Sanders aims to fix one of his campaign’s biggest problems: winning older voters

Bernie Sanders built a progressive political movement by inspiring millions of idealistic young voters.

But to attain the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, the 78-year-old Vermont senator realizes he needs to significantly improve his standing with the most reliable voting bloc: people in his own age bracket.

“People under 50, or certainly under 35 — we’re doing really, really well. We are not doing well with older people,” Sanders said during a recent campaign stop in Iowa. “We have a lot of work to do and I acknowledge that. … We’re going to be focusing more on that right here in Iowa and all over this country.”

In the coming weeks, the Sanders campaign is planning to address this weakness with a Medicare for All message that’s more tailored to older voters. Campaign aides in Iowa have already drawn up new placards featuring hearing aids and eyeglasses to highlight the benefits of Sanders’ health plan, which has been increasingly assailed by his moderate rivals.

They’re also looking to center Sanders’ return trip to Iowa next week around a set of issues designed to resonate with retirees, including pension protection, expanding Social Security and in-home health care.

“We are telling senior citizens in Iowa and New Hampshire that Medicare is a strong program, we’re going to make it stronger,” Sanders said. “I’m not saying we’re going to win older people by a huge number, but we’re going to do a lot better than we are right now.”

A recent poll conducted by Iowa State University — which found Sanders tied for second with Joe Biden, but trailing Elizabeth Warren in the state — exhibited the problem. While Sanders led with voters aged 18 to 34, he fell to fourth place among voters between 50 and 64. And he posted just 6 percent support among voters 65 and over, his worst showing.

In New Hampshire, a Monmouth University survey of Democratic primary voters showing Sanders lagging in third place behind Warren and Biden also revealed a generational gap. While Sanders was at 23 percent with voters 18 to 49, he took only 15 percent of voters over the age of 50.

The massive 2020 Democratic field is also preventing Sanders from dominating the youth vote like he did in 2016, when he was essentially in a one-on-one race with Hillary Clinton. Recent polls have shown that Warren in particular is running competitively with Sanders among younger voters.

Yet as Sanders recognizes his current level of support with older voters isn’t enough to form a winning coalition, he also believes pollsters are underestimating his ability to lure new young voters into the nominating process.

Sanders criticized the Monmouth poll as “not particularly credible” because 70 percent of its voter sample were those 50 and older, whereas the 18 to 34 group made up just 12 percent of those surveyed. A Boston Herald poll of the New Hampshire primary that placed Sanders in first estimated a higher turnout of younger voters.

“I would ask pollsters to kind of understand that young people do vote and in my view, are going to vote in much larger numbers than they ever have before. Those young people have to be represented if you’re going to do a credible poll,” he said.

Monmouth’s polling director, Patrick Murray, responded that his survey’s age breaks are consistent with the voting patterns of past presidential primaries.

At a rally at Dartmouth College on Sunday, Sanders seemingly acknowledged his dependence on younger voters isn’t enough.

“Your generation does not vote in anywhere near the numbers that it should,” he said. “The older generation votes in significantly higher numbers than your generation and if you could vote at the same rate as the older folks, we could transform this country.”

Interviews with Iowa Democratic officials and voters reveal that Sanders faces two core challenges in winning over older Americans. One is that they’ve lived through countless elections filled with heaps of promises that often go unfulfilled, so they are less likely to buy into his message of a political revolution.

“I just don’t believe in unicorns. I don’t think everything’s free. I don’t think he can do 85 percent of the things he’s thinking he can do,” said Ruth Thompson, the senior and retiree caucus chair for the Iowa Democratic Party and a former government agency employee. “A lot of folks I know who I’ve discussed it within my age group think the same thing,” she said.

Thompson added it’s natural that younger people are drawn to loftier messages. But she said her own experience working on government programs taught her that even the best plans rarely survive the grinds of bureaucracy.

“I’m more pragmatic definitely and young folks just haven’t had the experience,” she said.

The second, more politically sensitive hurdle is Sanders’ age. This past spring, Gallup found that 37 percent of polling respondents indicated they wouldn’t vote for a candidate over the age of 70.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who is about to turn 95, said recently he couldn’t have managed the presidency at age 80. Sanders, the oldest presidential candidate in the 2020 field, would turn 80 in the eighth month of his first term. He’d be running against Trump, who is 73.

To many young people, supporting a septuagenarian who could pass as their grandfather can be charming. Sanders has complained that questions about his ability to do the job is “ageism.”

Yet to older voters, it can be a liability, since they can more directly relate to problems Sanders may face.

Celeste Homrighausen, a retiree from Bennett, Iowa who attended a Sanders event with her sister, was surprised that most of the attendees inside the community center were younger than her.

“I can’t believe how many young people are here. That’s great, because we need young people involved,” she said.

But when asked if she could support Sanders, she replied, “I’m beginning to think maybe he’s a little too old.”

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David Catanese is a national political correspondent for McClatchy in Washington. He’s covered campaigns for more than a decade, previously working at U.S. News & World Report and Politico. Prior to that he was a television reporter for NBC affiliates in Missouri and North Dakota. You can send tips, smart takes and critiques to