The Democratic Party's generational divide may decide who wins the primary

Joe Biden at a Super Tuesday Presidential Campaign Rally
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Joe Biden’s remarkable turnaround on Super Tuesday seemed to come from nowhere, as if a sudden wave of anti-malarkey sentiment emerged from the gutters from Portland, Maine, to Port Arthur, Texas. In reality, the former vice president’s ascendance was always lurking just below the surface, waiting to be catalyzed by the shifting demographic tectonic plates that shape the Democratic Party. Democrats, according to exit polls, are split neatly along an axis of age, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders winning the young and Biden taking the elderly. The primary has always been about whether the favored candidate of the young or the old would be able to winnow the field to their advantage first. Obviously, age is not the only demographic factor that is deciding votes — Sanders won among Latino voters, while Biden dominated among Black voters. Age, though, may be the most important for understanding the current state of the Democratic Party — and where it’s going next.

The generation gap was highly visible in the Super Tuesday results. In Texas, Biden was widely favored by voters over 65, winning 46% of the that population to Sanders’s 16%. Furthermore, older voters’ share of the vote in the Lone Star State increased from previous elections — from 13% in 2008 to 24% this year. This strength carried over for Biden throughout the South; he won three-quarters of voters over 65 years old in Virginia and Alabama, as well as a healthy majority of that group in North Carolina. Even in California, Biden won among older voters by a 2-1 margin. Overall, Biden won 48% of voters over 65, while Sanders won only 15%.

Meanwhile, Sanders won 58% of voters aged 18-29 on Super Tuesday, while only 17% of that bloc chose Biden. The gap was closer in the middle tiers — 41% of those aged 30-44 went for Sanders and Biden took 23%, while those numbers were almost exactly inverted among those 45-64 (42% for Biden, 25% for Sanders).

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For most of the race, Sanders — beloved candidate of the younger progressives in the Democratic Party, who favor his brand of democratic socialism and signature proposal in Medicare-for-All — faced off against a split field, in which older voters were enamored with Biden, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Buttigieg, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. After Biden’s disappointing finish in first two states of Iowa and New Hampshire, the older segment of the electorate seemed problematically split between the moderate slate of candidates. Sanders appeared likely to clean up on Super Tuesday by winning a plurality of the vote in the 30-40% range, while his myriad opponents would be left to languish in the low double-digits.

Only after Nevada, where he came in second behind Sanders, did Biden’s campaign begin to show signs of life. Though many have credited Biden’s turnaround in the 2020 race to the endorsement of the influential Rep. James Clyburn in South Carolina — a state that Biden went on to win handily — the analyst Harry Enten told The New Yorker that the signs were pointing towards Biden earlier.

“All of a sudden there was one poll, that Public Policy poll, that came out that Monday that had Biden up 15 [percentage points]. That seemed odd. And then a second and third poll. And then a Monmouth poll had Biden up 20 points. This was before the James Clyburn endorsement. It was before the debate. So something happened there,” said Enten . “People were searching for an alternative to Sanders, and they didn’t know who that alternative was, and, finally, when they were pushed in that direction [of Biden], voters just said, ‘Okay, we are going with that.’”

It’s a lot easier to switch between candidates if the only thing you care about is how they seem likely to do in the general election, rather than what they actually believe in.

Sanders’s troubles may come down to the way that the electability-versus-ideology debate plays out across the ages. Older voters have shown throughout the primary that their greatest motivating factor is beating Trump, while younger voters have repeatedly told pollsters that they are more motivated by political ideology, like support for Medicare-for-All, than any other factor. In Gallup polls from last year, nearly 75% of voters above 65 said they’d prefer a candidate who’s focused on electability rather than prioritizing issues, while more than half of those from 18-29 felt the opposite way.

The focus on electability helps Biden, whom voters of all ages have determined to be the most electable candidate. It also helps him in another sense, because voters focused on electability above the personal charisma or ideological positioning of the candidates are more likely to switch candidates often and vote tactically — which is exactly what seems to have happened in Biden’s case.

“Generational divides are very common within, and across, parties,” Alex Theodoridis, a professor of political science at University of California at Merced, told Mic in an email. “Younger people tend to have a lower propensity to vote than their older counterparts. So, relying on massive turnout among them is always a risky proposition electorally.” And that seems to have been part of Sanders’s problem Tuesday: While young voters reliably prefer him, he’s not driving particularly high turnout among his strongest bloc of support.

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It’s a lot easier to switch between candidates if the only thing you care about is how they seem likely to do in the general election, rather than what they actually believe in. Sanders, who has a set of distinct ideological positions compared to the rest of the candidates, has earned fierce support among younger voters who share those positions. Against a crowded field, that rump faction might be enough to win a good chunk of delegates. But he’s now facing a stiffer challenge due to the fact that older voters, who believe Biden to be more electable and care more about that metric than anything else, are voting tactically in order to defeat him.

Sanders has mostly focused on his ideological consistency — and it makes sense, given his positions have earned the support of a huge swath of Democratic voters. But unless he can convince a critical mass of voters that he’s more electable than Biden, he’s likely going to end up with nothing more than a strong second-place finish, for the second primary in a row.