As the United States approaches its most consequential presidential election in generations, Joe Biden has a major problem: young people don’t want to vote for him.
Current polling shows that although Biden is leading Trump, voters are not necessarily convinced he can win. In particular, young people tend to view Biden unfavorably, even though they prefer him to Trump.
Public opinion may hold that Biden, despite his poor favorability ratings, is the lesser of evils and ought to prevail against the greater evil, Trump – but that might not necessarily translate into voter turnout in swing districts and states, crucial to winning electoral votes.
Starting in late September, the candidates will face off in three televised debates, in addition to one vice presidential debate. If it’s not already too late, what can Biden and his campaign do in the next eight weeks to appeal to millennials and Generation Z?
Long before the outbreak of COVID-19 or the election of Donald Trump, Americans from every generation were dealing with rising inequality, racial injustice and police brutality, crushing student debt, the effects of climate change, and countless other intersecting, compounding crises.
For millennials and Gen Z, a world in crisis is the only one they’ve ever known, and behind each of these crises, Biden’s record speaks for itself. Throughout his long career in public life, Biden has not only been on the wrong side of these issues, but has often led the charge – and young people in 2020, notoriously internet-savvy, are not unaware of this.
From helping to write the 1994 Crime Bill, which made an already grotesque and racist mass incarceration system worse, to leading the US into the invasion of Iraq, and fighting for bankruptcy legislation that has trapped millions in unforgivable student debt, Biden is responsible for more than his fair share of the burdens that young people are carrying.
Biden’s agenda has often aligned with that of the Republican Party. He drafted an early version of what became the PATRIOT Act to increase powers of the surveillance state, voted to repeal Glass-Steagall, a set of regulations that kept commercial and investment banking separate to prevent financial crises, and used rhetoric about “illegals” to justify supporting legislation to build 700 miles of fence along the southern border.
Young people in America today are more racially diverse, more open-minded about gender and sexuality, and more politically progressive than older generations, but according to Biden, “Americans are not looking for a revolution”. On the contrary, available evidence supports the idea that millennials, and particularly Gen Z, are absolutely ready for a revolution. Their worldview is completely antithetical to Biden’s, which is why his campaign is struggling with young people.
If he wants their votes, Biden must make an effective appeal to young people that he is worth voting for, but on this front, Biden is often his own worst enemy. Even the youngest eligible voters from Gen Z are old enough to remember when Biden openly declared that he has “no empathy” for young people, and that he’s “not sorry for anything [he] has ever done”, not to mention his more recent “You ain’t black” comments. Biden can’t change his record, but he can surely do better than this, and he must if he wants to triumph in November.
Young people are a crucial electoral demographic
Biden doesn’t just need young people’s votes, he needs them to actively campaign for him, and convince older, whiter, more conservative Americans not to vote for Trump again. He needs young people to counteract Trump’s relentless propaganda being amplified on Facebook.
Without the energy and enthusiasm of Gen Z and millennials, Biden is losing the greatest advantage the Democrats have. A number of progressive candidates recently won difficult campaigns through collaboration with the youth-led Sunrise Movement, namely Cori Bush in Missouri, Jamaal Bowman in New York, and Senator Ed Markey in Massachusetts.
These victories demonstrate that the trend of increased political engagement among young people continues from the 2018 midterms, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the “Squad” made history. If Biden cannot sway young voters and tap into this enthusiasm, it is hard to see how he can compete against Trump, whose campaign is currently knocking on a million doors a week.
Trump in 2020 is a more dangerous candidate than he was in 2016 – his base is mobilized, large swathes of the federal government are unstaffed or filled with his appointed cronies, and despite impeachment and non-stop scandals, pronouncements of his imminent downfall have been greatly exaggerated.
Even if Biden can win against Trump, what if the outcome is rigged, or Trump refuses to leave? If the Democrats want the best chance at victory, they ought to beat Trump so badly that it’s nowhere near close enough to steal.
History will remember that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, but that was not enough to beat Trump. Support from older voters helped Clinton secure the nomination, but her campaign lost older voters to Trump in the general election. Clinton did beat Trump with younger voters, but half of eligible voters aged 18-29 did not vote.
Younger voters overwhelmingly supported Senator Bernie Sanders during the primary, but following a contentious nominating process that some have described as ”rigged”, their preferred candidate failed to get on the general election ticket. We can only speculate if Sanders would have beaten Trump, but we must not ignore the lessons Clinton’s defeat can teach us now.
Echoing 2016, Biden was propelled to the nomination by older voters, with Sanders again winning the majority of younger voters. Even with the centrist realignment before Super Tuesday, Sanders’ campaign would have likely remained competitive until the delegate threshold was reached. Extraordinary pressure on Sanders to drop out following the Biden campaign’s disregard for COVID-19 precautions and the DNC’s refusal to postpone in-person primaries virtually ended the nominating process in April.
As he did in 2016, Sanders has called on his supporters to vote for the nominee, but whether or not they will is out of his hands. If Biden cannot convince young voters to support him for any reason besides his not being Donald Trump, his campaign risks the same fate that befell Clinton’s campaign in 2016.
With the Democratic convention concluded, Joe Biden’s platform has been finalized. Despite including some progressive initiatives resulting from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces, it is not the progressive platform appealing to young voters that would have come from a Sanders or even a Warren nomination. It is unlikely that his campaign would make any left concessions to his platform now.
Given Biden’s record, his campaign thus far, and the party platform, the strategies Biden’s team are employing to reach out to young voters are not sufficient. All the familiar red flags from 2016 are present, and Trump’s victory in November is far more possible than the pundits and pollsters may insist. However, there is a reliable path for Biden to change his favor with the young remaining, but it would fly in the face of conventional wisdom in American politics.
Holding Biden accountable
A different approach from Biden – personal accountability – might go a long way, especially running against the notoriously unaccountable Trump. Biden’s redemption arc would certainly be more appealing than repeated claims of “no malarkey”.
Young people care about authenticity and honesty. Biden’s campaign can make the case that he is a flawed candidate but that Trump is nonetheless worth defeating – they cannot insist that Biden is a perfect candidate and anyone who refuses to get on board ought to “vote for Trump”, and expect that to be a winning strategy.
Accountability could never be enough to fully atone for the consequences of his record, but it may be enough to improve his favorability with young voters and win in November. For this to happen, Biden must first be confronted with the reality of what he has done, and then instead of getting defensive or deflecting, he should own it. Admit that he has done great harm, even apologize, and try to go forward from there.
Aiming for accountability might be too risky for Biden’s team to consider, because acknowledging the damage Biden has done might open him up to more criticism. However, Trump is bound to accuse Biden of anything and everything regardless, so perhaps the mere act of responsibility would work in his advantage and be seen as a show of strength.
Last minute appeal and the road ahead
Recently, Biden has taken a less antagonistic tone towards young people in recognition that he needs their support. In his speech at the virtual Democratic National Convention, Biden addressed young people and the problems they are facing today directly:
"One of the most powerful voices we hear in the country today is from our young people. They're speaking to the inequity and injustice that has grown up in America. Economic injustice. Racial injustice. Environmental injustice. I hear their voices and if you listen, you can hear them too."
If Biden is sincere in his desire to win “the battle for the soul of this nation”, he must go beyond rhetoric and hollow praise, beyond hearing young people’s voices and start listening to what they are saying.
Amid apocalyptic fires fuelled by climate change across the western half of the country, young climate activists are demanding a Green New Deal. While Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan does include some aspects of the Green New Deal, the party platform notably does not call for an end to fossil fuel subsidies, which was included in earlier iterations.
Facing an uncertain future and a devastated jobs market, student borrowers are demanding that all their debts be cancelled, not delayed or marginally reduced. The DNC platform resembles Biden’s student loan policy from the primary, which calls for $10,000 in undergraduate student debt cancellation for all Americans. But this plan will not end the student debt crisis – in which the average student borrower has around $35,000 in debt, and half of all student debt is from graduate school debt.
Following job losses from COVID-19, millions of Americans have lost their health insurance during an out-of-control public health emergency, and universal healthcare coverage through a Medicare For All system is more popular than ever. Pandemic be damned, Biden said he would veto Medicare For All.
Whether Biden will prevail against Trump remains to be seen, but if he does not, the blame should not be laid on young people, as the 2016 election often was. Voters have agency and respond to the choices they are given as they see fit. It is the responsibility of candidates and their teams to run effective campaigns, and parties to nominate candidates who can win. If Biden cannot meet young people where they are, they will not vote for him.
Regardless of the outcome of this election, we are in for difficult times ahead. As journalist Chris Hedges has said, compared with what comes next, “these are the good times”, and bold action is needed, now. Future generations will look back on this moment in history, and they will judge us – did we stay asleep, as Dr. King put it, or did we “remain awake through a great revolution”? Joe Biden will likewise be judged. Did he do everything he could to defeat Trump? And if he does, what happens after that? History will bear witness.