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Age issue irrelevant to the young as Sanders, 74, strikes a chord

So much for a generation gap.

If Bernie Sanders, who turns 75 in September, gets elected, he will be the oldest president ever to take the oath of office.

He’s already the oldest presidential candidate in modern times to garner youth-cult status.

Think Eugene McCarthy. George McGovern. Howard Dean. Barack Obama.

Sanders has nearly 20 years – or more – on each of them when they were running for president.

Yet, the white-haired, Brooklyn-born senator from Vermont is the latest in this string of modern-day candidates to carry the youth-candidate moniker.

How’s he doing it?

First of all, members of the college-age set say the age question is irrelevant.

“People my age don’t care about the man’s age, or race, or sex or religion,” said Dillon Smith, 22, a junior economics and political science major at the University at Buffalo.

“I don’t consider age something we should be focusing on,” said Josh Herman, 19, a UB sophomore majoring in geography and computer science.

Then, consider who these young people are.

It’s a generation of people whose brothers fought in the Iraq War. The one Sanders opposed.

It’s a generation so adept with technology that they will never understand why Hillary Clinton didn’t just use two cellphones – one for work and another for personal use.

And perhaps more to the point, it’s a generation attending college in huge numbers because they were told that’s what they need to do. And, now they are graduating with a debt load that is all-consuming.

“It’s hard to start your life when you have thousands and thousands of dollars of debt,” Smith said.

That was a theme repeated over and over by students interviewed for this story.

“I like his position on college costs,” Stefanie Scarano, 23, said of Sanders, who has proposed free tuition at public colleges for all.

“Other countries do this. They should want Americans to get smart. Everyone benefits from our becoming more educated,” said Scarano, a senior psychology major from Long Island.

“Me and my friends, we’ll be coming out of UB with $60,000 in debt,” Herman said. “I don’t see how we can be such a developed, rich country, and be so far behind the curve with education. I think that is why Bernie appeals to people my age. He was ahead on the issue.”

“Bernie,” he continued, “is raising issues more relevant to young people – student debt and the cost of higher education.”

Other youth candidates

Back in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, 52-year-old Eugene McCarthy quickly connected with the youngest voters when he came out against the war that many of them opposed – and which many of them were being called to fight in.

Four years later, 50-year-old George McGovern capitalized on the anti-war movement, as well, looking to a youth vote that had just expanded when the voting age dropped from 21 to 18.

Then in 2004, 56-year-old Howard Dean was dubbed the Internet candidate, quickly making him a favorite of the under 30-crowd.

Four years later, 47-year-old Barack Obama took the art of targeting the youth vote to new levels, opening campaign offices at nearly all major university campuses and also becoming a campus favorite.

Now there’s Sanders, born Sept. 8, 1941 – a year in which Jimmy Dorsey topped the charts, $100 could buy what would cost $1,600 today and the German army began its siege of Leningrad.

Why do you think a man who grew up in the age of black-and-white television understands today’s college students, The Buffalo News asked UB students.

Max Bass, 22, a senior environmental studies major from Putnam County, responded with a laugh.

“He clearly understands the concerns of young people, which is why they are supporting him,” Bass said.

And it’s not just about college costs, said Bass, one of the few students interviewed who will graduate without debt.

There are other issues the candidate and youthful voters mesh on too, the students said, including Sanders’ opposition to fracking and big-money campaign finance, as well as his focus on income inequality and “Wall Street greed.”

“I’ve seen people living in poverty,” said Smith, an economics and political science major from Allegany County. “It doesn’t make sense. If you work hard, you should be able to have a house and provide for your family. But with wealth inequality, people work hard, but can’t get anywhere. It’s just the system.”

Sophisticated voters

Sander’s status as candidate-of-choice on college campuses reflects relatively sophisticated voting behavior, according to Jacob Neiheisel, an assistant professor of political science at UB.

He is not an “identity” political candidate – one who voters prefer because he or she looks like themselves in terms of as race, class, age, gender – with shared experiences, according to Neiheisel.

“They are not looking for someone more youthful,” he said.

Instead, Neiheisel said, students seems to be assessing the world they will enter upon graduation and matching their concerns with the candidate they believe most understands their plight.

”We are taught you go to college, come out and get a great job,” Neiheisel said. “But not for this group. Their debt is more insurmountable. They see a mismatching.”

‘Disconnect of ideas’

That brings them to Sanders, whose campaign calls for a “political revolution,” and features a Wall Street crackdown that he says would help fund free tuition at public colleges and universities.

And it’s not just what Sanders is saying, but how he says it, Neiheisel said.

Sanders seems to have taken a page from Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign (featuring the slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid.”), by keeping his message focused and simple, Neiheisel said.

“If you simplify it for people, it becomes a rallying cry,” he said,

Jack Weinberg coined the phrase “don’t trust anyone over 30.” That was back in 1965 when Weinberg was a free-speech movement activist and a graduate student at the University at California, Berkeley.

The dozen UB students interviewed for this story, all born in the 1990s, appeared either unfamiliar with the phrase or only knew about it from studying history.

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Dillon Smith, left, co-founder and president of the student group UB Progressives, discusses ways to mobilize and campaign for Bernie Sanders at an informal gathering of members at the Center for the Arts on Saturday. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

One student, a 25-year-old engineering major from Buffalo, when asked about the phrase, responded by speaking of the respect he has for older people, and said he views the idea of judging individuals based on age as a form of bigotry.

Another said generation gaps occur only when there’s a “disconnect of ideas.”

“Young people would be hard to be swayed by older people if they had ideas that weren’t in line with their morals,” said Smith, the junior from Allegany County. “Bernie’s in line with our ideas and our morals, and stands for what we want to see. It’s all ideas,” he said.

In fact, while they may not have heard Weinberg’s phrase, some of the UB students interviewed were aware of Sanders’ involvement in the Civil Rights movement when he attended the University of Chicago during the 1960s. It’s one of the factors that increased their respect for – and ability to relate to – Sanders, the student said.

Several students also said that while Sanders is the oldest of the candidates this election season, others are close to his age.

Sanders will turn 75 in September. Hillary Clinton turns 69 in October. Donald Trump turns 70 in June. John Kasich turned 63 last month. Ted Cruz turns 46 in December.

Oldest presidents

Some students also said that, given the age of past presidents, they don’t view a 75-year-old president as particularly old.

The four presidents in their lifetime were George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

George H.W. Bush was 64 when he took office in 1989, and 68 at the end of his term.

Bill Clinton took office when he was 46 in 1993, making him one of the four youngest presidents. He served until he was 54.

George W. Bush took office in 2001 when he 54, and left office at 62.

Obama was 47 when he became president, and will be 56 when he leaves the White House.

Sanders, if elected, would be 75 on Inauguration Day, Jan. 1, 2017. It would make him the oldest person ever elected president of the United States.

Currently, that title is held by Ronald Reagan, who was 69 when he took office in 1981, 73 when his second term began, and 77 when he left office.

Before Reagan’s election, the oldest president to be elected was William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the United States, who was 68 when elected in 1841. Harrison died a month after his inauguration in 1841. His death was initially attributed to pneumonia, but it is now believed he likely died from typhoid fever.

Sanders in January released a physician’s letter stating he is in good overall health.

The UB students said they don’t see Sanders’ health as an issue in the campaign.

Said one student: If Sanders can withstand the rigors of a campaign, he can handle being president.

“Age,” said Bass, the environmental studies major, “is just a number.”

email: sschulman@buffnews.com

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