Can Sanders’ Campaign Increase Voter Participation Among America’s Most Apathetic and Disenfranchised?

By Madison Friend

Recent weeks have seen much ado about the so-called longshot presidential campaign of Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. Every major media outlet is covering Sanders, constantly – in the mere .45 seconds it took Google to load results for “Bernie Sanders” just now, 3 new articles were posted that didn’t pop up until I refreshed the results just after they loaded.


Clinton supporters like Senator Claire McCaskill insist that the “Sanders Surge” is no more than a summer fling the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party is having with an exciting, but ultimately too liberal, challenger to the front runner for the nomination.


Unfortunately for the Clinton campaign, this analysis doesn’t gel with new favorability ratings reported by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight Politics. Sanders’ ratings are rising quickly, but Clinton’s are holding steady in a way that indicates his campaign isn’t a Howard-Dean-esque flash-in-the-pan in the history of politics. Sanders isn’t running an “Anyone-but-Hillary” campaign, and people aren’t responding because he’s “Anyone but Hillary” – they’re responding because they agree with Sanders’ ideas, independent of how they feel about his chief rival.


Then there’s the fact that Sanders far outpaces Clinton when it comes to the number of small donations (less than $200) made to his campaign, a key indicator of the amount of grassroots support a candidate has, and how many of those supporters the campaign can expect to convert to on-the-ground volunteers. Sanders raised 81% of his 15 million dollar haul through these types of donations. In contrast, less than 20% of Clinton’s funds were raised this way.


It could be that the political revolution Sanders has been calling for since he announced his campaign is about to take place, thanks in no small part to America’s most apathetic and disenfranchised voters, 18 to 24 year-olds and low-income Americans.


Educated liberals (college-aged whites among them) are flocking to his events in record numbers, thanks in no small part to his plan to make public college free. Several events have even been relocated or postponed due to huge and unanticipated numbers of RSVPs.


While it’s true that Sanders has established little to no support among minority voters as of yet (and, actually, may have slightly misstepped this weekend at a Netroots Nation protest in Phoenix), the policies he champions – among them, free college tuition, an increased minimum wage, and a federal jobs program that would address the problem of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure – would have long-lasting, far-reaching effects on minority communities, which often face severe financial and institutional obstacles when it comes to basic, necessary pursuits like attending college and finding employment.


Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, told the New York Times that “[Sanders’] decades of work on issues of importance to African-Americans aren’t known amid the national conversation on race that is underway.”


However, the fact remains that Sanders does have a long history of fighting for minority populations (not to mention his campaign has recently ratcheted up their efforts to connect directly with these voters), one that will surely become evident as campaigning heats up and the personal and political histories of each candidate are excavated and examined by the media and public. At this early stage in the race, it’s entirely possible – likely, even, with the amount of attention his campaign is getting –  that minority voters will consider Sanders more seriously once they are introduced to his candidacy and more closely examine his political record.


Yesterday, Sanders’ official Facebook page shared this quote from the candidate: “We should not be satisfied with a ‘democracy’ in which more than 60% of our young people don’t vote and some 80% of low-income Americans fail to vote.”


He’s right, and if his candidacy maintains its astonishing momentum (whether or not he wins the Democratic nomination or White House), it’s possible the 2016 election cycle could see large swaths of non-voters mobilized, and voter turnout records broken – not just those relating to crowd size at campaign rallies.

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