HENNIKER, N.H. — Sheila Rose-Switzer, 74, traveled to a nearby college campus last week to see Pete Buttigieg, the youngest Democrat running for president.
Surrounded by more seniors than college students, the snowy-haired Rose-Switzer realized during Buttigieg’s 20-minute speech that she had found her candidate in a politician half her age.
“He’s youthful like JFK was,” she said after the town hall at New England College, recalling watching President John F. Kennedy on TV in the early 1960s, when he was in his 40s and she was in high school. “And he could bring the country together like he talked about.”
Maybe it’s the hint of the Kennedyesque, maybe it’s that the relentlessly articulate and polite 37-year-old Buttigieg comes across as an older person’s idea of what a young person should be. The South Bend, Ind., mayor is winning big support from some of the oldest Democrats in early voting states like New Hampshire, where he is leading the field among voters over 65 in one recent poll.
But Buttigieg struggles to win over the young. That’s Bernie country. The oldest candidate in the race, the determinedly crotchety 78-year-old Senator Sanders, is a hit with the youngest voters tracking the 2020 campaign.
And, to note another eye-opening trend, black candidates such as Senator Kamala Harris, who recently dropped out, and Senator Cory Booker have failed to cut into the base of support among black voters for former vice president Joe Biden.
It is, so far, the year of unexpected demographic juxtapositions, a year that has defied the assumptions of some pundits and politicos who say candidates of a certain age, race, or gender tend to appeal to voters who share those traits. They recall Hillary Clinton’s strength with female voters in 2016 and Barack Obama’s edge with both younger and black voters in the 2008 primary.
So what is the difference now?
Primary voters appear to be looking past demographic allegiances to something even more basic: a candidate’s electability and ideological orientation in a high-stakes race against a president many Democrats see as an existential threat.
Biden, stressing at every stop his work with former president Obama, has centered his campaign on his claim to having the best shot of beating President Trump. And many young voters back septuagenarians Senator Elizabeth Warren and Sanders, saying Buttigieg’s youth is less important to them than that he is less reliably liberal on subjects such as student loan debt, health care, and structural economic change.
“I mean, he’s cool, but he’s too moderate,” said 19-year-old Quinn Francis-Collins, who saw Warren speak in Iowa City this month. “And that alone I’m not the hugest fan of.”
Francis-Collins did, however, have one consolation for Buttigieg. “My mom loves him,” she said.
In New Hampshire, Buttigieg is the favored candidate among voters over 65, a Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll found late last month, and older voters’ embrace of him there and in Iowa has propelled him to the top tier in these two crucial early states. Sanders, in contrast, attracts more than half of young Democratic voters under 35 nationally, with Warren notching the second-largest share of them at 17 percent, according to a Quinnipiac poll released this week. Only 2 percent of those younger voters nationally said they back the young mayor.
When asked by the Globe about the disparity, Buttigieg said he is building a “generational alliance” of voters of all ages with promises of “bold action.”
“The message I have for younger voters is that the longer you’re planning to be here the more you have at stake in the decisions that are about to be made,” Buttigieg said.
Voters and political analysts say Sanders’s and Warren’s focus on free four-year college and wiping out student debt is a large part of their appeal to young voters over Buttigieg; he, meanwhile, has said it’s unfair to provide free tuition to the children of wealthy people. The same dynamic could apply to Biden, who doesn’t include a blanket amnesty on student loans in his policy agenda and also struggles with the youth vote.
“Forget the age of the candidate, it’s the policies they’re talking about,” said Joe Trippi, who ran former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004.
Some older Buttigieg fans said that student debt isn’t at the top of their priority list, with many drawn to him for his military experience, calm and steady demeanor, and intelligence.
“I’m not in college anymore so I don’t have to worry about free college, which is something she talked about,” said Steven Damm, a 59-year-old Iowan who saw Warren speak at a recent event but is leaning toward Buttigieg. “There’s just a lot of free stuff being thrown around. And I think that’s probably more important to the younger people.”
“I’ve already paid off my college, so that’s not going to help me,” Damm added.
But it’s not just policy positions that are driving political trends. Sanders’s young fans also point out that the senator has a youthful way about him despite his age and recent heart attack. Some also tout the endorsement of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young progressive star with a large social media following, as a plus.
“I think Bernie really brings a lot of energy, which is why a lot of younger people like him,” said Dover, N.H., resident Tim Wells, 24, who is torn between Buttigieg and Sanders. “He’s a very high-energy person, and he’s very exciting to watch speak.”
Older voters who back Buttigieg, however, tend to be more skeptical of the stamina of candidates in their 70s, saying they know from personal experience how age can take its toll.
“I have a hard time with Bernie and Biden with their age,” said 62-year-old Lori Rainey, a New Hampshire voter who is deciding between Buttigieg and Warren. “I really do. I mean we’re in our 60s. God bless them that they can do this in their late 70s. I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
“You wonder what’s happening behind the scenes,” joked her husband, Dan Rainey, 64, who is backing Buttigieg. “How many naps are they taking per day?”
Unlike Sanders, the 77-year-old Biden defies the pattern to a degree, enjoying strong support among older voters while struggling to attract millennials. And it’s not just Biden’s self-proclaimed “electability” against Trump that older voters like; a Quinnipiac poll found that 28 percent of voters over age 65 rate Biden’s mix of policy ideas the best in the field, with only 4 percent of them rating Sanders’s the best. In contrast, just 4 percent of young voters say Biden’s ideas are the best.
Biden attracts more than half of black voters nationally, according to a recent survey, with Sanders and Warren picking up another quarter of black voters between them, many of whom are younger than Biden’s supporters. Booker, the last major black candidate in the race, who’s struggled to break through in the primary, captured just 1 percent of black voters.
Dava James, 67, an African-American community activist who watched Biden speak at Iowa State, said she was frustrated that people sometimes assume she backs the former vice president solely because of his support in minority communities. She also agrees with him on his stances on education, women’s reproductive rights, health care, and a whole host of other issues, she said. His perceived electability is another plus.
“I think he has the best chances of defeating King Trump,” James added.
That ideological generational split — with younger Democrats embracing more liberal views and candidates — has led some young people to lash out with a dismissive “OK, boomer” meme on social media at older people they disagree with.
But Wendy Swan, 57, who watched Biden and his new 76-year-old endorser John Kerry speak in Cedar Rapids last week, said she believed Democrats needed to stick with a middle-of-the-road candidate who could win mass support among older voters in battleground states.
And she predicted her age cohort will likely have the final say.
Young people “may scream and shout, but they don’t vote,” said the small business owner. “You can call me a boomer all you want, I don’t care.”