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For Gen Z, Bernie Sanders answers the 'how' of policy-making

Post-millennials identify with the Vermont senator, connecting with his message despite the age gap.
Supporters react as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a campaign event at Grand View University Jan. 31, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)
Supporters react as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a campaign event at Grand View University Jan. 31, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Iowa caucuses tonight will turn on a number of factors: Will the unseasonably warm weather hold up? Which campaigns have the strongest ground game? And will turnout be closer to the lackluster result in 2004 or the record finish in 2008? For Bernie Sanders, it could also come down to whether his supporters, particularly his disproportionately young fans, turn out.

“Well, everyone talks about the younger voter,” said David Stillman, a researcher who launched a national research project this year with his son Jonah studying young Americans, including their priorities in the coming elections.

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“Everyone just assumes they're millennial. What we've uncovered is there is a whole new generation that started in 1995 -- Gen Z, so the leading age is 21 … [who are] voting for the first time. So Jonah and I came down to Iowa to see what's on their mind. What are they thinking about when it comes to politics?”

Jonah Stillman, 16, who is co-authoring a book with his father, says what’s mainly on the minds of his fellow Gen Z members comes down to a single question: “How?”

“Our studies have shown that Gen Z is a very realistic generation,” said Jonah Stillman. “And what that means, as we go into politics, is that as all these candidates are laying out their plans and policies on their road to the White House, we want to know how they're going to achieve that. So if some of the candidates are coming out with ‘I want to lower the cost of education,’ we want to know how they're going to do that. We don't just want them to say it. We need a plan.”

Six young Iowans participated in the Stillman’s Sunday focus group and spoke to MSNBC on Monday. Five are eligible to caucus for the first time, and those five say they plan to do so tonight.

“I want to hear … how they're actually going to go about enacting the policies that they're making,” said Jacob Larson, 17. “So whether [it’s] change for the LGBT community or so on and so forth, I want to see an actual, honest plan of how they're going to do that.”

And of the five first-time voters, the candidate they believe has put forward those plans is Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“We've been to some Bernie Sanders rallies and followed online and on social media,” said 18-year-old Ian Coon. “And every time we do so, the message is consistent: that he cares about young people. He cares about what we think, what we say. And really takes that voice of students our age in a very natural and authentic way.”

“I honestly think Bernie Sanders has really connected with me in a way,” agreed Liam Jameson, 18. “He's just been outright and honest, and he really holds my values at heart.”

But what about the goal of electing the first woman president? Hannah Hoth, 18, who is also a Sanders supporter, said it’s not her top priority.

“We shouldn't vote on ‘just because she's a girl,’” Hoth said.

Jonah Stillman said there is a reason Gen Z members might not be as open to the “first woman president” pitch.

“I think our generation, statistically, is the most diverse generation, and we just expect [diversity],” he said. “So just because [Hillary Clinton is] a woman doesn't mean we're not gonna support her, but it means that may not be the most important thing, and we're looking into these issues that we care about so passionately.”

When it comes to Donald Trump, the group was resoundingly unimpressed.

“Well, I'm not a fan,” said 16-year-old Justin Sindelar. “I think he's really rude to people. I think he sets a very bad example for our youth. We've grown up in a generation where we've been taught to love one another. And we don't really see race, so when we see someone as harsh and as rude as Donald Trump, it's hard to support him.”

And regarding the youngest candidate in the race, Marco Rubio, the group also dismissed their closer demographic ties.

“I think that the ideas that he brings are just a little too farfetched for me,” said Larson, contrasting Rubio with Sanders, whom he said “will still connect better with me, even though there is a huge age gap. I don't see age as a big problem.”

Even the idea that Sanders is a democratic socialist didn’t bother the group. “There are people in our country that are marginalized, that don't have a voice,” said Coon. “Their opinions aren't heard because elections are bought in many different ways, [so] I don't think that Bernie Sanders is a socialist.” Instead, he believes Sanders is “bringing back that true sense of democracy of giving everyone a voice.”