Young Voters at Iowa Democratic Caucuses Prefer Candidates Other Than Sanders for Electability

February 5, 2020 Updated: February 24, 2020
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IOWA CITY, Iowa—Kevin Drahos was a high school freshman when he worked as an intern for the Bernie Sanders campaign in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2016.

Sanders won the support of nearly 85 percent of young voters in the Iowa Democratic caucuses that year, which helped him secure a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton on caucus night.

Like many of his friends, Drahos was drawn to the Vermont independent senator’s bold messages, he said. This year’s caucuses, on Feb. 3, were Drahos’s first since coming of voting age. But he voted for Pete Buttigieg.

“I honestly would be behind [Sanders] this round if it weren’t for a lot of experiences I’ve had in politics,” Drahos said in a coffee shop in downtown Iowa City on caucus day.

Now, Drahos is an international relations student at the University of Iowa. During the past four years, he’s served on a state advisory council, written position statements, drafted bills, and worked closely with lawmakers. Those experiences have shaped his understanding of what it takes to be an effective commander in chief, he said.

“From what I know, you have to be willing to compromise, and you have to be able to get things done,” said Drahos. “What [Sanders] said on the campaign trail, which has really turned me off, is that he’s not willing to compromise.

“That’s kind of my pragmatic approach.”

Epoch Times Photo
Kevin Drahos at The High Ground Cafe in downtown Iowa City, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

Drahos is one of the young Sanders supporters who left Sanders’s camp and stepped into either Buttigieg’s or Elizabeth Warren’s at the 2020 Iowa caucuses. Many University of Iowa students who voted at one of the campus caucus locations shared opinions with The Epoch Times similar to that of Drahos.

The Iowa Democratic Party released partial caucus results late Feb. 4, showing Buttigieg in the lead, with 26.8 percent (of state delegate equivalents). Sanders was in second with 25.2 percent, and Warren in third with 18.4 percent.

As far as young voters go, it seems Sanders may have been the top pick. According to Edison Research entrance polling for the Iowa caucuses, about half of the voters under 30 years old said they intended to vote for Sanders, with 21 percent voting for Buttigieg and 14 percent for Warren. Buttigieg was most popular among 45- to 64-year-olds.

However, poll experts warn that entrance polls have a much larger margin of error than regular polls, because they are conducted by canvassing only some precincts.

Buttigieg ‘Can Bring Us Together’

Joseph O’Kelly, a social justice student at the university, was 16 when Sanders campaigned in the Democratic primaries in 2016. O’Kelly said that if he was old enough to vote for Sanders then, he would have.

“I was a very big Bernie Sanders fan back in 2016,” he said. “I still like Bernie, I still do. I like the things that he stands for.”

But in the months leading up to this year’s caucuses, O’Kelly was running in and out of Buttigieg’s office in Iowa City as a campaign volunteer. He found that many people at the campaign events had either been politically inactive before or only ever voted Republican.

“In the country that’s totally divided right now, he’s the one who can bring us together,” O’Kelly said of Buttigieg.

Epoch Times Photo
Joseph O’Kelly at The High Ground Cafe in downtown Iowa City, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

Though O’Kelly still likes Sanders, he doesn’t like Sanders’s socialist identity.

“Socialism is kind of a scary term for a lot of people. And they’re very turned off by it,” he said. “Republicans are very against the idea of a socialist president such as Bernie, and even some more moderate Democrats don’t want that.

“Electability is very important to me. But furthermore, it’s about once you get into office, can you get anything done?

“I’m worried that Republicans aren’t going to want to compromise and work with someone like Sanders or Warren to get something done.”

Some Sanders fans weren’t worried about electability.

Ross Clowser, 24, works as a barista in a coffee shop in downtown Iowa City and plays music gigs at local venues. In the 2016 presidential election cycle, he volunteered for Sanders, caucused for him, and saw him lose the nomination to Clinton.

“I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t get it,” Clowser said. “He was bringing something truly different to the table. He was not a centrist. He is a progressive.”

Clowser says that Sanders helped pave the way for similarly progressive candidates to have a stronger presence in elections.

In the months leading up to this year’s caucuses, he had gone back and forth in his mind between Sanders and Warren. He finally made up his mind the day before the Iowa caucuses. He would caucus for Warren.

“I want to support a woman in the White House,” he said.

Medicare for All

For Clowser, health care is a top issue. Sanders and Warren both support Medicare for All.

The job of a barista or freelance musician doesn’t offer health care plans. He is still young enough to stay on his parents’ insurance plans, but will lose that coverage when he turns 27.

“Hopefully, at that time, I have a professional career as a music professor,” he said. Clowser plans to go back to school and pursue a music degree this fall.

Jonathan Issa, who passed out Warren campaign literature on campus, worries that eliminating the private health care industry right away, and making it all public through Medicare for All, would cause a lot of infrastructure problems within the hospitals.

“It would change people’s plans. So their coverage might be completely different on some of the medications or treatments that they’ve already started,” he said.

“Bernie is an ambitious person, but I think that he’s too radically left to be able to implement the changes. While I will admit Warren is a very left-leaning person, I feel like her policies are not so radical that she would not be able to put them in place.”

According to the entrance polls, health care was a top issue for 41 percent of caucus-goers and 57 percent supported Medicare for All.

Yang, Sanders, and Unity

Some students voted for the underdogs, including Andrew Yang.

“I really appreciated his data-driven approach,” said Vanessa Beck. “I think a lot of people, especially younger people, like college or high school students, they just want to go with what the crowd thinks.”

In Iowa’s caucuses, people vote by going into a big room together and standing in a section of the room that represents a given candidate. In this system, you can literally follow the crowd.

Epoch Times Photo
Bits of paper distributed to each voter upon entry, and then collected as the presidential preference cards were distributed, at the Iowa Democratic caucus at Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, on Feb. 3, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

Electability was not a concern for Beck.

“[If you] only vote for someone electable, then you’re leaving your own morals to the side just to try to vote for whoever everyone else will vote for. I think that becomes a dangerous game.”

She said she won’t vote for Trump, Sanders, or Warren in a presidential election. The latter two are off the table, she said, because her mother came from communist Bulgaria and she fears the rise of socialism in the United States as a precursor to communism. If other candidates make it, she’ll do her research and decide, she said.

John Pintozzi also appreciates Yang’s data-driven approach.

“He looks at problems, he looks at the numbers. … So like, you know, there isn’t enough money in the economy in rural America. How do you fix that?” he said.

Many of the students who voted for Sanders cited reasons such as his plans to forgive student debt, his stance on relations with Iran, his support of Medicare for All, his support of the working class, and his hostility toward the rich.

Emily Poncher, a junior at the University of Iowa, said, “Personally, I think he’s a bit radical. But I think my friends do like him just because he’s promising a lot of good and beneficial things to young people, like the free tuition.”

She said she’d love forgiveness for her student loans, but thinks it may not be fair to the many students who worked hard to pay off their loans and tuition.

Poncher, who didn’t caucus because she had to work, is from Indiana. She said she will vote for Buttigieg in the Indiana primary.

“I think one of the most important things, besides all the different topics that go along with the election is … we’re very divided right now. We need to come together,” she said.

Epoch Times Photo
Emily Poncher, a junior at the University of Iowa, works at Iowa House Hotel on the University of Iowa campus the night before the Democratic caucus, Feb. 2, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

More than 150 years ago, when the nation was divided between North and South, the first governor of Iowa, Ansel Briggs, sent a piece of limestone to be part of Washington Monument in the nation’s Capitol.

The stone was inscribed with the words, “Iowa. Her affections, like the rivers of her borders, flow to an inseparable union.”