Natalia Giacomozzi, a liberal arts student, was queueing with a crowd of hundreds to see Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former South Bend mayor surging in the 2020 presidential polls. But her heart was with the white-haired, septuagenarian campaigning 60 miles down the road.
Too young to vote in the 2016 election, Ms Giacomozzi had watched and admired the 78-year-old Bernie Sanders from afar, reading two of his books and keeping tabs on his policies.
Now, with voting in the 2020 primary under way, she and a group of college classmates were doing a listening-tour to hear the different candidates. “I’m keeping an open mind, but I do like my man,” Ms Giacomozzi said, referring to Mr Sanders. “The internet joke is that he is our grandpa.”
Four years after a surge in youth support helped Mr Sanders wage a competitive fight in the 2016 Democratic primary, the Vermont Senator is again outperforming competitors among voters under the age of 30. His success in rallying this age group — his strongest base of support — to turn out and vote for him could determine whether or not he wins the Democratic nomination.
A January poll by the Pew Research Center found 40 per cent of US voters under the age of 30 considered Mr Sanders to be their top choice, while the next most popular candidate was Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has the support of just 17 per cent of young voters.
In New Hampshire, which holds its presidential primary on Tuesday, Mr Sanders is the first-choice candidate of 51 per cent of the state’s voters under the age of 30 and the projected frontrunner of the race, according to a CNN-University of New Hampshire poll released last week.
In the 2016 New Hampshire primary, voters under 30 represented 20 per cent of the Democratic electorate.
Mr Sanders is unlikely to replicate the numbers he saw here in 2016, when he swept 83 per cent of the under 30-vote and faced a relatively open field against Hillary Clinton. But his strong poll numbers are testament to the Senator’s enduring popularity among a group of young voters who value the consistency of his message throughout his political career.
The Vermont senator is the only candidate in the field who has vowed he would cancel all of the nearly $1.6tn of student loan debt in the country — a major issue for students from not just lower income families but middle class backgrounds as well. Ms Warren would cancel student debt too, but not for households that earn more than $250,000 a year.
“If you’re an 18 to 22 year-old in college . . . I think you look at the candidates who aren’t Bernie and see they’re offering a half-measure,” said Chris Galdieri, a professor at New Hampshire’s St Anselm College.
Mr Sanders is also one of just two candidates, alongside Ms Warren, who has vowed to make public four-year college free for all families — and is the candidate with the most liberal healthcare plan. (Ms Warren has promised to enact federally funded universal healthcare by her third year in office; Mr Sanders says he would do so immediately.)
Davis Bernstein, a student at New Hampshire’s Keene State College and president of the university’s college Democrats, said students were clearly attracted to Mr Sanders’ plan to cancel student debt. But they also appreciated that he had been willing to listen to activist groups on the issue of climate change, and support the Green New Deal, which calls for refashioning the US economy in response to the climate crisis.
“Bernie is the only candidate really trying to fundamentally change the system,” said Kenan Merdanovic, a 20-something compliance assistant who said he had been backing Mr Sanders since 2016. He said he felt a kinship with Mr Sanders despite the fact that Mr Sanders was several generations older. “He is [an] older me,” Mr Merdanovic explained.
Amy Oberhart, an 18-year-old supporter of Mr Sanders in eastern Iowa, said she did not have a problem voting for an older white male candidate over a woman or non-white candidate, noting that a Sanders presidency would also be historic, as he would be the first Jew to hold the office.
Other young voters said they valued the simplicity and consistency of his message and the fact that he had been espousing many of his core principles for almost the entirety of his decades-long political career.
“He has kept to his instincts and his guts and the same agenda for probably as long as my parents have been alive,” said Ms Giacomozzi, the Sanders supporter who had come out to see Mr Buttigieg.
Abby Kiesa, director of impact at Circle, a Tufts University research institute that studies the political lives of young people, said the Sanders campaign had benefited from having a huge database of young supporters who had been willing to volunteer for the campaign in 2016, and might be willing to do so again, she said. What’s more, the Sanders’ campaign was ready to accept their help.
“The Sanders campaign is talking to young people [and] inviting young people to participate. Not all campaigns do that,” Ms Kiesa said.
In Iowa, entrance polls by Edison Media Research for US news outlets, found that while Mr Sanders won 44 per cent of the vote among 17 to 24-year-olds and 55 per cent of the vote among 25 to 29-year-olds, the second-best performing candidate among those age groups was Mr Buttigieg who received 21 per cent of the 17 to 24-year-old vote and 15 per cent of the 25 to 29-year-old vote.
In New Hampshire, several young voters said they had been drawn to Mr Buttigieg’s centre-of-the-road pragmatism, which they believed could make him a stronger candidate against Trump in the general election.
“We don’t really need to be pushing a far-left or a far-right agenda,” said Taz Chevalier, a freshman at the University of New Hampshire.
Mr Buttigieg’s campaign said the candidate had attracted many first-time caucusgoers in Iowa. It has hired organisers focused on campuses in three early voting states, and launched a programme to train campaign staff in digital organising and “coalition building” on campus.
But Dante Scala, a political-science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said many of his students were flocking to Mr Sanders, as opposed to Mr Buttigieg who he suggested sometimes came across “a bit like someone who is the student government president. Someone who follows the rules, does all the homework.”
He added: “[Buttigieg] is an old person’s idea of a smart, young person who is going places. And I don’t think that resonates too well with actual young people.”