As the political calendar inches towards the midterm elections in November, a run of recent polling all points to one thing: President Biden has a problem with young voters.
The new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found support for the president had plummeted 16 points among Gen Z and millennials in the past year, to sit at 37% — the lowest of any age group in the U.S.
Climate change, racial justice, and student debt are some of the key issues for young people, said Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, president and executive director of NextGen America, one of the biggest youth vote-mobilizing organizations in the country.
“When you combine millennials and Gen Z, they are the largest voting bloc in American history — 65 million young people that are eligible to vote in that younger demographic,” she said.
While Democratic pollsters are sounding the alarm, many young voters say it’s no surprise to them.
Biden performed well with young voters in 2020, capturing 61% of voters aged 18-29, according to AP VoteCast.
James Kweisi Butler, 24, is a model and content creator from Los Angeles who voted for Biden at the last election. He describes himself as black and queer and says that his identity informs his political opinions, which lean liberal.
His frank assessment of the polls is that Biden was seen as a safe option in 2020 and since his election he hasn’t done a good enough job of meeting his commitments.
“I’m not surprised at all, because we weren’t very excited. I feel like that was our safety net,” Butler said. “We gave him our vote, we got so many promises, one being the student loans, which is hugely impacting our generation right now. And that big promise has still been unfulfilled.”
Without a candidate like Donald Trump to rally against, Butler said he wouldn’t be surprised if more Gen Z voters sat out the midterms and the next presidential election, or chose to support third-party candidates.
“I completely understand why people are feeling that [they shouldn’t vote]. And at times, I still feel that way.” Butler said. “They might make a bigger statement than continuing to put our time and energy and vote into the system that we’re realizing is just messed up and continuing not to listen; really listen to us and what we’re saying that we need.”
That lack of faith in the system crosses the political divide among younger voters, says Eddy Thurber — another Gen Z voter who describes his political views as “nuanced”, though generally leaning conservative.
Thurber is a political science student at Cal State Fresno in California, and in his view, Biden’s problem with young people isn’t just about his track record, it’s also about what he represents.
“He’s been in office for his whole life. And I think he has this in common with most of the older generation of politicians, is that young people can’t relate to him at all,” Thurber said.
“Joe Biden’s entire career is about being a voice that can make things happen. He’s the, I suppose, the ultimate ‘good old boy’. He can make things happen because he knows everybody,” he said. “We don’t have anybody that can speak for us. We don’t have any ‘good young boys’ that have the connections to make things happen for us.”
For Democratic strategist Dan Sena, the problem isn’t policy, it’s communication.
Sena helped Democrats take the House in 2018, and his assessment is that they have done a lot to appeal to younger voters, pointing specifically to their track record in fighting climate change and addressing equity and inclusion.
In his view, Democrats should focus on messaging and communication if they want to bring more young voters into the fold.
“I think the challenge that most Democrats now have is really connecting with Gen Z voters on their own record,” he said. “I think there’s a lot that Democrats have to sell to Gen Z, we just have to take the time and the tactics and the campaigns to do it.”
Sena describes Gen Z as “pragmatic voters” who, on the whole, actually align with the Democratic platform. But he says they are more difficult to convince than the older generation.
“There’s always a little bit of a ‘show me what you have done for me lately and show me the facts’ piece to it. And I think Gen Z’ers require a higher level of proving the point than I think other generations have had,” he said.
The ability of Democrats — and President Biden — to do just that will be put to the test in November.