The biggest knock on Sanders is that, as an avowed socialist, he would repel every Charles Schwab client from Maine to Manhattan Beach. This is a capitalist country, after all, and the Revolution seems fun until it comes for your bank account. The road to the House majority for Democrats last year ran through the suburbs, after all, powered by fired-up women and plenty of Romney–Clinton voters who just can’t stomach Trump. Moderates proclaim that Sanders would scare these people away if he were nominated, that they would stay home on Election Day or even vote for Trump instead. Maybe some will. At the same time, anyone who has talked to a Democratic voter lately has a hard time believing that the suburban mom who voted in 2018 won’t vote for Sanders over the guy who put helpless migrant children in detention centers, where several died. In November, Democrats will barefoot run over broken glass, Die Hard–style, to vote for whoever has a D next to his or her name in November. But if there are worries that Sanders would turn off some middle-of-the-road pocketbook voters, it’s also true that he has the chance to peel off some Trump voters and activate a whole new set of voters. That’s why some Trump advisers are worried. Sanders’s raw economic populism seems like a worthy match for Trump in the Midwest, where he consistently, if narrowly, outpolls the president.
It’s Sanders’s unique appeal among young voters, though, that has the greatest potential to reshape the electorate. Millennials and Gen Z, combined, make up the largest voting-eligible demographic in the country. Sanders is, far and away, the top choice of young people, to the point where any other nominee is unthinkable. In a Quinnipiac poll released this week, 53% of Democratic voters under 35 named Sanders was their top choice. Warren was a distant second. TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat are full of new-to-politics young people professing their straight-to-camera love for “Daddy Bernie”—as Cardi B likes to call him—but also their distaste for candidates, like Biden, who promise anything less than profound change. The younger generation is as radically disconnected from the Washington media ecosystem as Sanders, who, if nominated, would have a better chance of pulling young voters into the process than any other Democrat in the field. Plenty of those Sanders die-hards are digital natives who understand the vocabulary of the internet and the power of influencers, memes, and peer-to-peer persuasion on social media. The New York Times wrote a piece this week on the more troubling aspects of Sanders’s “Internet Army,” the mansplainers and anonymous trolls who harass anyone on the internet who isn’t a Bernie Bro, often with sexist and racist bile. But a crude reality of our moment is that ever-cautious Democrats are no match for Trump’s grassroots army of shameless trolls and MAGA freaks, who are immensely skilled at creating shareable bad faith content and sprinkling disinformation around social media, with or without Trump’s permission. A handful of Democratic strategists are thinking about how to compete in the meme and influencer wars, which would require relinquishing message control and sometimes caving to the worst emotional impulses of the internet. But social media is now the primary touchpoint for American politics, for old people and young. Sanders, if nominated, would step immediately into a race against Trump backed by thousands of self-starting digital creators, editors, and trash meme-makers. The troops in Bernie’s Internet Army might be extremely annoying, but they are also the only people involved in Democratic politics willing to wage war on the internet on Trump’s terms, however distasteful that prospect may be.