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Democratic Voter Turnout Is Up But Youth Vote Wanes

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Bernie Sanders' run for president has focused a lot on this.

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BERNIE SANDERS: I think that my campaign kind of speaks to the idealism of young people.

GREENE: But after struggling recently, he admitted this after Super Tuesday last week.

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SANDERS: Have we been as successful as I would hope at bringing young people in? And the answer is no.

GREENE: And that trend played out again this week. Sanders was hoping Michigan would go his way. It did not. And when you look at the data, youth turnout was down in that state compared to 2016. So what's going on here? Let's ask Maria Teresa Kumar. She's president of the political organization Voto Latino. They have not endorsed candidates in this political season. They have been trying to engage a new generation of Latino voters. Thanks for coming in.

MARIA TERESA KUMAR: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: So what should we take from this? Is there a lack of enthusiasm among younger voters?

KUMAR: Isn't that there's a lack of enthusiasm. I think that in order for young people to be brought into the political process, especially this early on in a primary, you need to have more than just one candidate speaking to them and to their values. They are incredibly diverse, as you can imagine, as a generation. But at the same time, when candidates start cultivating them, not just Bernie Sanders but all of them across the board, they start paying attention.

And the reason this is unique this time around is that for the very first time, you will have 12 million more young voters than baby boomers in this election. They'll be the first, you know, lopsided young generation versus older generation. And two-thirds of those kids are people of color. Now - of those voters - and the reason I emphasize that is, to give you an idea, as of early February, when people were claiming that they were fighting for the hearts and souls of voters and young people...

GREENE: Yeah.

KUMAR: ...66% of Latino youth never received a contact from a political candidate or a campaign.

GREENE: Wow. So they were talking about engaging but not - maybe not necessarily actually engaging.

Well, let me ask you this. I mean, if you say that more than one candidate has to get involved, I mean, that makes me wonder if Joe Biden has work to do. Let's say he secures the nomination. Going by the numbers, that's very possible. What does he need to do to win over young voters and get them to turn out in a general election if it's him?

KUMAR: He needs to come out and have them trust him. Meet him where they are. Joe Biden is doing an incredible job with baby boomers, with African - older African American voters. And that's where the schism is. You look at how he's doing with young African American voters, and people are warm to him, but they're not driving out in droves. And so in order for this election to be had, people have to be able to close the voter registration gap among those young people. They have to be able to come out and talk to them and meet them where they are.

And it's really about the economy and the environment. That's what mobilizes them. And make sure that they are investing. Bernie Sanders didn't do blanketly well among young people, but he did do situationally well, depending on which state. So he focused a lot on Arizona. He focused a lot on southern Texas. Why? In Texas alone, you have 2.5 million eligible Latino youth who are unregistered. They represent 25% of all unregistered youth.

GREENE: So getting them registered can be a very big deal.

KUMAR: It's closing the gap. And that's one of the reasons, for example, why Bloomberg has recently invested in us because he realizes it's the gap. In order for us to, you know - if the progressive agenda is to win, they need to make sure that you bring in this new generation of voters. All those voters should technically be progressive voters.

GREENE: Say a little more about meeting younger voters where they are. As you listen to younger voters talking about what they want and what they want to hear about, what's important?

KUMAR: They want to be economically viable like their parents. When someone says, I want you to figure out how to help me forgive my trillion dollars of student loan debt, it's a generation that's saying, if I can't pay for my student loans, how do you expect me to start a family? How do you expect me to go into the middle class by securing my first home loan? That is the - technically, that home loan has always been that opening to the American middle class, and that right now is shut out for them.

GREENE: Maria Teresa Kumar is president of the political advocacy group Voto Latino. Thanks for coming in this morning. I really appreciate it.

KUMAR: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.