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Over the past few weeks, Joe Biden has become the overwhelming frontrunner in the Democratic presidential race. His string of primary victories has been powered by support from voters across racial, economic and geographic groups. There’s one demographic, however, that has overwhelmingly thrown its support behind his opponent Bernie Sanders: young voters.
On Super Tuesday, Sanders received 58 percent of support from voters under 30 to Biden’s 17 percent. Despite winning Michigan's primary a week later by a substantial margin, Biden lost the youth vote in the state by 57 points. The dynamic flips with older voters, who overwhelmingly support Biden over Sanders.
This enormous divide between generations has worked in Biden’s favor in the primary because older voters have made up a much larger share of the electorate. Sanders has built much of his case on creating a wave of enthusiasm that compels millions of young people to vote for the first time. Biden has collected a commanding lead in the race in part because that boom in youth turnout hasn’t come to pass.
Why there’s debate
Biden can win the primary without young voters, but he’ll almost certainly need them to defeat Donald Trump in the general election. While it’s unlikely too many young Sanders supporters would flip to Trump, enough of them may stay home on Election Day to tip the scales. Younger voters are generally more liberal, antiestablishment and more likely to support sweeping changes to American democracy. Many of them may be turned off by Biden’s center-left policies and long history as a Washington insider. Biden has also made comments that have upset some young people. "The younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break,” he said in 2018.
Others see reasons for optimism that Biden might overcome his poor performance with young voters by November. It’s possible his low numbers are more of a testament to Sanders’s popularity than a widespread dislike of the former vice president. In the likely event that Biden locks up the nomination, many young voters might still support him — perhaps grudgingly — when he’s the only alternative to Trump.
Some political analysts have suggested that Biden should make bold moves to appeal to younger voters, such as picking a young progressive as a running mate. Biden could also pivot his policy platform to the left by adopting some of Sanders’s policy proposals, many of which are broadly popular. More progressive positions on climate policy or student debt relief could increase Biden’s appeal with young voters without alienating his current moderate support. Sanders can also help, some suggest, by enthusiastically endorsing Biden’s bid once the two are no longer competing head-to-head.
Biden has shown some early signs of a tack to the left since emerging as the likely nominee. He’s adopted a bankruptcy plan originally proposed by Elizabeth Warren, backed a policy to make public college free for some families and announced he would name a woman as his running mate. Whether these are the first steps in a larger shift to the left on policy — and whether they’ll be effective in courting young voters — remains to be seen.
Even Sanders has struggled to turn out young voters
“While the relative lack of enthusiasm from voters in their teens and 20s is bad news for Sanders in the short term, it could also be worrisome for Biden in the long term. In the general election, Democratic presidential candidates rely on huge margins among younger voters to counteract the conservative tilt and higher turnout rates of middle-aged and older Americans.” — Russell Berman, Atlantic
Democrats are at risk of losing an entire generation of voters
“My great fear is how a Biden nomination has the potential to alienate large swaths of younger voters from the Democratic Party for generations.” — Lucy Diavolo, Teen Vogue
It’s difficult to speak to old and young voters using the same message
“The age gap creates problems for how Democrats communicate, the style and tenor of campaign messages and what’s considered civil in political discourse. Young progressives, frustrated by the Establishment, relish the chance to match President Trump’s brash style and in-your-face tone. ...Yet, that style is what’s driving independent older voters away from Trump. It won’t be easy for Democrats to reconcile those radically different approaches.” — Justin Wallin, Real Clear Politics
Biden’s partnership with Barack Obama isn’t as appealing to younger voters
“Biden’s strategy of positioning himself as Obama’s heir, while probably not costing him voters, may not help him court younger Democrats.” — Perry Bacon Jr., FiveThirtyEight
Young voters want very different things than the rest of Biden’s core constituency
“More younger voters want Medicare for All, while older voters already have Medicare. Younger voters are seeking new kinds of job security; older voters care more about Social Security. Younger voters want a safe environment in the future, while older voters are often more worried about their electricity bills today.” — Jeffrey Sachs, CNN
Biden is a tough sell to young people
“It’s difficult to imagine a worse standard-bearer for young Democrats with anti-Establishment leanings than Joseph R. Biden Jr., a fixture of national politics for more than 50 years. In that time, he has been an active participant in damn near every major policy failure that’s plagued the millennial generation’s existence, from mass incarceration to the Iraq War to the student-debt crisis.” — Eric Levitz, New York
Young people may mobilize to defeat Trump regardless of who the Democratic nominee is
“Politics and economics are complex, but in times of crisis they follow simple rules. Older people want safety. Younger people want change. Everyone wants leaders they can trust.” — Robert Reich, Guardian
A subtle shift to the left on policy could bring in young voters
“Here’s what Joe Biden ought to be doing now: moving left. Not full-tilt left, not Bernie left, not Beto ‘I’ll confiscate your guns’ left. But credibly and sensibly left. As far left as he can go and still be Joe Biden.” — Michael Tomasky, Daily Beast
Biden’s choice for vice president will be crucial
“To build a successful coalition, the candidates on the ballot should reflect those who are voting. The Democratic Party and the broader spectrum of voters needed to beat Trump is racially diverse, disproportionately female and mostly younger than Biden. The ticket should be, too.” — Brian Klaas, Washington Post
Sanders could help bring his young supporters over to Biden
“Sanders continues to say that he likes Biden and that defeating Trump is the most important thing this year. Sanders has pledged unequivocally to support his opponent if he himself loses the nomination, something he has done more vigorously and more often than he did in 2016. … Sanders is clear that he does not want to hand the election to Republicans.” — Arnie Seipel, NPR
Climate change is particularly important to young people
“Biden can make a distinctive case for a cause of paramount importance to the young: saving the planet. He should go beyond his pledge to rejoin the Paris accord by extolling all the projects that a Green New Deal would cause to be built. Trump hasn’t delivered on his promise of rebuilding our infrastructure; Biden could more credibly vow to bring together disparate constituencies — across class and generational lines — by rebuilding it green.” — Harold Meyerson, Los Angeles Times
Biden should be careful not to lose his base in an attempt to attract young voters
“While Biden needs to mull and put in place strategies to do better with young voters than he has done to date, he shouldn’t get so carried away that the effort becomes an easily lampooned charade. That would undercut his authenticity, and Sanders’s problems in the primaries prove that you can count only so much on people in their 20s and 30s to get to the polls.” — Frank Bruni, New York Times
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