WASHINGTON — Mary Collins voted for President Joe Biden in 2020. A year and a half later, Collins, 25, of Raleigh, North Carolina, gives the White House and the Democratic-led Congress a 4 out of 10 on performance.
“It just doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of progress,” she said. “You hear some good things the Biden administration has done, but otherwise it is very underwhelming.”
She said she’s struggling to afford health care and pinched by rising gas prices. She wants action to mitigate student debt. She worries about climate change.
“Frankly, life’s been really hard for all of us,” Collins said. “The disappointment is there because I fully expected there would be something happening to relieve pressure. But it feels like the longer this goes on, the harder it’s getting.”
Scores of Americans like Collins — young, liberal-leaning, economically anxious and disappointed that Democratic-controlled Washington hasn’t done more to improve their lives — hold substantial power in the 2022 elections. Democrats need Gen Z and millennial voters to turn out to have any hope of keeping the House or the Senate. And they don't habitually vote in midterms.
Collins said she does plan to vote this fall — “unfortunately” for Democrats. A registered independent, she’s open to alternatives but turned off by the GOP's opposition to abortion rights, dismissal of climate change and denigrating of migrants and non-Christians.
After youth turnout soared to record levels in 2020, fueled by Biden’s progressive agenda and a desire to send President Donald Trump home to Florida, Democratic strategists are sounding the alarm about the lack of enthusiasm among young voters. They fear it could cause dissatisfied younger Americans to sit out the 2022 elections and deliver a walloping for the party. Preventing that, they say, will require more investment and outreach, as well as policy wins or evidence that Democrats are fighting for issues they care about.
'There is an enthusiasm problem'
Biden won 58 percent of millennial and Gen Z voters in 2020, crushing Trump by 20 points after he struck an alliance with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., his main Democratic rival and a favorite of young Americans. Among voters under 35, Biden’s approval rating stood at 56 percent in the combined NBC News polls in April and August 2021. It fell to 42 percent last month.
“Biden is not doing well with young voters,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the president of NextGen America, a liberal group focused on youth turnout. “There is an enthusiasm problem with young progressives. I can’t promise a candidate will win with the youth vote, but I can promise you a Democratic candidate will lose without it.”
In the 2018 midterms, 28.2 percent of Americans under 30 voted, according to a Tufts University analysis. Democrats made broad gains in the House and in governor’s races that fall.
But in 2014 and 2010, the last two midterm elections under a Democratic president, they were 21.3 percent and 20.4 percent, respectively, and the party faced devastating defeats across the country.
Among voters under 35, the NBC News poll last month found that 28 percent express high interest in the 2022 election. Alarmingly for Democrats, that's the same level of interest that group expressed before the 2014 contest. By contrast, 39 percent of voters under 35 expressed high interest ahead of the 2018 election.
Numerous millennial and Gen Z voters interviewed for this article said they would be more supportive of Biden and his party if they canceled federal student debt. Others said they want to see progress on his stalled 2020 campaign promises, such as climate action, health care cost relief and affordable housing.
Ramirez said that some young voters can be motivated to vote when they are reminded of GOP plans to roll back abortion rights, target LGBTQ people and ignore climate change but that others need to be convinced that Democrats care about them and are fighting for their futures.
“A lot of young voters don’t understand why we control the House, Senate and White House and the agenda hasn’t moved forward,” she said. “So being able to get done what we can is critical. Many young people voted for the first time in 2020 because they felt like fascism versus democracy was on the ballot. They also voted to make their lives better.”
Avoiding a '2014-style midterm'
Biden has faced roadblocks seeking to enact more of his 2020 campaign agenda — slim Democratic congressional majorities with some uncooperative members, aggressive Republican opposition and a conservative Supreme Court.
Seth Voegele, 25, a financial analyst based in Dallas, said he recognizes Biden was dealt a tough hand and faces constraints.
“However, I will say that I am not impressed. I think there’s definitely more that could be done,” he said, adding that his confidence in the president has reduced since he voted for him in 2020. “To be honest, he’s showing his age.”
Passing what Democrats can of the Build Back Better Act would brighten their prospects this fall and help avoid another brutal low-turnout election like 2014, some strategists say.
“Youth engagement has reduced dramatically this cycle — and in midterm environments, engaging your base is a key component of success,” said Sean McElwee, the executive director of Data for Progress, which has polled young voters with NextGen America. “We must avoid a 2014-style midterm, and the best way to do that is to raise taxes on the wealthy to secure clean energy independence.”
Polling by NextGen America and Data for Progress found that among Americans ages 18 to 36, the Democratic Party's net favorable rating is 11 points underwater in Arizona and 19 points underwater in Nevada, two key swing states. In Pennsylvania, the party has a net positive rating of 11 points.
Jennifer Ingram, 35, of Wilmington, North Carolina, said she wants Democrats to hold firm on LGBTQ rights and pursue action on gun control, mental health, marijuana legalization and student debt.
“A lot of my friends around my age or younger are really struggling to make ends meet,” she said, urging some action on student loan debt. “Older generations don’t quite realize the devastation it’s having for kids my age and younger adults.”
Asked about the president’s struggles with young people, a Biden adviser said, “Elections are about choices,” arguing that Democrats are fighting to lower costs while Republicans stand in the way and favor tax hikes on the middle class and cuts to Social Security.
The adviser said Biden would “continue to communicate directly with the American people” about his plans and tout his achievements, including the American Rescue Plan, the infrastructure law, 8 million new jobs and 3.6 percent unemployment.
'The president made promises'
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Biden could cancel $50,000 per borrower in federal student debt using executive power. The administration has resisted that call, but it has kept the door open to further action before the November elections after recently having extended the pause on federal loan repayments.
“Cancellation of student loan debt is hugely important to young Americans,” she said, describing it as an issue of equality, racial justice and gender justice. “The president made promises back during the campaign, and young people across America want to see that he’s fighting on their side.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said young people aren't interested in "process arguments" for why things aren't getting done. The caucus has presented Biden with a list of proposed executive actions on health care, prescription drug costs, wages and immigration, along with student loans.
"I always worry, because I think the political system is so inaccessible to so many young people," she said.
Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., said that when he speaks to young people, three issues regularly come up: climate change, gun violence and student debt.
"Do I understand why a young person would be disappointed right now?" he said. "Yeah, of course I understand."
Phillips said Democrats should "open our ears" and acknowledge their concerns. He noted that House Democrats have passed major legislation on climate action and background checks for gun purchases, which have stalled in the Senate, where residents of small red states are overrepresented and most bills require 60 votes to pass.
"Our founders very much designed a system to make progress difficult. And it works really well," he said.