Even with 74-year-old Bernie Sanders in the room, the average age at his St. Paul rally was way below 30 years of age. Young people, many of them college students, made up a large portion of the 14,000 people who came to hear the self-described Socialist Democratic presidential candidate speak just a week before the first-in-the-nation caucuses in neighboring Iowa. Combined with the 6,000 people Sanders had addressed earlier in Duluth, the turnout indicated that Democratic rival Hillary Clinton may not have an easy victory in the Minnesota’s March 1 caucuses.
Nearly everyone The UpTake spoke to at the Sanders rally planned not only to support him, but also to take the time to attend a precinct caucus next month. Because of the time commitment to attend a caucus, motivated voters make up a significant portion of the relatively small number of voters who show up and vote on caucus night.
“This is really the first time in my life, I’m only 20, the first time in my life that I could really get excited about a politician. I really like what he’s about,” said a St. Olaf student in a Sanders t-shirt. Young people seemed rather knowledgeable about Sanders’ positions. Most could quickly name them, like a list of their favorite bands: racial equality, a better minimum wage, gay rights, getting money out of politics and the very popular proposal to make college tuition free. “Free college would be amazing,” said a young man wearing a Bernie button. “Tuition is so expensive.”
The young voters also liked Sanders’ character. “He can’t be bought,” said one, referring to Sanders’ refusal to take Political Action Committee money and instead relying on small donations from millions of people.
Sanders’ Socialist label isn’t a problem for these voters. “There are different kinds of socialism,” said a woman who had moved to Minnesota from New Hampshire. “We wouldn’t have our public roadways and national parks if we didn’t have socialism.
Both Sanders and Clinton have said they support the middle class, a group that has been shrinking in recent decades. But these young voters believe Sanders more than Clinton.
“It’s hard to take someone seriously talking about taking care of the middle class when they’re being represented by Goldman Sachs and Time Warner and all these people who have a vested interest in how our country is run for their business,” said a young woman. Sanders recently took Clinton to task for accepting $600,000 from the Goldman Sachs investment firm.
“I used to kind of support Hillary,” said a young woman who described herself as a recent convert. “But the more I hear about Bernie’s policies, the more I know that he’s fighting for me. I’m more on his side.”
Black voters turned out in large numbers in 2008 and 2012 to power Barack Obama to victory. Polls show that Clinton is picking up much of that support this year, while Sanders has not generated much interest among black voters. However, a young woman who has marched with Black Lives Matter and is president of her school’s black student union thinks Sanders is strong on civil rights for blacks. “He was…marching with Martin Luther King back in 1963. So he’s always had our best interests in mind,” she said. “It’s really encouraging seeing someone who isn’t (part of the African-American community) fighting for us. And I really think he is going to continue on the work that Obama has done so far.”
Sanders’ older supporters are motivated, too. The man at the front of the line to get into the rally said he had arrived five hours before the doors were scheduled to open so he could get a good spot. A Mendota Heights woman brought her granddaughter since they were both Sanders supporters.
Those with greying hair gave many of the same reasons for supporting Sanders as their younger counterparts. “The middle class is getting screwed,” said a woman with grey locks. “I hope he’s going to make it so the middle class doesn’t keep on getting the shaft and the really rich people pay their share.” One veteran of previous caucuses said that Sanders’ chances of winning “were getting better all the time.”
Recent caucus history suggests that even just 20,000 votes can have a significant impact on Minnesota’s presidential race. The last time Democrats had a contested race was in 2008. That year, a record 214,066 Democrats voted at a precinct caucus. Much of that record turnout was driven by supporters of then-Senator Obama. However, turnout this year may be closer to that of 2004 — when 51,518 DFLers showed up to caucus and back Senator John Kerry to run against President George Bush.
A recent StarTribune poll gave Clinton a 34 percentage point lead over Sanders. However, the poll had 5.7% plus or minus margin of error because only about 300 Democrats were interviewed for the poll. Also, the poll did not screen out voters who didn’t plan to attend their precinct caucus. If the people who attended the Sanders rally are the ones who show up to be counted, it’s possible that Sanders could win a significant number, if not a majority, of Minnesota’s 77 delegates that are up for grabs on March 1.
Video at top: Young Sanders supporters
Video below: Other Sanders supporters
At bottom: photos of Sanders supporters at a recent Minneapolis rally – Photos by Ben Gross