The quest to find Joe Biden's young supporters – do they actually exist?

Adam Gabbatt in New Hampshire
Photograph: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

Young people like Bernie Sanders. They flock to his rallies and tattoo his spectacles on to body parts. Young people like Elizabeth Warren – just take a look at the memes. Pete Buttigieg, despite his unradical, centrist policies and general air of clean-shirtedness, draws out the youth. Andrew Yang’s “Yang Gang” are an often youthful phenomenon of their own.

Joe Biden? Not so much.

Youngsters aren’t memeing Joe Biden. There isn’t a run on Biden merchandise on college campuses. No one is getting Biden’s face tattooed on their arms and legs. Crushingly, a recent poll showed that only 2% of 18- to 29-year-olds in Iowa, the first state to vote in the Democratic primary, support the former vice-president.

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The Guardian spent two days following Biden to campaign events in New Hampshire, looking for young supporters. If they exist, they aren’t coming to see him in droves. Or at least, they aren’t coming out in the same way they come out for Biden’s rivals.

At a recent Biden rally in front of the New Hampshire statehouse in Concord, the crowd, shivering in the 30F (-1.11C) sunshine, was mostly made up of older voters.

But there were young people there, too: a group of fresh-faced youngsters, wearing sneakers and inadequate jackets, handed out stickers and signed up supporters. One of them had an upturned bucket and was banging it like a drum.

Surely these enthusiastic Biden supporters would be desperate to speak of their admiration for their chosen candidate?

Nope.

The majority of the young people present were either employed by the Biden campaign or had some sort of fellowship with the campaign. They had been told they weren’t allowed to speak to journalists.

This isn’t normal. At other candidates’ rallies there are certainly young people with a quasi-official role with the campaign – gathering voters’ email addresses and handing out signs. But there are also young people who have just come to support the candidate and hear them speak.

At Biden’s rallies in New Hampshire, those people were conspicuous by their absence.

On Friday, after approaching every person who looked vaguely under the age of 30, the Guardian finally found two young people who weren’t connected to the campaign. But they weren’t Biden voters.

“I’m actually here for school. I have to go to a campaign event for my US elections class,” said Mati Cano, a 21-year-old student at Tufts University, close to Boston. Cano was with his girlfriend, 22-year-old Ana Jurca, a fellow student. Jurca did not have to go to a campaign event for her US elections class; she just fancied a trip to New Hampshire.

Upon arriving at the capitol, Cano and Jurca had been mistaken for protesters by Biden campaign staffers – a moment that might reveal how highly the campaign rates its chances of luring young people to Biden’s events.

It wasn’t just the accusation of peddling civil unrest that turned Cano off Biden.

“I personally disagree with some of Biden’s policies in the past, like the criminal justice stuff he did, the crime bill he signed on and still doesn’t really apologize for it,” Cano said. He supports Sanders. “I just feel more close to Bernie, I resonate more with what Bernie’s saying.”

Biden in Concord. A recent University of New Hampshire poll found only 6% of Biden supporters were between 18 and 34. Photograph: Cj Gunther/EPA

That evening Biden held a town hall event in Concord. The space was usually used as a basketball court, and someone had fastidiously taped a blue tarpaulin over the floor.

Biden spoke for about 10 minutes and answered questions, adeptly, on topics including the environment and gun control. Like at the statehouse event, there was a gaggle of youngsters, roughly 18 to 25. A lot of them had been at the earlier rally. The youth had been placed behind Biden, holding signs and generally looking enthusiastic. Again, none would chat to the media. They were all either paid staff members or campaign fellows.

One young woman, 17-year-old Madison Gilbert, had turned up organically, however. Well, she had come with her mum.

“I think this went really well,” Gilbert said after Biden finished speaking. “I learned a lot about him just from listening to some of the ideas that he has, and I really think we need him as a president and to save our country because right now it is deteriorating.”

Gilbert said most of her friends support Sanders or Warren. But she preferred Biden’s more moderate proposals on healthcare and the environment. On the subjects of Medicare for All and abolishing tuition fees, Gilbert said: “There’s not really funding for that, I believe. Not everything can be free.”

As for why many people her age, or even college students, are drawn to the more progressive candidates, Gilbert offered a strident criticism.

“Honestly, I believe that they’re more drawn to them because they just haven’t done their own education on everything,” Gilbert said. “For me, myself, I’ve done my own research. My parents do support Joe, but I had my own choice. They’re not, like, forcing me.”

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There are a lot of people who like Biden. In fact, a lot of people love him. At his town halls he works the crowd beautifully, strolling around the audience, placing a hand on shoulders, looking people in the eye.

He is often introduced by people who have a personal story of how he touched their lives, like on Saturday evening, when he was welcomed to a town hall by a woman who had survived domestic abuse. She was living in a halfway house, she said, when she heard about a senator who was pushing for a domestic violence bill.

It was Biden, and the bill was the Violence Against Women Act, a piece of legislation experts say contributed to a dramatic decline of domestic abuse.

“Joe Biden became my hero that day. Because he was fighting for me, my son and my daughter, even if he didn’t know it,” the woman said through tears.

“I just want him to know that he impacted my life and my children’s.”

Biden had spent the early part of Saturday serving chili to firefighters at a town hall in Concord. The International Association of Fire Fighters, a union, has endorsed Joe Biden, and yellow “Fire Fighters for Biden” signs had been plonked in the grass surrounding the building.

Dotted among the burly firefighters were some of the young campaign staffers the Guardian had seen the day before. But there were also some new young faces. There were 21 new young faces, to be exact – all journalism students from Northeastern University. The Biden campaign had allowed them to interview people at the event, as long as they wore “Biden” stickers while they did it. Campaign photographers flitted around the crowd, grabbing pictures that included the students, none of whom actually supported Biden.

There was one young man who had come out of his own accord, though, and if Joe Biden has a more ardent supporter, the Guardian is yet to meet them.

“I wrote papers in middle school on Joe Biden, so I was really excited to finally be able to see him,” said Nicholas Dadekian, a business administration major at Rhode Island’s Bryant University. He was beaming.

“In my intro to writing classes we usually had to write a profile of somebody, and I would always choose Joe Biden.”

Dadekian was overcome after managing to get a selfie with the former vice-president. He said he likes how Biden is “down to earth” and believes he could reach across the aisle and generally “get things done”. Dadekian described himself as a moderate – he doesn’t think college tuition should be free for all, and isn’t sure about private healthcare companies being abolished to introduce Medicare for All.

In short, Dadekian is a classic Biden supporter. But he acknowledged that, in terms of people his age, he is a bit short on company.

“I do think he might be a little out of touch with the values and needs of the younger people,” Dadekian said.

Looking at some of the polling, that feels like an understatement. The New York Times/Siena College Iowa poll that found Biden winning only 2% of voters under 30 also showed that just 5% of Biden’s supporters in the state are under 45. This dearth of support isn’t restricted to Iowa: in New Hampshire, the second state to vote, only 6% of Biden’s support comes from people between 18 to 34 years old.

Biden joined the Democratic race as the clear frontrunner. Since then, he has been reined in. Having started his campaign with a big splash, he is now behind in Iowa and tied with Warren in New Hampshire – the two crucial first states to vote.

But hope is not lost. If Biden can accumulate even a small amount of young voters, if his campaign can start to attract people under 30 without suspecting them of being protesters, it could still go a long way to boosting his performance in the race.

Whether Biden is capable of doing that is up for debate. But don’t bank on Joe Biden tattoos becoming the must-have accessory of 2020.