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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

November 29: Biden, Trump and Young Voters

I decided to add my analytical two cents at New York to the political topic many Democrats are worried about right now: the direction of the youth vote.

Until recently, Democrats’ biggest concern about the 2024 youth vote was that millennial and Gen-Z voters were so disappointed with our octogenarian president that they might not turn out in great enough numbers to reelect Joe Biden. Young voters were, after all, the largest and most rapidly growing segment of the Democratic base in the last election. But now public-opinion surveys are beginning to unveil a far more terrifying possibility: Donald Trump could carry the youth vote next year. And even if that threat is exaggerated or reversible, it’s increasingly clear that “the kids” may be swing voters, not unenthusiastic Democratic base voters who can be frightened into turning out by the prospect of Trump’s return.

NBC News reports it’s a polling trend that cannot be ignored or dismissed:

“The latest national NBC News poll finds President Joe Biden trailing former President Donald Trump among young voters ages 18 to 34 — with Trump getting support from 46% of these young voters and Biden getting 42%. …

“CNN’s recent national poll had Trump ahead of Biden by 1 point among voters ages 18 to 34.

“Quinnipiac University had Biden ahead by 9 points in that subgroup.

“The national Fox News poll had Biden up 7 points among that age group.

“And the recent New York Times/Siena College battleground state polling had Biden ahead by just 1 point among voters ages 18 to 34.”

According to Pew’s validated voters analysis (which is a lot more precise than exit polls), Biden won under-30 voters by a 59 percent to 35 percent margin in 2020. Biden actually won the next age cohort, voters 30 to 49 years old, by a 55 percent to 43 percent margin. In 2016, Pew reports, Hillary Clinton won under-30 voters by a 58 percent to 28 percent margin, and voters 30 to 44 by 51 percent to 40 percent.

So one baby-boomer Democrat and one silent-generation Democrat kicked Trump’s butt among younger voters, despite the fact that both of them had their butts kicked among younger primary voters by Bernie Sanders. It’s these sort of numbers that led to a lot of optimistic talk about younger-generation voters finally building the durable Democratic majority that had eluded the party for so many years.

What’s gone wrong?

For one thing, it’s important to note that yesterday’s younger voters aren’t today’s, as Nate Silver reminds us:

“Fully a third of voters in the age 18-29 bracket in the 2020 election (everyone aged 26 or older) will have aged out of it by 2024, as will two-thirds of the age 18-to-29 voters from the 2016 election and all of them from 2012. So if you’re inclined to think something like “gee, did all those young voters who backed the Obama-Biden ticket in 2012 really turn on Biden now?”, stop doing that. Those voters are now in the 30-to-41 age bracket instead.”

But even within relatively recent groups of young voters, there are plenty of micro- and macro-level explanations available for changing allegiances. Young voters share the national unhappiness with the performance of the economy; many are particularly afflicted by high basic-living costs and higher interest rates that make buying a home or even a car unusually difficult. Some of them are angry at Biden for his inability (mostly thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court) to cancel student-loan debts. And most notoriously, young voters are least likely to share Biden’s strong identification with Israel in its ongoing war with Hamas (a new NBC poll shows 70 percent of 18-to-34-year-old voters disapprove of Biden’s handling of the war).

More generally, intergenerational trust issues are inevitably reflected in perceptions of the president who is turning 81 this week, as youth-vote expert John Della Volpe recently explained:

“Today many young people see wars, problems and mistakes originating from the older generations in top positions of power and trickling down to harm those most vulnerable and least equipped to protect themselves. This is the fabric that connects so many young people today, regardless of ideology. This new generation of empowered voters is therefore asking across a host of issues: If not now, then when is the time for a new approach?”

All of these factors help explain why younger voters have soured on Uncle Joe and might be open to independent or minor-party candidates (e.g., Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel WestJill Stein, or a possible No Labels candidate). But they don’t cast as much light on why these same voters might ultimately cast a ballot for Donald Trump.

Trump is less than four years younger than Biden and is about as un-hip an oldster as one can imagine. He’s responsible for the destruction of federal abortion rights, a deeply unpopular development among youth voters (post-election surveys in 2022 showed abortion was the No. 1 issue among under-30 voters; 72 percent of them favored keeping abortion legal in all or most cases). His reputation for racism, sexism, and xenophobia ought to make him anathema to voters for whom the slogan “Make America Great Again” doesn’t have much personal resonance. And indeed, young voters have some serious issues with the 45th president, even beyond the subject of abortion. In the recent New York Times–Siena battleground state poll that showed Trump and Biden about even among under-30 voters, fully 64 percent of these same voters opposed “making it harder for migrants at the southern border to seek asylum in the United States,” a signature Trump position if ever there was one.

At the same time, under-30 voters in the Times-Siena survey said they trusted Trump more on the Israel-Hamas conflict than Biden by a robust 49 percent to 39 percent margin. The 45th president, needless to say, has never shown any sympathy for the Palestinian plight. And despite the ups and downs in his personal relationship to Bibi Netanyahu, he was as close an ally to Israel’s Likud Party as you could imagine (among other things, Trump reversed a long-standing U.S. position treating Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank as a violation of international law and also moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a gesture of great contempt toward Palestinian statehood). His major policy response to the present war has been to propose a revival of the Muslim travel ban the courts prevented him from implementing during his first term.

But perceptions often differ sharply from reality. Sixty-two percent of 18-to-29-year-old and 61 percent of 40-to-44-year-old voters said they trusted Trump more than Biden on the economy in the Times-Siena survey. It’s unclear whether these voters have the sort of hazy positive memories of the economy under Trump that older cohorts seem to be experiencing or if they instead simply find the status quo intolerable.

In any event, the estrangement of young voters provides the most urgent evidence of all that Team Biden and its party need to remind voters aggressively about Trump’s full-spectrum unfitness for another term in the White House. Aside from his deeply reactionary position on abortion and other cultural issues, and his savage attitude toward immigrants, Trump’s economic-policy history shows him prioritizing tax cuts for higher earners and exhibiting hostility to student-loan-debt relief (which he has called “very unfair to the millions and millions of people who paid their debt through hard work and diligence”). Smoking out the 45th president on what “Trumponomics” might mean for young and nonwhite Americans should become at least as central to the Biden reelection strategy as improving the reputation of “Bidenomics.” And without question, Democrats who may be divided on the Israel-Hamas war should stop fighting each other long enough to make it clear that Republicans (including Trump) would lead cheers for the permanent Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank while agitating for war with Iran.

There’s no world in which Donald Trump should be the preferred presidential candidate of young voters. But it will require serious work by Team Biden not only to turn these voters against the embodiment of their worst nightmares but to get them involved in the effort to keep him away from power.

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