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Mayor Pete Buttigieg's Case For Attracting Young Voters


The year that South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was born, Bernie Sanders was serving his first term as the mayor of Burlington, Vt. Elizabeth Warren, she was a visiting professor at the University of Texas Law School. And Joe Biden had been serving in the Senate for a decade. Buttigieg pitches himself as a transformational candidate, and he's trying to make that case to the youngest segment of the electorate. NPR's Juana Summers has been looking at how that's going for the mayor and joins us now.

Welcome back.


CORNISH: So Buttigieg is the youngest candidate in the race. Is he actually attracting the youth vote?

SUMMERS: So, Audie, it's really interesting. One of the biggest themes of his campaign is that idea of generational change, and he seems also to be trying to establish himself as a youthful, centrist alternative to Joe Biden. When he announced his campaign in South Bend, this is how he framed that message.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: It's about preparing our country for a better life in 2030, in 2040 and in the year 2054, when, God willing, I get to be the same age as our current president.

SUMMERS: But he is not exceptionally popular with young voters. A New York Times Siena College poll of Iowans looked at voting preferences of people between the ages of 18 to 29. They found that just 12% backed Buttigieg. Now, to put that into some context, about three times as many people supported Warren, and more than twice as many back Sanders. Now, these things all look really different if you look at the oldest group of voters in that survey. That's people who are 65 years old and older. More than a fifth of those voters backed Buttigieg. And only one candidate performs better among that group, and that's former Vice President Biden.

CORNISH: You know, Juana, we hear a lot about young voters come election time. What's different in this moment?

SUMMERS: Sure. So there's a couple things to keep in mind here. The first is that younger voters do not tend to vote in as high numbers when you compare them with other voter groups. Now, that being said, many people who study voter turnout are looking to the high turnout among young voters during the 2018 midterm elections, and some of them have suggested that that means the 2020 election could be different. Now, any candidate has to be able to pull together a broad coalition of voters if they want to win a general election, and this is something that's particularly important for Pete Buttigieg. He's had a hard time finding traction with black voters. If he could do well with young voters of all races, that could perhaps balance his lack of traction with black voters and voters of color.

CORNISH: Juana, we heard a bit about Iowa, but nationally, can you tell us about how Buttigieg is stacking up compared to the other candidates, specifically with the youth vote?

SUMMERS: Sure. So it appears nationally that he's actually doing worse than in Iowa, and that's somewhere he's been campaigning a lot. Harvard University's Institute of Politics asked those 18- to 29-year-olds how they would vote if the primary were held today. More than a quarter of those voters said they're behind Bernie Sanders. Another fifth say they'd vote for Elizabeth Warren. Joe Biden was their third choice. Andrew Yang came in next, and Pete Buttigieg followed him with just 4% of those 18- to 29-year-olds. John Della Volpe is the polling director at Harvard's Institute of Politics, and this is how he explained that challenge.

JOHN DELLA VOLPE: He's competing with Warren on the college-educated cohort of young people - people who were in college and who have recently graduated. And then the other kind of a more moderate lane, where he's competing with Joe Biden.

CORNISH: What's the Buttigieg campaign doing to deal with this?

SUMMERS: They're doing quite a bit, actually. So earlier this year, they brought on a national youth engagement director. Marv McMoore is the former president of the College Democrats for America, and he's recently been on a bus tour across a number of campuses to engage college supporters. And the campaign also points out this. They say that unlike other candidates in the race, Buttigieg has a personal stake in addressing some of the issues that are most important to young voters - so things like climate change, student debt and gun violence - because unlike some other folks, Buttigieg will be around to deal with that impact if those issues go unaddressed.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Juana Summers. She covers demographics and culture for NPR politics.

Thanks so much.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.