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Bernie Sanders becomes unlikely leader of a youth movement

Bernie Sanders was surrounded by a crowd of young, selfie-seeking fans at Dartmouth College on Thursday.Paul Hayes for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

HANOVER, N.H. — Nineteen-year-old Gage De La Cruz came early to see Bernie Sanders at Dartmouth College. But by the time he showed up, hundreds of students clutching laptops, backpacks, and burrito bowls were already waiting in a line that snaked past a campus mailroom and cafeteria and out the door, into the freezing cold.

“Obviously,” De La Cruz said, “kids want to see Bernie.”

That a crusty 74-year-old Vermonter given to meandering, impassioned speeches about millionaires and billionaires would exude a magnetic power over millennials one-fourth his age was hardly a given when Sanders launched his campaign 8½ months ago. Unlike Barack Obama, who could name-drop Kanye West and drew massive support from young voters, Sanders appears to lack any fluency with youth culture.


But as he has steadily climbed into contention with Hillary Clinton in Iowa and into a narrow lead over her in New Hampshire, polls show Sanders’ strongest support comes from younger voters, who favor him by a 2-to-1 ratio. The challenge for his campaign is to ensure those voters, who are less likely than older ones to cast ballots, show up on Election Day.

At Dartmouth on Thursday, where Sanders packed a 900-seat concert hall, he sparked loud whoops and applause during a fiery, hour-long speech that barreled through issue after issue, from climate change and institutional racism to campaign finance reform and abortion rights.

“He’s another old white guy, but he’s got the passion,” said Ried Sanborn, an 18-year-old registered independent from Lebanon who works at Subway and wants to join the Marines and who asked Sanders about his plan to raise the federal minimum wage to $15. “His passion isn’t fake.”

Sanborn said many of his friends also support Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination. But some of his older relatives do not, including his uncle, Andy Sanborn, a Republican state senator who has endorsed Rand Paul for president.


“I actually invited him to come with me,” Ried Sanborn said, “and he has since told me never to text him again.”

Sanborn and other young voters said that while they agree with most of Sanders’ platform, no single issue has led them to rally around his campaign.

Instead, many said they see the white-haired socialist with the briny Brooklyn accent as an appealingly consistent crusader for the causes he believes in.

Some said they believe that bedrock authenticity is lacking in Clinton, whom they called more of a shape-shifting politician.

“I think Bernie is relatable, he’s cozy; he’s like your grandfather who tells the truth,” said John Anderson, a 32-year-old architect who was working on his laptop at Dirt Cowboy Café, a coffee shop near campus that doubles as an unofficial clubhouse for Sanders’ organizers.

“Your grandfather can be a little bigoted and a little off the cuff, but at least he’s honest,’’ Anderson said. “I don’t think Bernie is bigoted, but he comes across as being the most genuine of the candidates.”

His peers apparently agree. Among New Hampshire voters under age 45, Sanders crushes Clinton 58 percent to 30 percent, according to a Monmouth University poll recently released. In a University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll released last month, the gap was even wider: 74 percent to 18 percent among voters under 35.

“That’s a phenomenally high number, and that’s certainly where his core support is,” said Andrew E. Smith, director of the survey center and associate professor of political science. “But those people are the least likely to get out on Election Day, and getting them out to the polls” will require a major organizational effort.


Sanders has courted young voters with plans designed to appeal directly to them. He pledges to eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities and to pay for the $75 billion program with a tax on Wall Street transactions. He vows to help students refinance their loans at lower interest rates. And he promises to decriminalize marijuana possession.

“There’s a lot of times that presidential candidates just ignore the problems of students and the things we go through,” said De La Cruz, who attends Dartmouth. “He’s the only candidate who really cares about what students think.”

At Dartmouth, Sanders asked the students to shout out the interest rates on their college loans.

As voices in the crowd called out higher and higher numbers — “15!” 18!” “21!” — Sanders said he felt like he was taking bids at a “Vermont auction.”

“I feel like 21 is going to take it,” he told the students, to laughter. “I don’t know what you’re going to get, except a lot of misery.”

De La Cruz, who grew up on food stamps in Iowa, leapt out of his seat and cheered when Sanders vowed to fight “the billionaires who have wreaked havoc on our people” and promised the audience that “we have a path to victory to transform this country.”


“I really think, if the wage gap between the billionaire class and common Americans like me and my mom wasn’t so great, I feel like growing up I would have had a lot fewer hard times,” De La Cruz said.

Diana VanderClute, 22, who works at Dirt Cowboy Café, said she does not trust Clinton but would still vote for her, if she were the nominee, because “I do not want Donald Trump.”

But she jumped in the air when she heard Sanders was speaking on campus.

“Even if I don’t agree with everything he says, he seems genuine, and he cares about social justice issues,” VanderClute said, praising Sanders’ support for gay rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. “He just says what’s on his mind.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the age of Senator Bernie Sanders.