The 2020 Democratic primary began with a historically crowded field of contenders vying for the attention of an electorate with admittedly limited resources. Few candidates would have the ability to make it to Iowa, and even fewer would have the grassroots or institutional support to make it to Wisconsin’s primary in April.
Even with multiple states electing to suspend their primaries until May or even June, the Wisconsin primary is relatively late in the delegate allocation process. With Gov. Tony Evers’ attempts to adjust the primary and mass mail out ballots currently stymied by state Republicans, Wisconsinites were always going to face a greatly narrowed field of candidates from which to choose come April 7.
College students and young people, and perhaps more generally the electorate at large, have always wanted a candidate who speaks to the issues that matter to them most. For a majority of those on campus, this is often large, existential threats like climate change, student debt and income inequality — issues that many believe fundamentally require institutional change to address.
With candidates dropping out left and right, from Beto O’Rourke in Nov. 2019, Kamala Harris the following month and then the departures of Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren in relatively quick succession in 2020, the field has narrowed. And as candidates are weeded out, the question of how Madison youth will vote becomes more and more pressing.
Campus Democrats Divide
For Brody Manquen and Karl Koesser, both members of Badgers for Bernie on campus, Sen. Bernie Sanders, despite his age, is the candidate who best represents their vision of institutional change that inspires them to action. Without him, they expect simply more of the same as crucial reforms will go by the wayside.
“That’s why someone like Bernie was appealing to me, it wasn’t a promise of a return to normalcy,” Manquen said. “As somebody who grew up during that normalcy, it was not just hunky dory, it wasn’t fine. Bernie is one of the only ones who’s addressed these underlying issues.”
But for their movement, the large change Sanders promises is more than just a reason to support him, it’s the reason they think he’s the best man to beat Donald Trump come November. Even after Super Tuesday, where Joe Biden snagged a decisive victory on a day that was supposed to be a huge win for Sanders in both Texas and California, they believe Biden’s ability to win in a general election should be questioned.
When moderate candidates try to build a broad coalition, Koesser maintained that they often lack the organization prowess necessary to forge a winning movement. He said it is precisely that kind of powerful movement Sanders has built, particularly among young people, and Biden does not.
“Joe Biden significantly underperformed in early states other than South Carolina, which he spent all of his money on,” Koesser said. “He literally wasn’t in another Super Tuesday state for a month. He had one office in many states including California. This guy is not organizing, and if you think that level of campaign structure and that ambivalence toward voters in numerous states can win, you just have to look at 2016.”
Despite this, Biden enjoyed victory after victory following the departure of Buttigieg, Klobuchar and former mayor Mike Bloomberg from the race. The more moderate lane of the Democratic party coalesced around Biden and appears to have made him the presumptive nominee. FiveThirtyEight even gives Biden a 98% chance to capture a majority of delegates.
Adding credence to this, states where voter turnout increased the most seemed to have swung for Biden even more so than those where it did not. Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and even Texas all saw sizable increases in voter turnout within the Democratic party. In Texas, where Sanders was banking on increasing voter turnout to win, Biden came out on top.
But this doesn’t change the imperative Badgers for Bernie feels to galvanize youth support behind Sanders. Without it, they feel 2016 is bound to repeat itself if more young people do not get involved in the political process.
“I think there were a lot of people, particularly young people, who were awakened by 2016 happening,” Koesser said. “I hope that trend continues because the entire way any of this stuff changes is if, for example [young people] start turning out in numbers to vote.”
Notably, when young voters do turnout, they overwhelmingly do so for Sanders. In his stronghold of California, 68% of 18-29-year-olds went for Sanders and 59% of 30-44 year olds voted for him as well. But, these age groups made up a measly 34% of the total primary electorate.
Even as Sanders enjoys rampant success among younger voters, it remains true the youth vote is not a monolith. In Madison and across the nation, students regularly do not buy into Sanders’ vision of revolutionary change. University of Wisconsin sophomore Tyler Kiser detailed why he would prefer Biden to Sanders in a head-to-head contest.
“I think Bernie Sanders’ overall campaign ideals are just way too radical for what the current U.S. needs,” Kiser said. “There’s pros and cons to all of it, but in my opinion, implementing more government programs and more government interaction will cause more chaos with the actual state of the U.S.”
Within this distinction lies the fundamental difference between two sides of an ongoing debate within Madison Democratic circles and the rest of the country as a whole. Not only is it a question of electability, it’s one of preference. Even many students on campus do not see a place for themselves within Sanders’ revolutionary style of politics.
Unifying the Left
Regardless of which side of this debate students fall on, it will be crucial to organize in April and beyond if Democrats are to have a shot to take back the White House and capture down ballot races. The College Democrats of UW-Madison will undoubtedly be at the front lines of this effort to galvanize campus support when it is needed most.
“We have canvassing almost every single weekend,” Abby Schinderle, press secretary for the College Democrats, said. “We regularly partner with the Young Progressives for those weekends just to get a bigger membership base. Because we are a chapter of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, essentially every weekend or day that they have big weekends of action or movements, we also do.”
Injecting energy into the youth base is crucial to any campaign effort. The largest problem moving forward is how to organize this support around a candidate who may not be the first choice of younger voters on campus and in Madison generally. Despite national youth trends toward supporting Sanders, it’s of note that his local efforts may play a role as well in Madison.
His existing organization structure in Madison is clear and present. On top of his strong support from organizations like Badgers for Bernie, Sanders also opened up a Madison field office earlier in March.
Comparatively, Biden is lagging well behind in this respect. He lacks a significant campus presence and does not currently have a field office established within Madison. In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal March 12, Biden’s director of strategic communications, Kamau Marshall, was indirect in describing the campaign’s intentions to organize in Wisconsin.
“We are coming there,” Marshall said. “I can’t say when, but I feel confident enough to say that we will be there … It’s a state that we take seriously.”
In his lack of local presence, organizations like College Democrats will play a large role in the interim to unify support around the presumptive nominee. Given the youth propensity to lean for Sanders, their burden will be higher should Biden become the nominee.
But, even when speaking to those same supporters of Sanders who clearly identified with his vision, there was an ever-present desire to defeat Donald Trump above all other priorities. Even if it meant compromising on certain issues, there appeared a common goal that united progressives and more moderate liberals alike.
“The most broad group I associate with is the Democratic party just for the reason of mitigating harm,” Manquen said. “Because of the two party system, I can’t really bring myself to vote against a Democrat when there’s a Republican who can win.”
This unifying desire for victory is embraced by even the furthest left of political organizations on campus. The Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter in Madison has been hard at work to fight for Sanders in the Democratic primary as well as for the implementation of progressive policy proposals such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and anti-war measures.
The views held by YDSA-Madison and the Sanders campaign, were they to be represented in a venn-diagram, would be nearly concentric circles. It is this fact that drives them to unite with other progressive groups, Badgers for Bernie included, to fight for his election. Sari Hattis, an office of YDSA-Madison, described the extent to which this would continue even if Sanders was not the nominee.
“Even though we don’t support capitalism and question a lot about the establishment, we realize that we have to first work within the system,” Hattis said. “I can’t speak for everyone, I guess. But, I would say most people I’ve talked to would definitely vote for [Biden over Trump]. Nobody would be happy about it, obviously.”
An Uphill Battle
Here lies the crux of the problem faced by Democrats in Madison and around the nation: how can you unify a split base of voters, one young and predominantly progressive, the other older and largely favoring the establishment? While the desire to beat Trump rings strongly for seemingly all sides of the Democratic Party, it will take the efforts of everyone to defeat him come November, especially as Republican general election organizational structures are already being ramped up.
Republicans have had their eyes turned toward Nov. 2020 ever since they lost the House in 2018, and there is little doubt they are entering this race well organized and well funded. College Republicans of UW-Madison are no exception to this rule. Fresh off a trip to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., Communications Director Evan Karabas made clear the efforts to which they would go to ensure victory come November.
“We had November 3rd, 2020 in our sights since the 2018 election,” Karabas said. “We started organizing earlier than we ever have before for an election. That said, our main focus right now is mobilizing as many youth voters as possible. We are building a huge coalition of youth activists to make voter contacts and get out the vote, especially in areas that historically have low Republican voter turnout.”
Trump carried Wisconsin by just under 23,000 votes in the 2016 presidential election — yielding a razor thin margin of just 0.77%. Nearly every poll points toward another tight race in Wisconsin come November. While Democratic voters must work to unify support around a single candidate, campus Republicans already have their unifying figure.
Even in the liberal landscape that is Madison, College Republicans believe they can increase turnout and cut into the Democratic base of support required to carry the state. Much like the principled supporters of Sanders, they feel there is a dedicated group of supporters willing to turn out to show their support for Donald Trump specifically.
“We have an opportunity to turn out an unprecedented amount of conservative voters in an area that’s known for being a Democrat stronghold in Wisconsin,” Karabas said. “ There is no question that people are very engaged with Donald Trump himself. As he is more or less the face of the Republican Party currently, the excitement he generates tends to help the other Republican candidates for office as well.”
This is what camp Democrats will find themselves up against come November. An organized, galvanized and unified Republican party willing to put all their efforts toward a single election cycle looms on the horizon.
The Madison youth have made their voices heard loud and clear this primary election cycle, and will take that pride to the ballot box. What remains to be seen is the cries those voices make come the official nominees, and the general election in November.