Bill Whalen

Sanders’ young legions could have big impact in California

Young supporters celebrate Bernie Sanders’ New Hampshire primary win. Bill Whalen asks whether young voters will go to the polls in November in California if he doesn’t get the Democratic nomination.
Young supporters celebrate Bernie Sanders’ New Hampshire primary win. Bill Whalen asks whether young voters will go to the polls in November in California if he doesn’t get the Democratic nomination. For The Washington Post

As Californians, we have every right to look at the votes in Iowa and New Hampshire and shrug a collective “meh.”

The first two presidential nominating contests sent not quite 880,000 of their citizens to the polls. There are three larger cities in America’s nation-state. Nor are they a national cross-section, which is a valid argument for shifting this winnowing of candidates to a more representative state – say, Florida.

Iowa and New Hampshire are 90 percent-plus white, double California’s proportion (46.6 percent). The 5.6 percent of Iowa’s population that’s Latino (twice New Hampshire’s percentage) is but a fraction of California’s one-third Latino population.

The nominations may well be settled before the June 7 primary in California, yet as we look ahead to November, there’s something to beware after these early outcomes: the Democratic front-runner’s disconnect with younger voters.

Twice now, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has walloped prohibitive favorite Hillary Clinton in that voting bloc, getting five out of six Democrats under the age of 30. That’s better than Barack Obama’s performance among African American primary voters in 2008.

Why does this matter to California?

First, our November ballot likely will be clogged with provocative initiatives that will divide Californians by age as well as ideology – maintaining higher taxes on upper-income earners, legalizing marijuana, allowing 17-year-olds to vote in June primaries if they turn 18 before November. If they make it to the ballot, all will require a healthy buy-in from the under-30 crowd.

Second, will “feel the Bern” Democrats bother to turn out in sufficient numbers to enact those ideas should Clinton outlast their guy, especially if they have a spirited competition here?

According to a Public Policy Institute of California profile of the Golden State electorate, voters 18-34 account for 45 percent of the state’s infrequent voters, but less than 20 percent of those most likely to turn out. The numbers flip for California voters 55 and older.

If Sanders is out of the race, who is left to appeal to a disillusioned left looking at Clinton at the top of the ticket?

One answer would seem to be Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who’s already running for the opportunity to replace Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018. But it’s complicated.

Newsom is doing his best to remind Democrats that he’s been on the right side of progressive history, championing same-sex marriage years before Obama and most prominent Democrats. Newsom also has a stake in two possible November initiatives – marijuana legalization and gun control.

However, as a former San Francisco mayor and second-term “lite guv,” Newsom is part of the dreaded establishment from which Clinton so clumsily tries to detach herself. While still a year south of 50, he’s been on the political scene for the better part of two decades.

If the Sanders phenomenon is an indication of how to court the youth vote, there’s still time for Newsom to lose the gelled hair, don a pair of specs and sport a Brooklyn accent.

Look for age to define California’s political landscape for the near future. The state’s electorate is graying (the median age is 35.2 years, up two years from the 2000 census), but not the next wave of elected leaders. When Sen. Barbara Boxer retires after November, her likeliest Democratic successor will be at least 20 years younger. Newsom succeeding Brown would be a 30-year shift.

We’ll see if younger voters come along for the ride.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be contacted at