Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a NextGen America and MoveOn Political Action rally for youth voter mobilization at Rackham Auditorium Saturday evening.
Tess Crowley/Daily. Buy this photo.

During his stop in Ann Arbor this Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., made the case for reproductive rights, climate action and economic equality. I arrived at the event an hour and a half early with a question top of mind, a legal pad in hand and a readiness to write.

While in line, I was handed pamphlets by Communist party advocates, lectured about the need for tighter wastewater regulation in the Huron River and approached by young activists asking to sign me up for volunteer shifts. With a few exceptions, nearly everyone else in line was my age. 

That’s to be expected on a college campus. However, Sanders has a long history of garnering youth support. Sanders has a 75% approval rating among young voters. President Joe Biden, in contrast, lags significantly behind with this group. Since 2018, young voter turnout has risen substantially. Attracting these voters is no longer optional. It’s critical to any Democratic victory in 2022 and 2024. 

I attended Saturday’s event because I’ve had a question Berning since Sanders’s first presidential race in 2016: How on earth did this 81-year-old man become so popular with people young enough to be his grandchildren? 

Based on his speech Saturday, Sanders’s popularity with young voters stems from three characteristics. 

First, Sanders’s independent standing gives him more leave to criticize both mainstream political parties. He’s able to quickly pivot to issues young people care about and he’s an expert at energizing and connecting with supporters. 

If other Democrats want to be as popular with Generation Z as Sanders is, they’ll have to start incorporating some of his strategies into their own campaigns. 

Though he caucuses with the Democrats, Sanders isn’t a Democrat himself. Officially, Sanders is an independent, and describes himself as a “democratic socialist.” Because of this, Sanders has had more openings to critique both parties. 

Sanders’s contempt for the GOP is well documented. Two weeks ago, he accused the Republican Party of having no economic plan beyond blaming liberals and called election-denying from the right “a cowardly, wimpy response to political defeat” on Saturday. 

But he hasn’t left the Democratic Party bruiseless either. He recently asserted that “the Democratic party has turned its back on the working class” as a cause for the rise of Republicanism in rural areas. 

In a world where most Americans have an unfavorable view of both Democrats and Republicans and 56% want a third party, that independence is a strength and a quality to whivh voters are increasingly responsive. Candidates who can balance supporting their party while also criticizing it are in demand. 

Second, Sanders recognizes that the youth bloc simply has different priorities than the rest of the country. From the students I interviewed at the event, a few common issues stuck out: reproductive rights, access to health care and student loan forgiveness. As if he overheard us, Sanders highlighted all three in his speech. To clarify, a Democrat doesn’t necessarily need to agree with Sanders to get that support. Ignoring these causes, however, is a non-starter. To mimic Sanders, candidates need to recognize the importance of these issues and offer up their own solutions. 

On stage, Sanders struck first at abortion. Sarcastically calling Supreme Court justices “geniuses,” he criticized the Dobbs decision that let states ban abortion in June, saying, “It’s hard to believe … in the year 2022 these people have determined that women are not intelligent enough to control their own bodies.” These comments were met with resounding applause. 

With health care, Sanders focused on the rising cost of prescription drugs, speaking to how he and his supporters drove from Michigan to Ontario, Canada to buy insulin at “10% of the cost.” These comments, too, were met with applause. 

When Sanders got to the issue of education, shouts of “I love you, Bernie!” had been exclaimed and audience members had burst from their seats to clap multiple times. The energy was electric. Sanders argued that forgiving student loan debt and expanding access to college education were necessary to ensure global competitiveness. Rather than settle for Biden’s limited student debt forgiveness program, Sanders advocated for free college and university tuition nationwide, concluding that “We’ve got to cancel all student debt in this country.” You can imagine what the crowd of around 1,000 college students thought of that idea.

My final point rests on Sanders’s ability to connect with and energize voters, both on stage and through other mediums. LSA sophomore Vrunda Patel, who attended Saturday’s event, highlighted Sanders’s use of social media to connect with young voters, saying, “It’s really encouraging to see him post [about] … the difference in wages for women and men … those are issues that matter to us.” LSA junior Kadisha Akbar echoed that sentiment, saying, “He’s funny and relatable.”

Toward the end of the event, I was ushered backstage past Capitol police to meet the Senator himself before he continued on to Pennsylvania, the last stop on his tour before Election Day Tuesday. We smiled for a picture, I put my hand around his shoulder and stammered a quick “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.” 

For all his divisive speeches, bombastic comments and far-reaching policies, Bernie Sanders feels radically familiar. Sanders is credible when he criticizes both parties. He’s credible when he gives his position on an issue. He’s credible when he speaks to his audience, be it onstage, online or behind a curtain. When Sanders gets quiet, leans forward and starts a rant with “what politicians often don’t tell you…” young people believe him. Young voters trust Bernie Sanders. That’s why he’s loved by so many. 

John Kapcar is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at