Are Biden and the Democrats in danger of losing young voters?

Young energy: File photo from 2008 of young people cheering in the streets in Washington DC after Barack Obama’s historic win. Youth support for the Democrats has never reached such heights since and is currently sinking, say recent polls. — AFP

ONE of the most remarkable developments in the last two national elections in the United States was the surge in voting among young people, historically a low-turnout crowd that proved pivotal to Demo-crats winning a majority in the House of Representatives in 2018 and Joe Biden winning the presidency in 2021.

According to a poll of 18- to 29-year-olds released at the end of April by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, that turnout is on track to be as high as it was in the 2018 midterms. However, that may bode ill for Democrats: more young Republicans are eager to vote this year than in 2018, and among Democrats, the mojo is fading.

The share of young Republicans saying they will definitely vote in 2022 is up seven percentage points over this time four years ago; definite Democratic voters are down five points. Among likely voters under 30, 55% still prefer Democratic control of Congress compared with 34% preferring Republican control. But that is about half the 41-point partisan advantage Democrats enjoyed in the first quarter of 2018 poll, when 69% favoured Democratic control and 28% preferred Republican control.

The Harvard poll is only the latest of several recent surveys showing that President Biden’s approval rating is sinking among young voters. That is putting pressure on Biden to act on youth-oriented issues such as student loan debt forgiveness and climate change before election day on Nov 5, 2024.

It has been easy for Democrats to assume that high youth turnout is an unalloyed boon because millennial and Gen Z voters tend to be more progressive. The challenge has been to mobilise them to vote, not convince them which party to back. But now it looks like the party also has some persuading to do, amid disappointment over Biden’s performance.

“Democrats in 2022 have to do both, mobilise and persuade,” says John Della Volpe, the Institute of Politics polling director, who took leave from Harvard in 2022 to advise Biden’s presidential campaign.

“Only 69% of young Americans who voted for Biden in 2020 approve of his job performance today.”

The leading reasons young voters cited for their disapproval of Biden is “ineffectiveness” and “not following through on campaign promises”.

One of Biden’s best shots at turning this around would be to deliver on student debt forgiveness, a crisis that hits young people hard. He’s expected to announce new debt relief before the current pause on loan payments expires Sept 1, but it’s not clear how far he will go.

The poll found broad consensus in favour of some kind of government action on the issue, but less agreement on exactly what form it should take.

A plurality of 38% (including 43% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans) favour cancelling student loan debt for everyone; 21% favour cancellation for those in most need; 27% favour other government-assisted repayment options, not cancellation. Just 13% believe policy should not change at all.

Ben Wessel, former executive director of NextGen America, America’s largest political group focused on organising young people, says Democrats will have to do a better job of building bridges to sceptical youth, not just show up in get-out-the-vote drives.

“Democrats need to ask, how do we get GOP-leaning young people to vote for Democrats and how do we get young black folks motivated to vote?” he says.

[GOP stands for “Grand Old Party”, a traditional name for the Republican Party.]

He believes Democrats should highlight the sharp differences between the two parties on social policies such as abortion, LGBTQ rights and gun regulations.

The Harvard poll also found that a growing number of young people see both parties as more focused on the interests of the elite than on “people like you”. They feel this way most strongly about Republicans, but Democrats are also vulnerable to this critique.

That’s why the biggest risk to Democrats may be that too many disaffected young voters will turn to third-party candidates, as they did in 2016, splitting the vote to the detriment of Hillary Clinton.

Democrats were lucky in 2020 that no effective third-party candidates ran and tempted young people to abandon Biden. They may not be so lucky in 2024. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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