NEW HAMPSHIRE – First-time Democratic voters are flocking en masse to Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old senator with seven grandchildren, giving Hillary Clinton a youth deficit problem as the White House race tightens.
The pioneering former first lady and secretary of state mounting a second attempt to become America’s first female president has been forced to acknowledge she needs to connect better with younger voters.
Polls show that the Vermont senator, born during World War II and satirized by comedian Larry David as having only one pair of underpants, annihilates Clinton among Democrats under 30.
According to Friday’s University of Massachusetts/Lowell poll, he has 89 percent support among young voters in New Hampshire, which next week holds the first state primary of the 2016 race. In the Iowa caucus, Sanders won 84 percent of the Democratic vote among people aged 17 to 29.
His call for a political revolution to limit the greed of Wall Street, restrict billionaires’ donations to political campaigns, provide universal health care and tuition-free public colleges, as well as his call for the legalization of marijuana are cited most often as reasons.
Many students at the University of New Hampshire, where annual tuition fees start at around $17,000, identify with his message but others question how he can ever enact his promises if elected.
“It’s definitely very interesting hearing about Bernie Sanders and this grass-roots campaign that has blossomed into kind of a huge phenomenon almost,” said Kelly Pedersen, 18.
Born during former President Bill Clinton’s second term in office, she says she is leaning toward the Democrats for her first-time vote.
“College debt is a huge part of our lives,” she said.
“He may be a much older gentleman but I think what resonates most is he’s thinking about our generation because he also knows that we’re the future. I think that’s a really important thing.”
Entrepreneurship student Kendre Rodriguez, 21, says it is easy to see Sanders’s appeal, particularly on home turf in New England.
“He tells a really good story and I think part of running a successful political campaign is how well you connect with the audience.”
Perhaps the most frequent criticism of Clinton is that her message emphasizing longevity and experience focuses too much on herself, whereas Sanders spends more time telling voters what he wants to do for them.
Friday’s Quinnipiac University poll puts Clinton and Sanders neck and neck on 44 percent to 42 percent nationally with 11 percent undecided, a leap forward for Sanders, who trailed Clinton 30 points in December.
D’Mahl McFadden, a 22-year-old sports recreation student and political independent, says he is trying to decide between Sanders or Marco Rubio, the young Florida senator surging in Republican polls.
Asked what he liked about Sanders, he said his “chillness.”
“He really seems to be about the people,” said McFadden, who professes admiration for President Barack Obama. He reserves his strongest criticism for Clinton and Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
“Despise them a lot,” he said. “I think there’s a whole side of her we don’t know. I just don’t trust her.”
Kyle McCrory, 22, a Russian and international affairs major, agreed about Clinton but said he also had major reservations about Sanders.
“Hillary seems a little bit shifty and untrustworthy,” he said. “Among young voters she seems very out of touch and all her attempts to reach out to younger people feel very artificial.”
He recognizes Sanders rapport with students, but said he is concerned about his chances of actually winning in a country where his self-professed democratic socialism also inspires distrust.
“It’s kind of a dirty word in America,” McCrory said. “Even if you do have friendly feelings towards that, you know enough people don’t that it’ll be a millstone around his neck.”
Jack Sullivan, 20, who is studying marketing, said he is leaning toward Rubio but he also bucks the trend by being impressed by Clinton.
“I think what some college kids don’t understand is if (Sanders) actually does get into the presidency that we’re going to have to pay for that free college and still pay for our college,” he said.
“I think there’s a little bit of naivety in that. But he’s doing very well in the polling, he’s doing it right so you’ve got to give him credit.”
“A lot of young voters don’t understand the fiscal side of it,” agreed finance major and Clinton admirer Nicholas Tougias, 20. “They don’t understand that we have to pay taxes to pay for all these things.”