How Joe Biden lost young voters
President Joe Biden has a young voter problem.
If you look at just about any poll from the last year, the president’s support among Americans aged 18-34 has dropped significantly. The decline has been worse among young people of color, and like the country in general, young Americans’ dissatisfaction with him is growing.
The drop isn’t that surprising. Young Americans never really loved Biden, and they think he’s broken a lot of his campaign pledges. They’re also still recovering from two of the most disruptive years in American history.
The youngest of these voters came of political age isolated, away from school and friends, uncertain of their job and school prospects, and unsure of whom to trust. The oldest are saddled with student loan and credit card debt, unable to purchase homes, and priced out of metropolitan areas. They’ve seen life get more expensive, inflation outpace their raises, and their labor become less valuable.
Many were already tuned out of politics. Now, they’ve seen one political party fail to act on the generational change they expected, and another radicalize against democracy. Together, these factors represent a growing tide of disillusionment with electoral politics and dissatisfaction with the status quo.
With midterms around the corner, this dissatisfaction could drag Democratic candidates already expected to struggle (the president’s party historically does poorly in midterms) down further. Young voters are an especially important group for Democrats: They delivered Biden’s biggest margins in 2020, a year that saw half of them turn out (an 11 percentage-point increase from 2016), including in battleground states that will feature competitive races.
After numerous conversations with activists, advocacy groups, organizers, pollsters, and young people, three theories have emerged that attempt to unify the various strains of the youth’s discontent with Biden specifically, and Democrats generally: frustration with the lack of progressive policy successes, concern about the state of the economy, and disenchantment with government due to leaders’ chaotic response to the pandemic.
Biden started off his term with a respectable level of support from Americans aged 18-34. Polling from Gallup and data the progressive research firm Navigator assembled for Vox both placed his support among youth in the 60 percent range just after his inauguration. And the president’s support was decent even in the surveys with Biden’s worst youth numbers, like those conducted by Quinnipiac and Civiqs, which showed 44 percent and 49 percent support, respectively.
The decline has been steady in the last year, broadly, and worse when looking at young Black or Latino Americans’ perceptions; it stands in stark contrast to Biden’s support among the oldest voters, which remains steady. And as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote about Gallup’s data, the drops in Biden’s Gen Z and millennial support overlap with his losses among non-white Americans and independents, both of whom make up significant portions of this younger age cohort, “so a bigger decline in support from Black and Hispanic adults is going to show up more in younger groups.”
For now, Biden’s youth problem is still reversible, Dakota Hall, the executive director of the political advocacy group Alliance for Youth Action, told me: “I would say we’re not in the danger zone but we’re fastly approaching it.”
What can Biden do about that? Address these three (sometimes overlapping) reasons for his diminishing support:
1) Some young voters want Biden to be more progressive
Ask an activist or advocacy group focused on politically engaging young people about Biden’s polling, and you’ll hear a similar refrain: Biden was never a popular president among young people, and his inability to keep several of the bold and dramatic promises he made during the 2020 presidential primaries are to blame.
Some of those promises require Congress’s action, something an evenly divided Senate has made difficult for Biden. But young voters believe that many of the things they’d like to see Biden do, such as forgiving some student debt and declaring a climate emergency, could be accomplished in part by executive action. According to reporting by the Washington Post, Biden is exploring the idea of canceling at least some of that debt by executive order. He reportedly may continue to extend a pause on student loan payments until a final decision is made, likely before the end of August.
Young voters, however, don’t want Biden to think about getting rid of debt. They want him to do it.
“They feel they are let down in this moment, due to [Biden’s] lack of executive action, and changes that young people care about, namely, the student debt crisis, and the failure to eliminate and eradicate some student loan debt,” Hall, of the Alliance for Youth Action, told me. “The continuation of the delays, while providing economic relief to some young Americans, it’s not enough. It’s not what they voted for.”
Though he never promised to unilaterally cancel all student loan debt, the president supported congressional action to forgive up to $10,000 of it. Progressive members of Congress and activists, in turn, have asked him to consider an executive order by reinterpreting the Higher Education Act to grant the secretary of education authority to “release” loans.
That legal debate remains murky and untested. Nevertheless, many youth voters want Biden to at least try: In the Alliance for Youth Action’s polling with Civiqs, nearly two-thirds of young people support Biden’s student loan actions so far, and 35 percent want full debt cancellation; that number rises to 50 percent among young Democrats.
The Civiqs data also suggests that simply canceling student debt might not solve Biden’s problem with youth. Pollsters found about a third of young Americans oppose any action on student loan forgiveness. Only young Democrats support complete loan forgiveness by large margins; more than a third of young independents and 75 percent of young Republicans oppose any forgiveness.
But progressives also argue that student debt isn’t the only reason that has young voters abandoning Biden. Youth activists and organizers pointed to inaction on other progressive priorities, like comprehensive immigration reform, gun control, and downsized climate efforts in the bipartisan infrastructure law — as well as failed attempts at passing voting rights, criminal justice, and policing reforms.
2) The economy’s not great, and young voters blame Biden
Inflation is the top concern of most Americans today — and that includes young Americans.
The current inflationary spike is the first time many millennials and Gen Zers are confronting this kind of economy. Coupled with rising rent, debt, and ultra-hot housing markets in the country’s 20 largest metropolitan areas, the current affordability crisis is hitting young people especially hard: In part due to the last recession, millennials were already a lost generation financially, and Gen Zers both graduating into a recession and dealing with a pandemic economy saw higher rates of job instability, causing them to dip into their savings more than older generations.
Gen Z and millennials were more willing to switch jobs and career paths during the Great Resignation, seeking better pay and flexibility — only to see rising costs eat away at that progress. In metro areas, pandemic-induced rent relief and discounts disappeared; prospective homebuyers have been priced out of markets; and a growing number of Americans, especially young people, live in multi-generational households now, in part because of financial constraints. Today’s consensus is that young people are having a harder time saving money, paying for college, and buying a home.
“They have real deep economic anxiety and pain in this moment,” Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the president of the liberal youth-vote organization NextGen America, told me. “Many young people feel worried about the future. Young American adults are the first generation in American history to be worse off than their parents.”
Some of that economic hardship has also crystallized into dissatisfaction with a society centered around capitalism and work, especially on social media, as my colleague Terry Nguyen has written. Gen Z especially “has adopted more anti-capitalist language to express these discontents,” Nguyen writes, and that could translate into a rejection of capitalist figures like Biden — and America’s current economic order. Whether it translates into political action or voting may become clear this year.
Overall, for young voters, as with older voters, the president, as the country’s most visible leader, and head of the party in power, is the default object of economic fears and they don’t think he’s doing enough to address affordability.
3) A poorly managed pandemic eroded trust in the government
Two years into the coronavirus pandemic, no one knows exactly what’s happening. Are cases up? It might depend on where you live, but even the way governments track risk and reality has changed.
Biden has suggested Americans learn to live with the coronavirus, even as cases once again begin to rise. By prematurely declaring a “summer of freedom,” getting out ahead of the CDC on boosters, and telling people masking is now “up to them,” he muddled the image of a unified government approach.
That’s not to say Biden completely failed on the pandemic — his administration has overseen a fairly successful mass vaccination campaign, distributed free rapid tests, and has revamped efforts to increase access to antiviral medicines. Still, young people have seen deaths and illnesses in their families, have experienced the dysfunction of American health care, and faced incredible disruptions during key years of early adulthood. Those lost months delayed key life moments and transitions, uprooted friendships, and turned Gen Z into the loneliest generation.
In 2020, pandemic chaos helped fuel a historic jump in young voters’ participation in electoral politics, with record numbers of young people turning out to vote against Donald Trump. Part of Biden’s pitch was a promise to get the virus under control and return to normal — and until the delta and omicron variants hit, a quick end to the pandemic seemed plausible. But things went downhill around the time Biden promised Americans would be able to declare victory by 2021’s Fourth of July.
Instead, young people saw massive failures by government leaders to provide clear guidance and sensical rule-making. Variants diminished the gleam of vaccines, more people contracted the virus than ever, and young people lost trust in institutions to handle everything from big-picture recommendations on masking and vaccines, to localized decisions about closing schools and ending college semesters early, quarantining and testing regimens, and how hard to police social life.
At the national level, the president began to shift the tone of the federal response from a more communitarian effort to care for each other and get vaccinated, to leaving everyone to fend for themselves. The result is malaise, confusion, and dissatisfaction with Biden’s performance.
The vibes are off
These three explanations have a lot of overlap and all speak to a sense of frustration with Democrats, America’s system of government, and political parties, and fear about being worse off than older generations.
They also describe a cohort of voters who are not apathetic or disengaged from politics, but rather tuned in to current events — even if they don’t follow all of the policy debates in Washington or know about each mechanism that limits government action. Broadly, they appear to pin blame for the country’s status quo on the president in power.
Underlying that takeaway is a sense of disappointment, and even betrayal. A pandemic that threatened their lives and a president who threatened their futures brought youth out to vote in 2020, but they have felt cheated by social, economic, and political developments since.
“We keep being told that something better is coming,” Rahhel Haile, the executive director of the Minnesota Youth Collective, told me. “With Joe Biden, it was ‘Oh, this is going to be better than Trump,’ and the approach is the lesser of two evils. And people are dissatisfied with that, and want a leader that can actually change things and can actually think about the precariousness of the future of a young person’s life.”
Some of this isn’t Biden’s fault — what his administration can accomplish is limited by the Senate filibuster, how House seats are distributed, internal party dynamics, the federal judiciary’s composition, and checks on executive action. That doesn’t matter to the most idealistic, progressive young people who want their conditions improved, however.
It may be that there’s little Biden can do to win over the most progressive young voters. But that doesn’t mean he can’t win back the youth in general: This cohort of voters is not as monolithic as they are often described.
They tend to not identify with a political party — identifying more commonly with social issues like climate action and marijuana legalization — and though they’re more liberal than other generations, are still more moderate ideologically than many leaders claim. The student loan debate shows this divide: Though the most progressive wing of young voters back loan forgiveness, about a third of young people still oppose it.
Biden still has the support of the most ardent liberal young Democrats, who are willing to back his current agenda in part due to identifying with his party. However, he’s bleeding support among young independents and Republicans, both moderate and conservative, who might prioritize the government addressing economic worries right now, but see no action and feel ignored.
Given recent court rulings and the collapse of Biden’s Build Back Better plan in Congress, it’s useful to ask if the country is entering an era when presidents will also forever be stymied by courts and narrow congressional majorities — worsening the appearance that government can not be a force for progress or improving material conditions, and giving young people less of a reason to trust political leaders who invoke the language of hope, change, and a moral battle.
Pollsters and activists told me Biden’s decline doesn’t have to be an irreversible trend, and that the governing party still has time to tackle inflation, affordability, debt, and the pandemic before young voters refuse to change their minds.
If Democrats fail to do so, some of the pollsters I spoke with said this dissatisfaction has a real chance of going beyond lower Democratic turnout and into active vote-switching in midterm elections. That could intensify the risk Democrats already face of being locked out of power for the next decade, a situation that could hurt young voters as well, as GOP control of Congress would likely only hinder the very reforms and changes many young people want.