The age gap in 2016 Democratic primary is well documented. Here’s just one example from the latest Morning Consult Poll:
The age gap is commonly attributed to older voters fear of a self proclaimed socialist. They lived though the cold war and were strongly socialized into a belief in free markets. Younger voters, who didn’t live through the Cold War, have no such bias.
There is a good amount of empirical support for these claims. Sanders’ socialism seems quite central to his brand–it’s the top unaided response to his name according to a Gallup poll. Secondly, there is a large age gap around opinion of socialism. Again using a Gallup poll, 55% of voters age 18-29 view socialism favorably compared to just 24% of Americans age 65 and older.
Young voters support of Sanders and socialism more generally this trend is interpreted as an ideological shift to the left. But the evidence for the shift comes from faulty seat of the pants reasoning. It goes as follows: Bernie Sanders is a crotchety old man. There’s no reason that young people should like him based on anything other than policy. Plus, there more supportive of socialism. Thus, millennials must be more liberal than their older counterparts.
While people writing on the internet may be very logical, the average voter isn’t. Complicated post hoc justifications for voter behavior based on ideology are almost always wrong.
For instance, increasing millennial support for socialism is much less indicative of leftist leanings then it would appear. When millennials are asked to choose between capitalism and socialism, capitalism wins by 10 points. But when asked to choose between a government managed economy and a free market economy, the free market wins by 32 points. A 2010 CBS/NYT poll found that “only 16 percent of millennials could define socialism as government ownership, or some variation thereof.”
Rather than an increasing liberal ideology, support for socialism and by extension Sanders comes more from confused ignorance.
Perhaps policy specific polling questions could prove an ideological rooting in Sanders’ supporters. But even then respondents commonly pick candidates then pick policy positions that match those of their preferred candidate. Other times, answers to policy specific polling questions are simply reflexive. Answers are not indicative of sustained thought, and quickly change in response to new information. For instance, when Sanders supporters were asked how much they’d be willing to pay for his proposals, their answers fell well short of what would be required.
The bottom line is that most voters are ill informed and fickle about matters of policy. Ideological movements aren’t formed overnight. While millennial voters overwhelmingly go for Sanders , you can’t extrapolate an ideological movement from one election with only one alternative candidate.