Bernie Sanders wins over younger New Yorkers — but can they vote?

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders might have support from a younger electorate than his rival Hillary Clinton. But whether they can actually cast ballots in New York's closed primary is another matter.

Sanders energizes voters with 'authentic' appeal ahead of April 19 contest

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at Hunters Point park, in the Queens borough of New York. Some of his supporters won't be allowed to vote in tomorrow's closed primary. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

Polls will close in the New York primary at 9 p.m. ET. CBC will have live coverage of the results after the polls close, including a live blog featuring reporters Lyndsay Duncombe, Matt Kwong and Steven D'Souza starting at 7 p.m. ET.

How best to describe the national exuberance surrounding Bernie Sanders?

It's angry yet optimistic. Disaffected yet energized. And it's young. Very, very young.

At a Long Island City rally last night ahead of today's New York primary, a crowd of bedhead-chic activists, some of them sipping Narragansett tallboys, waved signs and chanted "No more status quo" in support of the Democratic presidential candidate.

But there was also a group of high-schoolers in "Feel the Bern" T-shirts, sitting in the grass and finishing algebra homework as they waited for Sanders to arrive. Most of them were only 16, two years shy of voting age.

One supporter took a camera out of her My Little Pony backpack to take photos when the opening act, art rockers TV on the Radio, took the stage.

"Yeah, baby, Bernie 2016!"

Someone in a knitted toque who looked to be in his early 20s yelled when the Vermont senator finally showed up, whistling on cue to applause lines slamming "the billionaires" and a "rigged economy."

A group of high-school teens attends a Bernie Sanders rally in New York City on Monday. Although Sanders is particular popular among youths, pundits question whether supporters will actually translate to votes. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"Bernie just energizes something in me," said 26-year-old Long Islander Elizabeth Vidic, who attended the rally with her aunt. "He's just authentic. He doesn't lie like the other politicians. I've never felt this political before."

Gloria Garcia, 30, and her friends brought a bottle of white wine and a towel to sit on.

The danger here is that all of this is a show- Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, on Sanders's

"It's so chill here," she marvelled. "Like a concert, not a political rally."

The Sanders team certainly knows how to put on a show. A weekend get-out-the-vote event drew thousands of people to Brooklyn's Prospect Park for doses of indie rock and a lecture on campaign finance reform.

Whether the 74-year-old Vermont senator is riding on political stagecraft rather than a real display of electoral support will only become clear following tomorrow's election

An 'illusion' of support?

How many of these young faces show up to cast ballots in New York's closed primary is what will count.

"The danger here is that all of this is a show," cautioned New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, noting that younger first-time voters could tip the balance.

Sanders poses for a photo while walking in the Jackson Heights neighbourhood of the Queens borough of New York. Sanders, who was born in New York, is seeking a big win against Hillary Clinton in today's primary. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

But millennials 'feeling the Bern' may well encounter a frustrating roadblock, namely New York State's restrictive rules for closed primaries. The rules favour Clinton, as Sanders has greater support among independents.

Sheinkopf, who is not affiliated with any Democratic campaign, has some doubt about how effectively Sanders's message will translate into votes.

"What Bernie Sanders has done smartly is create this illusion," he said. "By having rallies and other kinds of big, public activities involving large numbers of people, he's somehow got a greater attraction for voters throughout the state. The only way to test that is to see if those who turn out at the events actually turn out to vote."

'I'm unable to vote for Bernie'

At the Long Island City rally, Garcia and two of her friends counted themselves among the casualties of New York State's election laws.

"I only recently switched from independent to Democrat, so I'm unable to vote for Bernie," she said. "It's very upsetting. But I'm just here to show my support."

Gloria Garcia, 30, waits for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to speak at Hunters Point South Park in Long Island City on Monday. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The same goes for Vidic, the Long Islander who attended last night's event with her aunt.

Marissa Power, 25, and her friend Grace Chambers, 26, wearing "Bernie 2016" stickers, only learned yesterday they would not be able to vote today.

"I'm in the process of switching to register as a Democrat right now," Power said, unaware she would have had to have done so six months ago.

If the polls are to be believed, Sanders could have really used their ballots.

A Real Clear Politics polling average of likely New York Democratic voters has front-runner Hillary Clinton outpacing Sanders by 12 points, with the former Secretary of State capturing 53.6 per cent favourability to her opponent's 41.6 per cent.

Sanders has countered by questioning the reliability of public polls. He needn't look further than Michigan to illustrate his point.

Elizabeth Vidic, right, a 26-year-old Long Islander, poses at a Bernie Sanders rally on Monday with her aunt, Melissa. As with some other young New York voters, Vidic will not be able to vote in the New York primary due to her inability to register as a Democrat in time. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

His upset victory there last month stunned pundits, who noted that he overcame a double-digit shortfall in state polls to edge out Clinton, taking 67 pledged delegates to her 63.

Sanders has managed to tap into a grassroots political movement driven by small, incremental donations averaging $27 US at a time from more than four million individual contributions.

That holds mass appeal for millennial voters like 23-year-old Tom Huzij.

From left: Nathan Fennell, 27, and friends Grace Chambers, 26, and Marissa Power, 25, attend a rally in Long Island City for Bernie Sanders. While all three Brooklyn residents support Sanders, only Fennell can vote in the New York Democratic primary due to state election rules. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"Older people feel Hillary runs on the old political engine, and younger people don't subscribe to that," he said. "Call it 'Establishment,' anyone who supports the old model of having your political campaign financed by giant corporations."

Authenticity was a major selling point for Sanders among the Long Island crowd. If anything, his unpolished style, cantankerous demeanour and ill-fitting suits are all part of the package.

"It's not like he's particularly hip or cool," said 31-year-old Jamie Peck, a writer. "But a lot of young people are f—cked in this economy. A lot of us don't have health care, or are working minimum-wage jobs."

She dismissed critical talk of political impracticality and moonshot goals such as a $15 minimum wage and a proposal for free tuition at public colleges and universities.

"Idealism? That's utter bullshit," she said. "These are things that a lot of other countries have in the developed world."

Perception versus reality

Clinton supporters have expressed openness to backing Sanders in a general election should he become the eventual Democratic nominee. Only 14 per cent of them say they would shun him, according to a McClatchy-Marist poll released this month.

Were the roles to be reversed, far more Sanders supporters — 25 per cent — say they would reject Clinton.

Sanders has lambasted Clinton over her record and her ties to Wall Street. Sanders said on Twitter that his tax return shows he 'made less in one year as a U.S. Senator than Sec. Clinton did in one speech to Wall Street.' (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

Brooklyn Sanders supporter Pat Raymond, 26, said he would rather cast a ballot for Green Party candidate Jill Stein if Clinton clinches the nomination.

"My main thing is getting big money out of politics," he said.

For Clinton, who served eight years in the U.S. Senate representing New York, losing New York State would be devastating. But even a slim-margin victory over Sanders could raise questions among Democratic insiders about the strength of her candidacy.

Winning by double digits will comfort party brass, Sheinkopf says. As unlikely as a Sanders victory is, carrying New York would still not give him a viable path to the nomination.

"Winning New York would create perception, sure. But it doesn't give him the delegates he needs [to win the nomination]," Sheinkopf says.

"It's a long way to go from here to there."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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