In the late fall, Sen. Bernie Sanders came to speak at Georgetown University and was treated like a rock star. He was followed across campus by a horde of students desperate to get a photo, have a question answered, or even just be near the candidate.
Sanders deeply affected many young people in 2016. He energized a passionate millennial base, and it is estimated he won more youth votes than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined. He also gained popularity among many adolescents too young to vote then, but who have since come of legal voting age. This momentum has helped him immensely, as he surges in the Iowa polls.
However, in light of his insane policies, poor performances in many debates, and failure to clinch the nomination four years ago, it makes one wonder why young people are such huge Bernie fans.
The obvious appeal of free stuff is a huge factor. He is promising “free” health care and education, cheaper housing and taxpayers taking on most people’s debt, with no clear indication of a price tag. What many are ignoring is that nothing is truly free, and all of these “free” services will be paid for in taxes. Bernie will not be around by the time his policies will have to be paid for, but his youthful supporters definitely will. If government, and thereby the taxpayers, pays for people’s basic expenses, eventually these young people who are excited to be on the receiving end of the free government services will be paying in taxes not just for their own but also for those of other blissfully unaware youths.
Another aspect of Bernie’s popularity is his apparent genuineness. Many candidates, particularly Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have spent their campaigns facing a serious authenticity problem. This is not a problem for Bernie. Love him or hate him, he comes across as if he fully believes every insane word that comes out of his mouth. In a field of overly polished, pre-rehearsed politicians, Bernie stands out as crazy but real.
Bernie’s rise to popularity during the 2016 primary and subsequent failure to attain the Democratic nomination heavily factor into his continued adoration. In 2016, there was a widespread sense that the media conspired to hand the election to Hillary Clinton unfairly, an idea that persists four years later. Clinton was treated as the presumptive nominee from day one, and the Sanders campaign struggled to be taken seriously.
The major blow came when former Demoratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile revealed how the DNC had conspired with Clinton to rig the 2016 primary in her favor. She also confessed that she shared the debate questions with the Clinton campaign in advance of the CNN debate, an advantage she did not share with Sanders.
The corruption in the 2016 Democratic primary led to a sensation of unfairness, which still haunts Clinton and benefits Sanders. His failure to gain 2016 nomination is not viewed as a loss on his end, but of his rightful victory being stolen by a corrupt system: the media, the DNC, and Clinton.
On the subject of the 2016 primary, Bernie’s final reason for immense popularity comes in a rather intangible form: the romantic “what-could-have-been.” Many believe Bernie would have had a better chance of election against Trump than Clinton.
All of the polling and analysis in the world will never tell us whether this theory holds any merit, but the mere question excites young liberals, who can imagine a world where Bernie has been president the past four years. This romanticization is paired with the sense that, had the primary been fair, Bernie would have won.