WASHINGTON — In 2020, Joe Biden scored a narrow Electoral College victory with a decisive assist from young voters. But as the president looks beyond his first term, many young voters are not satisfied, presenting a fresh challenge as he heads into a likely rematch with former President Donald Trump in 2024.
Biden faces little risk of losing young Americans to Trump, who is far less popular among Gen Z and millennial voters. But can the president harness their anger to turn out and push him over the top? Or will their lack of perceived progress cause them to stay home, making way for a Trump victory next year?
“The answer to this question will decide the election,” said John Della Volpe, polling director at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, who specializes in young voter attitudes.
In a recent blog post, Della Volpe wrote that voters under 30, who have been key to modern Democratic victories, now appear less likely to identify as Democrats, instead aligning as independents. Worse for the party, fewer young voters see politics as a “meaningful way to create change,” which he said has been a key indicator of youth turnout.
“Nearly every sign that made me confident in historic levels of youth participation in 2018, 2020, and 2022 — is now flashing red,” he wrote.
In 2020, Biden won 60% of voters under 30, while Trump won 36%, according to NBC News exit polls. In addition, youth voter turnout surged that year compared to 2016, helping Biden win the Electoral College by a margin of just 45,000 votes across three swing states.
Biden’s national approval rating with registered voters under 35 is 51%, with a 44% unfavorable rating, an NBC News poll taken June 16-20 found. Young voter enthusiasm for Biden is limited: Just 9% of voters under 35 said they “strongly approve” of Biden’s performance. Among those who disapprove, 28% said they “strongly disapprove,” while 16% said they “somewhat disapprove.”
The Biden campaign indicated that it is taking nothing for granted and will meet younger voters “where they are” to make the case for the president’s re-election.
“Young people are acutely impacted by the issues front and center in this election, driven by the extreme MAGA agenda, which cuts costs for corporations but not students in debt, takes away fundamental rights, and fails to protect young Americans from our most urgent threats like gun violence and climate change,” said Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz. “President Biden and Vice President Harris are fighting for the future America’s young people deserve, and as Democrats did in 2020 and 2022, we will meet younger Americans where they are and turn their energy into action as part of our winning 2024 coalition.”
Biden’s campaign plans to drive the contrast with Trump and enlist surrogates who are younger and popular with Gen Z and millennials to help make the case. Among them are Tennessee Rep. Justin Jones, a 27-year-old state legislator who was expelled by Republicans after protesting in support of gun limits, and 26-year-old U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., the youngest member of Congress.
In an interview, Jones, who was reinstated to the Legislature in April, praised Biden for securing a bill to combat mass shootings, pursuing “environmental justice” with a historic climate law, passing a bill to address the “crisis of democracy” by closing loopholes to prevent stolen elections and announcing new steps to mitigate student debt after his earlier actions were overturned by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court.
“I know that this administration sees these issues as crises. I know that they feel urgency to address these issues, and I know that they’re using the tools that they have,” Jones said. “When I look at where does the responsibility lie, I look at the Supreme Court, and I look at this extreme dysfunctional Republican leadership in Congress.”
In the wake of overturning Roe v. Wade last year, the Supreme Court ended its latest term with rulings that dealt a blow to LGBTQ rights, ended affirmative action in college admissions and killed Biden's student debt relief of up to $20,000 for lower-income borrowers — all issues that resonate strongly with young voters.
Biden's campaign is also working with the Democratic National Committee, which called young voters “a critical part of our coalition” and said it is teaming up with youth advocacy groups, holding training sessions on mobilizing voters and offering resources for interested students and graduates to get involved.
The Trump campaign says Biden hasn’t delivered for young voters.
“Joe Biden has failed in every single one of his campaign promises that he’s made to younger Americans, except for his promise to saddle these generations with more debt,” said Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller. “In contrast, President Trump will bring down inflation and create better opportunities for younger Americans like we’ve never seen.”
Among voters under 35, Trump registered a 23% favorable rating and a 68% unfavorable rating in the NBC News poll in June.
“Don’t underestimate the power of a pissed-off generation," said Antonio Arellano of the liberal youth voting group NextGen America. "What Republicans have just done by standing in the way of progress is pissed off the largest eligible voting bloc in modern American history. We’re organizing on college campuses, universities, pride events and festivals and community gatherings across the country, particularly in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Nevada, New Hampshire, Arizona.”
“There’s this perception that young people are going to be disenfranchised, disillusioned, discouraged and are not going to vote,” he said, calling it a “recurring” narrative that has proven false in recent cycles, including 2020 and 2022.
Some Biden allies say he's used to being underestimated, citing criticism of his handling of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and arguing that he got it right as Democrats overperformed in the 2022 midterm elections.
Jones warned that while “Trump is the antithesis of what our generation stands for,” Democrats cannot rely on that to mobilize young voters.
“We cannot just run on what we’re against. We have to run on what we’re for,” he said. “I’ve been hopeful to see the Biden campaign doing this. Running for an economy where young people are not saddled with hundreds of thousands in debt; running for a livable planet. … Protect kids, not guns.”
Jones recently visited the White House, along with his two Tennessee colleagues who were targeted for expulsion after breaking decorum to protest against gun violence.
Jones said his message for Biden was: “We must do things out of the ordinary.”
How did the president and White House staff react?
“They just listened,” Jones said. “I appreciate them listening to us.”