Relations at George Mason University, said in an interview. “To give that up and vote for a conventional candidate? That’s not cool.”

With thousands of delegates won in the past months, Sanders’ support by this key younger demographic is concretely evident, Guttman said. Whether it’s his uncompromisingly liberal ideology or his uniquely genuine public image, the white-haired, wrinkly clothed politician has become, for lack of a better word, “cool.”

In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released in mid-April, during a heated campaign period, Clinton and Sanders were shown as tied, with 50 percent for Clinton and 48 percent for Sanders. However, when responses were split by age group, Sanders came out far ahead among voters younger than 50, with a lead of 31 points.

“When you look at his positions, they skew younger,” Chris Riker, a student at Barry University in Miami and a Sanders delegate in the primary, said in an interview. “But when you look at character and when you look at personality – Bernie is so uncool that it’s cool.”

It’s these characteristics that paint Sanders as “not an establishment politician,” Alex Forgue, research director for College Students for Bernie and a student at Northern Illinois University, said in an interview.

Both Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, and Clinton are commonly viewed as in this category, and that’s one reason that facing their names on the ballot is so daunting for Sanders’ college student supporters, Forgue said.

So daunting, in fact, that many may not vote at all.

“Bernie tapped into a group that wasn’t engaged previously,” Wayne Lesperance, interim dean of undergraduate programs at New England College, said in an interview. “The concern is now that they (college students) just go home.”

While an MTV poll released June 6 found that a majority of Sanders millennials would vote for Clinton should he concede, 18 percent reported they wouldn’t vote at all.

“I’d say between 20 and 30 percent of Bernie supporters are going to stay home,” Riker said. “The difference between Trump and Clinton will be marginal for these people.”

Those students who do make it to the polls will probably vote for Clinton rather than Trump or a third-party candidate, Riker said. However, it’s likely the choice will be a reluctant one; among his peers, Clinton and Trump are seen to “both represent a corporate-first ideology,” he said.

“Young people are better at tracking the money,” Riker said. “It’s hard to support the idea that (Clinton and Trump) are radically different things when they have the same donors.”

In a Quinnipiac University poll released June 1, 59 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 35 viewed Sanders favorably. In contrast, 30 percent in the same age range viewed Clinton favorably.

College students interviewed on campuses across the country this week said that though they’d favored Sanders originally, they would vote for Clinton now that she was the party’s nominee. However, their support will be less of a vote for Clinton and more of a vote against Trump, they said.

Ricky Morales, a student at the University of Maryland, said he’d voted for Sanders in the primary. Without Sanders as the Democratic nominee, he would vote for Clinton – but only because she “isn’t Trump,” Morales said.

“Anything but Trump,” Morales said in an interview. “I’ll say I view her favorably, but it’s a reluctant favorably.”

In the swing state of Virginia, George Mason University student Rigel Asplund shares Morales’ perspective.

“I was hoping for Bernie,” Asplund said in an interview. “The pro of voting for Hillary is she’s not Trump; the con is that she’s Hillary.”

Victoria Walker, a student at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pennsylvania, who also voted for Sanders in the primary, said she would vote similarly, seeing as “Trump isn’t fit for office.”

“I’m not a fan for Hillary,” Walker said in an interview. “But you have to pick the better of two evils.”

Ravin Hassan, a student at George Mason University, wishes she could vote for Sanders, but without him on the ballot she plans to vote for Clinton. Her rationale? Because she’s “a Democrat, and I wouldn’t vote for Trump,” Hassan said in an interview.

When asked whether she thought her Sanders-loving peers would do the same, Hassan answered: “I don’t think they’re going to vote.”

“Most of them hate Hillary,” Hassan said.

Lalita Kota, a student at George Mason University, said she would vote for Sanders if she could, but as things stand she plans to vote for Clinton. Whether her Sanders-loving peers do the same will depend on Clinton’s actions in the coming months, Kota said.

“Hillary’s very fortunate to have a bigoted, racist opponent who’s alienated everybody,” said Guttman, the professor. “It’s very hard for young people to rally around her, but it’s harder for them to rally around Trump.”

It’s a hurdle that Clinton’s campaign recognizes. In the past week, it poached Sanders’ director of student organizing, Kunoor Ojha, to serve as her national campus and student organizing director.

Ojha will be “working closely to reach the generation at large, but particularly looking on college campuses,” Sarah Audelo, youth vote director for Clinton’s campaign, said in an interview.

“We’re talking about a third of the electorate,” Audelo said. “Of course they’re a priority.”

The campaign’s efforts to connect with younger voters – labeled the millennial outreach program – was launched last week, Audelo said. Its first steps will be “hitting the road” to “go out and talk directly with young people,” she said.

“It’s our job to make young people excited,” Audelo said. “We certainly have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Eleanor Mueller: 202-383-6033, @eleanor_mueller