CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — College students are back on campus. Bernie Sanders is, too.
Earlier this month at Iowa State University, he lectured to young voters as they played “Green New Deal Pong” (the Solo cups were filled with green-colored water) and “Bern Bag Toss.” At the University of Nevada, Reno, he croaked through a hoarse voice to address a crowd that stretched from the college lawn to the open-air floors of a parking garage beside it.
And at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Thursday evening, he implored students to get themselves to the primary polls come February — and vote for him.
“You have friends out there, and I know you do, who think that the political system” is absurd, he said, using a colorful expletive. “Tell them that instead of just complaining, they must get involved into the political process.”
It was a sentiment he has repeated often this month as he crisscrossed the country on what has amounted to a whirlwind back-to-school tour. In Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and South Carolina, he has by turns used flattery (“Your generation is the most progressive younger generation in the history of this country”) and subtle warnings (“The future of this country and in fact the world rests with your generation”) to bolster his appeals.
Everywhere, his goal was the same: muster a version of the army of young voters who propelled his campaign in 2016.
His message was one that has resonated with Brianna Williams, 19, who arrived with a group of friends to hear him in Chapel Hill. “I’ve seen a lot of his policies, and I’m just excited for what he has to offer as a candidate,” she said.
But she was just as excited by Senator Elizabeth Warren. “I would love to see a woman running the country,” she said. “That would be really cool.”
Last time around, Mr. Sanders’s rants against the elite and promises of free college tuition endeared him to legions of young fans. It also helped that Mr. Sanders — 74 at the time, with unruly white hair and an old-school Brooklyn accent — was both decidedly uncool and new to presidential politics, affording his campaign a paradoxical edge that inspired millions of young supporters to “feel the bern” and vote for him over Hillary Clinton.
As he fights anew for the Democratic nomination, it is not lost on him or his allies that his success hinges, in no small part, on his ability to capture that enthusiasm again — for both the optics of his race and the actual votes.
But this time he is no longer an insurgent, nor is he the only anti-establishment candidate in the race — factors that helped boost his standing among young voters. With the race entering the crucial fall period, other candidates, including Ms. Warren and Andrew Yang, have begun siphoning off some of his support.
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Even Mr. Sanders’s closest advisers acknowledge that he cannot take for granted a voting cohort they view as critical, even if it is traditionally unreliable in actually making it to the ballot box.
“Last time it was much more organic,” Faiz Shakir, Mr. Sanders’s campaign manager, said. “And this time it’s far more intentional.”
People playing “Green New Deal Pong” at a Sanders rally at Iowa State University in Ames.CreditJordan Gale for The New York Times
In interviews, many young voters still praised Mr. Sanders, sometimes breathlessly — citing his authenticity and conviction but also his calls for free college and universal health care and his proposal to cancel student debt. But many also expressed curiosity, if not exuberance, about other candidates
“I love everything he stands for,” said Asha Loutsch, 18, as she sat with a circle of friends who were waiting for his event at the University of Iowa. “I think he really cares about what he’s trying to say. Like, he’s always getting up in there, you know?”
But she also said she was interested in Ms. Warren and wanted to hear her speak.
Jiego Lim, an 18-year-old student at the University of Nevada, Reno, who was volunteering at Mr. Sanders’s event there, said he supported Mr. Sanders but was also intrigued by Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Kamala Harris. “I feel like we need a fresh new face in politics,” he said. “Bernie comes off aggressive to me sometimes.”
Others were less equivocal.
“He’s America’s dad,” offered Gabriel Olier, 19, a student in Reno. “I love Bernie.”
That affection for Mr. Sanders is reflected in some more tangible metrics. His campaign said it had so far raised over $1 million from people under the age of 25, a relatively small figure compared to his overall haul but one that nevertheless points to his continued strength with young voters.
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And in most polls, Mr. Sanders still maintains a strong lead among young voters: A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey showed that a third of voters under 35 supported him.
Yet at the same time, a quarter of these respondents said they supported Ms. Warren, suggesting Mr. Sanders no longer has the same hold on the group he had in 2016.
Any candidate relying on the support of younger voters faces an undeniable challenge: Younger voters tend not to vote in high numbers compared with other groups. In the 2016 election, for instance, only 11 percent of voters under 30 participated in the Iowa caucuses, representing just 15 percent of the total, according to an estimate from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
But the high turnout among young voters during the 2018 midterm elections has given some experts hope that the 2020 election will be different. That strong showing has provided organizers with a larger pool to identify and target potential presidential voters. Issues, including climate change, criminal justice, health care and gun control, are also motivating young voters to act.
“The truth is that if younger people in this country voted at the same level as people 65 and over, we could transform this country,” Mr. Sanders said this month at the University of Iowa. “Please do it!”
John Della Volpe, the director of polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, said that Mr. Sanders was still “doing really well” but that the field was more complex and his pool of support was smaller.
“At this stage, he’s essentially sharing support of young people in most polls with Elizabeth Warren,” Mr. Della Volpe said. “The idea of going after structural reforms is really, I think, what is resonating so clearly with young people.”
Indeed, of all the other candidates, it is Ms. Warren who appears to be generating the most powerful wave of energy among young voters in Democratic presidential politics — particularly among those who once supported Mr. Sanders.
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Olivia Stecklein, 19, a student at the University of Iowa, said she had been a fan of Mr. Sanders since 2015 but was now choosing between him and Ms. Warren.
“I feel like they’re pretty similar, but I just kind of like how Elizabeth Warren has a set-out plan for everything,” she said. “She just seems very prepared.”
Eliza Link, 18, a University of Iowa student, said she was also deciding between Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren.
“I think they’re both the cool aunt and uncle of the political race right now,” she said.
With his characteristic verve that can exhaust even young reporters, Mr. Sanders has been in an all-out sprint to earn the vote of the youths, months before any of them can even cast their vote.
His team set up a Bernie Summer School program to train campus leaders in the art of campaigning. He urged his campaign to get him back on college campuses in the first weeks of the new school year. He constantly asks his team to share data on young voters.
To win over the group, however, Mr. Sanders will have to convince people like Tim Watts, 19.
Before Mr. Sanders’s event in Reno, Mr. Watts wore a “MATH” hat, the universal accessory of Yang supporters.
But despite his overt support for Mr. Yang — who in some ways is benefiting from the outsider status among young voters that Mr. Sanders enjoyed in 2016 — Mr. Watts said he had not yet closed the door on Mr. Sanders.
“I’m part of the Yang gang, I guess,” he said. “I will probably feel the bern later.”
Rachel Shorey contributed reporting from Washington.
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