I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience. -Ronald Reagan
After a near tie between Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg in the Iowa caucuses, and with the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation primary quickly approaching, the divergences between two apparent frontrunners are coming into clearer focus. One of those, however—their four-decade age difference—may be more important to some voters than others.
“I think the reason why you have the two of them up top is you have two candidates who are considered the outsiders,” said Cristiano Sgarbi, 21, a volunteer with the Sanders campaign who took a bus up to Manchester Sunday from Boston, where he studies neuroscience at Northeastern University. “Buttigieg having never worked in Washington; Bernie being the grassroots anti-establishment candidate.”
“I think young people, a lot of them are not siding with a candidate based on age but more about ideology,” Sgarbi added. “Although, yes, it would be cool to seem like we’re represented by somebody closer to us in age, Bernie somehow manages to feel more relatable at times.”
A group of 16 older, self-described “political tourists” from California and Oregon, meanwhile, who made up perhaps a quarter of the crowd at a Buttigieg watch party for the Democratic debate on Friday at the nearby Breezeway Pub in Manchester, were drawn to Mayor Pete because of his relative youth.
“Four years ago, we came out for the Republicans and this year we’re here for the Democrats,” said Gayle Leland of Durham, California. Even though everyone in her group was in their 60s or older, Leland said, “we don’t want to vote for any senior candidates, people over 70.”
Another member of the West Coast contingent, Stephen Johnson of Chico said he is also supporting Buttigieg.
“He seems like he’ll be able to bring the two sides together and compromise,” Johnson said. “He seems like a pretty reasonable guy and I like that he’s young.”
The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor has “an interesting program,” said Jim Patrick, a GOP-leaning Navy veteran in his ’70s from Orinda, California, who sells office supplies and was visiting New Hampshire as a member of the pro-Buttigieg group at the Breezeway.
“Whether it’s viable or not remains to be seen,” he said, “that’s one of the reasons we’re coming to get the flavor of what people think.”
Patrick said neither Buttigieg’s age nor his naval service played a major part in his support for the 38-year-old candidate.
“I sort of thought that with Jimmy Carter. Remember Jimmy Carter? He was a nuclear engineer with the nuclear program in the navy. I thought he’d make a great president. I didn’t think it turned out that way,” Patrick said. “I don’t care if they’re young or old, I want them to have a good mind, to be able to have some good policies.”
Not all Buttigieg supporters are of retirement age—though perhaps the most talkative are. Several younger Buttigieg fans at the Breezeway were willing to say they were in their 20s or 30s, but did not want to be interviewed. Another group of 50 or more at another debate watch party Friday down the street at the Bookery, a Manchester bookstore, also seemed younger on average. Two Buttigieg volunteers printing up forms to sign up more volunteers at the Bookery watch party, however, while willing to say they were “just out of college,” did not want to comment further, referring me to their “comms team.”
Nancy Brennan, an older Sanders supporter and retired high school theater teacher who is originally from Massachusetts but now lives in Weare, New Hampshire, was demonstrating Saturday in support of Sanders outside the Southern New Hampshire University Arena. She had heard from Buttigieg supporters that his age is part of his appeal.
“My impression of Pete is that he’s one of those politicians that tries to say what he thinks people want to hear,” Brennan said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people because I’ve done a lot of canvassing, and a lot of the people that like Pete, they like him because he’s young. That’s what they like. They say Bernie’s too old.”
Steve Denis, a 23-year-old who is originally from Rhode Island but lives in Manchester, where he teaches business classes, was also demonstrating in support of Sanders on Saturday, and said Buttigieg’s age was not the most important factor in deciding who to vote for.
“When he got in the race I was excited to be seeing another young guy who had some, you know, unpopular ideas like abolishing the Electoral College, but the second you start taking money from corporate interests, you’re out of it for me,” Denis said. “When you’re doing fundraisers in wine caves and have 40 billionaires on your side, I would say that’s establishment.”
Sgarbi, the 21-year-old Sanders volunteer, acknowledged that Sanders’ health is a concern for some voters due to his age, but not for him.
“Like people say as well, age is just a number, so I think, you know, he’s healthy now and I think if he felt there was any possibility of him not being able to serve to the best of his ability in the next five years, let’s say, he would’ve dropped out and he wouldn’t be running at all,” Sgarbi said.
“Despite him being so old, he’s a man on a mission, and he really seems like the last standing figure of real change that I want to follow.”
This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Manchester Divided coverage of political activity around New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Follow our coverage @BINJreports on Twitter and at binjonline.org/manchesterdivided, and if you want to see more citizens agenda-driven reporting you can contribute at givetobinj.org.
Jonathan Riley is a contributing writer to DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and editor of the Morning Sun newspaper in Pittsburg, Kansas.