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Strong Turnout Among Young Voters Critical for Sanders

UNH students show their support for Bernie Sanders during last week's Democratic Presidential debate

Young voters in Iowa helped propel Sen. Bernie Sanders to a close second-place finish in the Democratic presidential race. He’ll be looking for similar results here in New Hampshire, but the trick for Sanders will be to translate youthful excitement into actual votes.

Talk to college students in New Hampshire about the Presidential Primary, and you’re likely to hear Sanders' name a lot. When both Sanders and Hillary Clinton debated last week on the campus of UNH, hundreds of students gathered outside beforehand. But as freshmen Victoria Franks and Gabriella Molinari pointed out, they were nearly all Sanders supporters.

“I haven’t heard anyone talk about Hillary it’s mostly just talk about Bernie, honestly,” Franks said.

Over at Dartmouth, student Austen Robinson couldn’t disagree more with the Vermont senator -- he's a member of the Dartmouth College Republicans. But still he says Sanders presence on campus has been hard to miss.

“His energy at Dartmouth is infectious," Robinson said. "They’ve achieved a lot of what they want to do, which is make Bernie Sanders the talk of the town on campus.”

The excitement that the Sanders campaign is generating on New Hampshire campuses reflects his popularity among young voters in general. According to entrance polls from last week’s Iowa caucuses, a whopping 84 percent of participants there under the age of 30 chose Sanders. That’s about as lop-sided a generation gap as you’ll see in politics, says Chris Galdieri, a political scientist who teaches at Saint Anselm College.

"Even in 2008, where Obama was the young persons’ candidate and Clinton was the older Democrats’ candidate, the gap was nowhere near what we saw in Iowa," Galdieri said.

Lots of folks will be watching how that generational divide plays out Tuesday in New Hampshire. Eight years ago young voters were a significant slice of Barack Obama’s support here. Some of his strongest wins came in the state’s big college towns, places like Hanover, Durham and Plymouth.

But it’s important to remember: Even with that big advantage among younger voters, Obama still lost New Hampshire to Clinton in 08. So if Sanders is to win New Hampshire in 2016, he’ll have to at least match Obama’s numbers -- on college campuses and among young voters generally.

But as Galdieri explains, that could be tough to pull off.

“The biggest problem is that young people don’t vote," he said. "And to the extent that Sanders’ support really is concentrated just among young voters, the question is how does he make sure they actually really do turn out to vote.”

New Hampshire state director for the Sanders campaign Julia Barnes says they’re doing just that. According to her, they have the strongest ground-game of any candidate on New Hampshire’s college campuses.

“We’re going to continue to make sure that we’re making it clear to New Hampshire students and young people what they need to do to vote in the state and making sure that they know where they are voting and they know how to get there," Barnes said. "And if they can’t, we’re going to try to help them.”

Back in the crowd of Sanders supporters outside the debate at UNH last week, students Franks and Molinari say they’ll definitely be voting on Tuesday. But they were less sure that their peers who also support Sanders would actually go through with it.

“I think probably like 50-50," Franks said. "I mean, some people -- especially freshmen -- don’t know how to go about registering to vote. But definitely 50-50, cause I know they want to."

Moments later, students in that same crowd began a chant:

“Young people vote! Young people vote! Young people vote!”

We’ll find out just how many of them do, and how that affects the fortunes of Bernie Sanders, tomorrow.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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