More than any other sort of Presidential event, rallies on college campuses risk exposing the incompatibility between a playful campaign billing—free pizza, live music—and the grim messaging of stump speeches in the era of Donald Trump. Unemployment numbers have plummeted, but real wages for most Americans haven’t budged in decades. The G.D.P. is on the rise, but the average life span has somehow declined. College students today belong to one of the first generations fated to make less money than their parents—a fact that has been amplified, in recent weeks, by the Presidential bids of more than a few candidates, including Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator is currently jockeying with Elizabeth Warren for second place, behind Joe Biden, in the race for the Democratic nomination. Though his campaign has outpaced others in courting the support of students, even Sanders staffers are liable to overcompensate on behalf of the youth. Earlier this week, during back-to-school stops in Iowa on what Sanders is calling his Grassroots Campus Tailgate Tour, most of the students who showed up helped themselves to free food, but only a few touched the gigantic Jenga set, the inflatable slide, and the lonely pong tables, on which plastic cups had been filled with a spinach-colored liquid meant to celebrate the Green New Deal.
Sanders lost the Iowa caucus in 2016, to Hillary Clinton, by a few tenths of a per cent, despite carrying a seventy-point lead among young voters. Since then, as the Democratic field has expanded, he has maintained a significant fund-raising advantage among college students in the state. According to the campaign, Iowans under the age of twenty-five have donated more to Sanders than to Biden, Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Andrew Yang combined. In August, a Change Research poll found Sanders holding a double-digit lead, at thirty-five per cent, among eighteen to thirty-four-year-olds in Iowa. At this point, the most pressing question for the Sanders camp is not whether students in the first nominating state will caucus for a dishevelled, hectoring septuagenarian over his younger opponents but whether enough students will caucus at all. In the last primary election, the turnout of Iowan Democrats older than sixty-five was more than five times that of voters younger than twenty-four.
This year, Sanders’s campaign has launched a Web-based boot camp to equip students at universities and community colleges across the country with staff-level resources and organizing skills. The program, known as Bernie Sanders Summer School, combines homework assignments with a series of hour-long webinar classes, which participants must complete before their induction into the official organizing effort. Students record their progress in a mobile app called Bern and, upon completing the curriculum, receive a swag pack filled with Sanders paraphernalia. “I don’t think it was a very difficult course at all,” Derian Lance, a sophomore at the University of Iowa, told me, adding that he had enrolled to “brush up” on his organizing skills. At each campus on the tailgate tour, Sanders praised students for representing the most progressive generation, but he also reminded them that ideology didn’t matter unless they actually turned out on caucus night—and convinced their friends to join them. “Young people do not in any way vote in the numbers that they should be voting,” Sanders told a few hundred people at Iowa State University, who had gathered on the dirt floor of an agricultural building on campus. “If your generation voted at the same percentage as people over sixty-five, we could transform this country.”
As a Presidential candidate, Sanders has voiced perhaps the most strident criticisms of the existing political and economic system, which, he contends, millionaires and billionaires have rigged to favor the one per cent. Part of the problem with this pitch is that it echoes a sense of powerlessness, which can cause potential supporters, particularly young ones, to disengage from the political process. In the 2018 midterms, a higher percentage of Iowa’s young voters turned out than in any midterm election since 2002—about forty per cent of registered voters participated, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office—but voters over the age of sixty-five attended the polls at almost twice that level. Nick Leidahl, a junior at Iowa State, belongs to the group that showed up for the first time. “I used to hold the sort of mentality that politics was amorphous, that nobody can get into it, that nobody can get their heads around it, that it’s too big for them. And I think that’s a problem we run into now,” he told me. “What we’re really fighting against is apathy.”
On an overcast afternoon last weekend, outside the University of Iowa, more than a thousand people gathered to greet Sanders, who happened to be turning seventy-eight that day. A line several blocks long snaked toward the central lawn of the Iowa City Pentacrest, where piles of umbrellas and water bottles had accumulated beside the security gates. Campus organizers instructed audience members to sign up for canvassing sessions and debate-night potluck parties on their smartphones. A number of crowd members shouted out birthday wishes as Sanders approached the lectern, to John Lennon’s “Power to the People.” “We’ve got a revolution to make,” Sanders said, with the understated fuss of a father asking the kids to pitch in for dinner. “You ready to do it?”
In the Democratic field, appeals to millennial audiences tend to exude a whiff of desperation. Before she withdrew her candidacy, Kirsten Gillibrand tempted users on Twitter to donate to her campaign by offering the possibility that they’d be selected to join her on a FaceTime call. (“We can talk about the issues you care about most,” she tweeted, “or even just share our favorite Lizzo songs.”) Harris, as if to soften her prosecutorial demeanor, has rebranded herself as “Momala,” and Buttigieg, who is thirty-seven, has championed himself as the one to help younger voters “win the era.” Sanders has not resisted the impulse to pander to millennials—last month, he fielded questions on labor policy from Cardi B, one of his staunchest backers, at a nail salon in Detroit—but he generally prefers a more direct approach. When he took the lectern on Monday, at the University of Northern Iowa, he urged a crowd of several hundred students to resist the belief that politics isn’t worth the trouble, warning them of “the big-money interests in this country, the special interests in this country, the billionaires who are getting huge tax breaks, the fossil-fuel industry that is destroying this planet.” “They want you to believe it’s impossible,” Sanders said, reminding the students to spread his message to classmates who don’t bother attending rallies. “You tell those friends of yours—and I know they’re all out there—that if they’re worried about the high cost of college, if they’re worried about the low wages that they’re making, if they’re worried about climate change, stop complaining. Get involved in the political process.”
The strength of Sanders’s appeal, more than a few students told me, is that he addresses young crowds not as children or underlings but as co-organizers in a communal process. “Bernie’s the only candidate who has shown that he’s building a political organization that doesn’t stop the first day he’d be in the White House,” Cade Olmstead, who introduced Sanders at U.N.I., told me. “And he’s said this himself—he’ll be not just commander-in-chief but organizer-in-chief.” That may be why Sanders has maintained a dominant hold on young voters, even as other, younger candidates have adopted equally progressive positions. “He doesn’t know what the fuck TikTok is,” a Sanders staffer told me, “but he sure knows the issues they’re facing.”