Close Menu

Keeping Youth Engaged From the Primaries to the General

What the "Bernie or Bust" phenomenon teaches us about working to ensure that young people remain engaged even if their preferred candidate does not prevail in the primaries.

The last two presidential election cycles have featured Democratic primaries in which the candidate supported by a majority of youth who participated in those primaries—Senator Bernie Sanders—did not ultimately prevail. Many of us are familiar with the term “Bernie or Bust” to describe Sanders supporters in both 2016 and 2020  who were reluctant to vote for the party’s eventual nominee. What did the Bernie or Bust phenomenon look like among youth in 2020, and what broader lessons can we learn about engaging the youth electorate by considering the views and characteristics of Bernie or Bust youth? Data from our 2020 pre-election youth survey helps us answer the questions and tell a story of untapped potential among politically active youth in 2020. 

Major findings from this analysis include:

  • One third of self-reported Sanders supporters indicated they would not vote for Joe Biden (or Donald Trump) in the general election. 
  • Sanders supporters were civically engaged: around 36% said they donated to a campaign and/or participated in a demonstration. 
  • Youth want candidates who are ideologically aligned with them, but they can be flexible. When asked whether they support candidates who are consistent with all of their political beliefs, around one-third of Sanders supporters disagreed with this statement. 
  • Bernie or Bust youth cited racial justice as a priority issue 44% said racism was one of the top three public issues determining their vote for president. 

Bernie or Bust Youth: Engaged and Focused on the Issues

Our pre-election survey was conducted in May-June 2020, by which time Sanders had already dropped out of the Democratic primary and now-President Biden had emerged as the presumptive nominee. Even so, in our survey, a significant number of youth were  “Bernie or Bust” in 2020, defined as those who indicated both a preference for Sanders and an unwillingness to vote for Biden. Of the respondents who expressed preference for Sanders in the 2020 primary, 34% said they would not vote for Biden in the general election. That is to say, 12% of all youth in our survey took a “Bernie or Bust”' stance in 2020, meaning they indicated support for Sanders in the 2020 primary but said they would not vote for Biden in the 2020 general election.

In addition,  95 respondents wrote in Bernie Sanders when asked who they intended to support in the general election, making him more frequently cited than the Green Party and Liberatarian Party candidates combined. While we do not know how many of these young people ended up voting, or for whom, it’s evident that at least some young Sanders supporters were liable to stay home on Election Day because they were unhappy with the major candidates. Youth with similar views, attitudes, and preferences could be a sizable part of the Democratic youth electorate in future cycles, and it’s important to understand how to engage them.

In some ways, young Sanders supporters were highly engaged in 2020. Across several indicators, youth who prefered Sanders in the primary reported higher levels of political engagement than those who prefered Biden. 

Young Sanders supporters were slightly more likely to say they had volunteered for a political campaign and much more likely to say they had donated to a campaign: 36% compared to 23%. They were also nearly twice as likely to say they had participated in a demonstration: 37% vs. 20%. The willingness of these youth to engage in both activism and electoral politics  represents a potentially powerful resource for campaigns who want to  mobilize youth support, and perhaps a strategy for continuing to engage young people even if their preferred candidate does not prevail in a primary election. 

Our analysis also reveals that, perhaps contrary to expectations, young Sanders supporters are not necessarily ideologically rigid and may therefore perhaps be open to outreach from candidates that they did not initially support. When asked whether they support candidates who are consistent with all of their political beliefs, young Sanders supporters actually tended to agree with this statement at a lower rate than Biden supporters. More than three-quarters (78%) of youth who preferred Biden in the primary agreed or strongly agreed, compared with 68% for Bernie supporters.  

This suggests that young people’s dissatisfaction with candidates should not be confused with political stubbornness. Youth can be flexible in their political preferences. When their priority issues are addressed, young people may be open to moving their support.   

For many young Sanders supporters, one of those key issues in 2020 was racial justice; and Bernie or Bust youth in particular said racism was their top public issue determining their vote for president. Nearly half (44%) of young Sanders supporters who indicated they would not vote for Joe Biden in the general election ranked racism as one of their top three issues. The importance of racial justice in shaping youth vote choice was one of the throughlines of the 2020 election: CIRCLE’s election week analysis found that racism was a major issue for youth, and  7 out of 10 youth in our post-election survey reported that they feel the urgency to do something to fight racism.

Healthcare, one of the signature issues of Sanders’ campaign, was another issue that Bernie or Bust youth were more likely to identify as a high priority. These findings suggest that engaging youth on the issue areas they care about can help appeal to potential young voters. In future cycles, a party’s nominees may risk losing out on critical youth support if they do not undertake effective outreach to incorporate these youth voices and concerns after the primaries.

In summary, understanding why some youth took a Bernie or Bust approach in 2020—and other aspects of how young people navigate candidate preferences between the primary and general elections—has broader implications for how we can more fully engage youth in the American political system. It’s even more important when we consider that some of these youth who said they might not vote for any major candidate were  very politically active in 2020, which suggests a potential undermobilization of otherwise engaged youth.  But our findings suggest candidates and campaigns can reach these youth by tapping into their energy and speaking to the issues they care about—and that young people are flexible enough in their political preferences to reward candidates for doing so.


Authors: Lauren Soherr, Kristian Lundberg, Alberto Medina