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'Clear warning signs': Focus group shows lack of enthusiasm for Biden among the young

First on NBC News: "Biden is unknown," concluded a new focus group of young people that found both opportunity and peril for the apparent Democratic nominee.
If the new focus groups are any indication, Biden is still ill-defined for many young voters.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden is in no danger of losing young voters to President Donald Trump. But he faces a lack of enthusiasm among Millennials and Gen Z voters with the potential to decide his fate if they stay home or vote for a third-party candidate.

Many of these voters preferred Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and perceive Biden as a blank slate. They aren’t sure that he’s a change agent or that his policies match the scale of their problems. Some worry about his age and fitness. Most seem open to supporting Biden to stop Trump but need to hear more from him.

That’s the conclusion of new focus groups that delve into the mindset of Millennial and Gen Z voters who self-identify as Democrats or independents in 11 battleground states. They were conducted in late and mid-April by the political consulting firm Global Strategy Group on behalf of NextGen America, a youth-focused progressive advocacy group.

The good news for Biden is that many voters are persuaded by the argument that his views aren’t so far from those of Sanders, and by endorsements from leaders whom young people trust, including Sanders himself. Biden also benefits from the contrast with Trump, who is immensely unpopular among young Americans.

“On the other hand, there are clear warning signs,” the firm wrote in a PowerPoint presentation on the findings. “For now, perceptions that Biden is too close to corporate interests or that he is dishonest often appear linked to more general perceptions of him as a ‘typical’ or ‘career politician,’ rather than someone who is particularly bad.”

'Blank slate isn't going to cut it'

Some voters brought up recent sexual assault allegations against Biden as a concern, while others cited his past ties to credit card companies. The focus groups found that Sanders-to-Trump crossovers are an “idiosyncratic and marginal group” — more prevalent are wait-and-see voters who aren’t committed to turning out and potential third-party defectors, an unusually large group in the 2016 election.

Biden has sought to appeal to young voters by moving toward Sanders' platform on free public college and adopting bankruptcy overhauls pushed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. At virtual fundraisers recently, he called himself "a transition candidate" interested in elevating younger voices, and said he recognizes that "I have to make sure you know I’m listening" to avoid a 2016 repeat.

His campaign responded on Thursday.

"As President Obama has said, Joe Biden is running on the most progressive platforms in modern history and laid out bold ideas to tackle climate change, expand health care, and make college affordable," Biden spokesman Matt Hill said in an email. "Joe Biden knows that young Americans are a driving force of the progressive movement and will work hard to earn their votes, unite our country, and ensure we achieve the ultimate goal we all share: defeating Donald Trump."

Young voters are economically anxious as the first two generations in U.S. history that risk being worse off than their parents, coming of age in the Great Recession and the coronavirus outbreak. They worry about basic economic security, high costs of education and health care, and climate change. They vote irregularly compared to older generations but their attitudes can make or break campaigns.

For Biden, there is tension between his outreach to these young voters and his pitch to older, suburban and moderate Americans who aren’t looking for radical change but rather a safe alternative to Trump. He leads Trump in recent polls, but his low-key campaign isn't reaching many young people.

“Blank slate isn’t going to cut it for young people. But that doesn’t mean he has to change who he is,” said Ben Wessel, the executive director of NextGen America, which commissioned the new study.

Wessel said the apparent Democratic nominee and his team can appeal to young voters by pitching his candidacy as a vehicle for progress in contrast to Trump, by raising the scale of his ambitions on climate change or championing full marijuana legalization, and by continuing to present himself as a bridge to the next generation.

Biden leads Trump in new polls

He said Biden is “taking a lot of steps in the right direction” but must double down on his investment in young voters and “not assume this is going to be solved with a Bernie endorsement video.”

The report analyzing the focus groups warned that Biden and his allies should not deny that he's a moderate or oversell his progressivism as that would "rapidly degrade credibility" with young voters.

“They have incredibly high bulls--- detectors and they’re not willing to take crap from anyone,” Wessel said. “This idea that he’s secretly some dyed-in-the-wool Bernie stan feels like dumb pandering.”

Biden’s other problem is his lack of presence in the online spaces where young people socialize and get their information, such as Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. Wessel said Biden doesn’t personally need millions of followers on these platforms and can make up the gap by appearing on the channels of celebrities who are trusted by young people, like Cardi B or Miley Cyrus.

A Monmouth poll released Wednesday found Biden leading Trump by a comfortable 9 points while winning 56 percent of voters under 35. By contrast, Hillary Clinton won 55 percent of voters under 30 in 2016, and Obama won 60 percent of them in 2012.

But the election is six months away and if the new focus groups are any indication, Biden is still ill-defined for many young voters.

"Biden is unknown," the Global Strategy Group study concluded. "He became the nominee in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. Like many other voters, these ones are still getting to know Joe."