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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Why Biden is struggling with younger voters

The candidate who supports “everything this generation believes,” from climate change to trans rights to abortion, is hemorrhaging support precisely among the youngest generation. What’s behind this puzzling development?

(CN) — The biggest mystery of this election year is why Joe Biden — the presidential candidate who has embraced “youth issues” more vigorously than anyone since George McGovern — is losing large numbers of younger voters to Donald Trump, even as he retains his support among middle-aged and older voters.

Among voters under 30, “Biden was up by about one point in our most recent poll, and this is a group that he won by 35 points in 2020,” said Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute, which regularly conducts polling in conjunction with the New York Times. “So he’s certainly in trouble.”

Other polls show a range of numbers, in part because they use different age cohorts and define “young people” differently, but the consistent trend is that Biden is doing significantly worse with the youngest voting bloc than he did four years ago.

This is mystifying given that Biden has unleashed a barrage of policies seemingly designed to lock down the youth vote, including the cancellation of more than $150 billion in student loans, extensive action on climate change, championing abortion access and trans rights, reduced marijuana penalties, an eviction moratorium, criminal justice reform, tax breaks and other programs for parents of small children — in addition to showing more sympathy for Palestinians than Trump.

Biden has embraced “everything this generation believes,” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. “It’s puzzling. It doesn’t make any sense.”

There’s no clear explanation for why Biden is slipping with the very group he seems most at pains to attract, but there are a number of theories. One is that the economy is the overriding issue this year and people under 30 are especially hurting.

“Young people are screaming mad about an economy that doesn’t provide them with sufficient opportunity,” Levy said.

Alberto Medina said that among younger voters, “inflation and cost of living are far and away the biggest issues, followed by good-paying jobs.” He is the communications director at the Tufts University Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

“Young people are more economically vulnerable than older people,” he said. “Inflation hits harder if you’re in an entry-level job. They can’t find a foothold.”

Lee Miringhoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, said that “housing is different for young people. If you’re 60 or 70, you’re out of that market, as opposed to being 30 and dealing with interest rates.”

Even young people who dislike Trump as much as Biden give the former president better marks on the economy, Levy noted.

Nor do the social issues that theoretically work to Biden’s advantage with youth necessarily help him much in practice. With student loan debt, for instance, “there’s a misperception as to how important it is to young people. It rarely if ever tracks among the top issues,” Medina explained.

“Young people are not a monolith,” he added. “Forty percent of young people have no college experience. People imagine activists at a four-year college campus and not the tens of millions who don’t go to college and have other priorities.”

Young people who avoided or paid off student loans “feel like suckers,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

Justin Buchler, who teaches political science at Case Western Reserve University, asked, “Do they want to pay off loans for people who went to college? That’s a massive transfer of wealth, in some cases from people who make less money to people who make more.”

Buchler also said it’s a myth that young people care more about abortion than older people. “The best predictor on this issue is religion, not age or sex,” he said.

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As for climate change, Buchler called it a catchall term for a variety of policies that seldom affect young people directly. “Who benefits from giving subsidies to companies?” he asked. “Companies! It’s not an age issue.”

Medina thinks climate change is an age issue, but “the details of a massive piece of legislation aren’t getting through to young people in an accessible and understandable way.” And he said that, ironically, the young people who are the most concerned about the issue often feel the most dissatisfied and are the most likely to see Biden’s actions as insufficient.

Hot-button issues like trans rights can be highly emotional, but they directly affect only a tiny number of people and don’t tend to change many votes in practice, Smith said.

Another factor is that, even among the subset of young people who are genuinely moved by these issues, “it’s very hard for Joe Biden to look like an agent of change,” Miringhoff observed.

“Biden talks like a senator,” he explained. “He’s in the weeds. He’s more institutional. Young people aren’t necessary into that lens.” Trump, by contrast, “is rattling the cage. People think he’ll shake things up.”

Even if young people believe that Biden is marginally better than Trump on social issues, that doesn’t necessarily translate into support, Medina said. “Young people compare Biden not to Trump but to what they believe in. They often take gun violence, abortion and Gaza personally. They want a commitment that matches their own. They’re not excited by ‘I’m a little bit better than the other guy.’”

Among the youngest voters, ages 18-22, the ones who will vote in 2024 are a completely different group of people from the ones who voted in 2020 simply because of the passage of time. And it’s hard to know anything about them for sure, because they have no voting history, Buchler said.

According to Smith, young people typically become “politically socialized” into a party once they live on their own, get a job, get married, and begin to see how the political system affects them and how they can affect it. And this is happening later and later as adult children stay on their parents’ health plans until 26 and sometimes live at home until they’re 30. As a result, many more young people are flexible and willing to flirt with different parties.

Party identification is like choosing a sports team to follow, Smith said, and people often choose parties and teams on the basis of who is perceived as successful. The most loyal Republican age cohort in America is the group that came of age under Ronald Reagan, who was the last U.S. president to be widely perceived as highly successful, Smith said. But Biden has very low approval ratings and young people don’t perceive him as the star of a winning team.

“If you expect 20-year-olds to be looking at policy platforms, that’s more than they’re capable of doing because they don’t know anything,” Buchler said. What’s more important is how they’re forming a party identification, he said — and that will depend on their unique life experience.

Interestingly, one thing that’s unlikely to play a significant role in that experience is the Trump presidency, noted Miringhoff. “If you were 12 years old in 2016, you had other things on your mind,” he said. “They have no memory.”

But Covid has played a role. As a young person just coming of age, “you suddenly had three years upended in your life,” said Levy. “There’s an undiagnosed collective pandemic effect.”

Medina pointed to other “specific Gen-Z experiences that uniquely shaped them,” including school shootings, the George Floyd protests and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. These experiences “often pushed them to be more active, and created a lack of trust in institutions. They see candidates as representatives of institutions and haven’t seen them come through for them on issues they care about.”

Which could explain a reluctance to simply fall in line with a candidate who on paper might seem more supportive of their social issues. But what this means for the election is unclear. Young people historically vote at lower rates than their elders, and while young people in general appear to be drifting toward Trump, those who are rated “extremely likely” to vote are supporting Biden at near-2020 levels, Medina said.

Most current polls now target registered voters, not likely voters, and magnify the effect of a small number of young respondents, Fowler noted, so they might not be predictive.

“Young people are angry that Biden is the nominee; they don’t like being governed by a gerontocracy and they’re using the polls to express their grievances about their alternatives. But that doesn’t mean that when they get into the voting booth, they’ll vote for Trump,” she said.

“There’s still outrage among young women about Roe and all the talk of banning contraception. I’m not aware of anything that makes me think that young people are having a change of heart,” Fowler added.

The youth vote has been surprising before, though. In 1972 McGovern counted heavily on lopsided support among young first-time voters, but Richard Nixon shocked everyone by winning almost half of this group, boosted by votes from young people who didn’t go to college. And in 2000, George W. Bush tied Al Gore among voters under 25.

As for what will happen this year, “we simply don’t have enough data,” Buchler said. “We can’t extrapolate beyond the data. Anyone who does that is usually bullshitting you.”

Categories / Elections, National, Politics

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