By Arab News
By Kerry Boyd Anderson
Recent polls have increased concerns among Democrats that President Joe Biden is losing young voters’ support in the runup to the November 2024 election. The situation could change before the election, but Biden’s campaign and the Democratic Party more broadly need to do more to reach out to younger Americans.
Young voters turned out in record numbers in 2020 to vote for Biden, who won far more votes among young adults than Donald Trump. In the 2018 midterm elections, during Trump’s presidency, young voters also turned out in historically large numbers, helping Democrats win a majority in the House of Representatives. While youth turnout dropped somewhat in the 2022 midterm elections, young voters still played an important role in helping the Democrats maintain control of the Senate.
The youth vote has become more important as elections have become tighter races. Younger Americans are more likely to vote for Democrats. For example, the Republican presidential candidate has not won the 18 to 29-year-old cohort since 1988. According to a recent survey from Harvard University, 35 percent of this age group “affiliate with the Democratic Party,” while only 26 percent identify with the Republican Party. However, notably, the larger percentage (38) consider themselves independent or unaffiliated.
While younger adults are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans, they are less likely to vote at all than older Americans, which has diluted their electoral influence. It also means that Democrats are often more worried about encouraging young voters to show up at polls than about pulling them away from Republican candidates.
Polls show mixed results for Biden among young voters. Multiple recent polls have found Biden and Trump nearly tied for young Americans’ votes; in just one example, a recent NBC poll found Trump had 46 percent support among young voters while Biden had only 42 percent — a huge shift from the last election. In the Harvard survey, 41 percent of young voters would choose Biden compared to 30 percent who would vote for Trump in a one-to-one contest. However, young voters who plan to vote Democratic are more opposed to Trump than they are enthusiastic about Biden; for example, the Harvard survey found that only 35 percent of young voters approve of Biden’s current performance as president.
Beyond the uncertain risk of losing young voters to Trump, Democrats face two major challenges with young voters: persuading them to turn out to vote and fending off challenges from third-party candidates.
Several polls have suggested that young adults are less likely to turn out to vote in 2024 than in recent elections. According to the Harvard survey, only 49 percent of young voters said they plan to vote for president, compared to 57 percent at the same point in the last presidential election cycle. However, the Harvard survey suggested an interesting twist: the potential decline in turnout comes more from Republicans and independents than from Democrats.
The survey found that 66 percent of young Democrats plan to vote, compared to 68 percent in the fall of 2019. The decline among young Republicans was larger, at 10 points (56 percent today, down from 66 percent in 2019). Intention to vote also declined by 10 points among young independents, to 31 percent today from 41 percent in 2019. If young Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents fail to turn out for the Democrats, it could hurt Biden in a close race, but the existing data makes it difficult to make confident predictions.
Another worry for Democrats is the appeal of third-party candidates to young voters. Robert Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West are running as independent candidates for president and there is still potential for other candidates to enter the fray. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that young voters are the most likely age group to vote for Kennedy or West. In the Harvard survey, when presented with a scenario in which they could vote for Biden, Trump, Kennedy, West or potential candidate Joe Manchin, Biden’s lead over Trump slipped to only four points (29 percent compared to 25 percent for Trump, 10 percent for Kennedy and less for West and Manchin).
There are important limitations to polls of young voters. The election is still months away and much could change. Many Americans are unhappy with the idea of a repeat contest between Biden and Trump, but in the face of an actual decision between the two, many will turn out to vote against whoever they dislike the most. All polls have methodological challenges.
Even with those caveats, Biden’s team and the Democratic Party more generally should heed the warnings offered by the polls and many youth activists. Many young Democrats and left-leaning independents feel that their government is failing to solve the biggest problems facing their generation, including climate change and cost-of-living concerns. An AP-NORC poll found that 77 percent of voters younger than 45 see Biden as too old to be an effective president. The war in Gaza has highlighted enormous generational differences in views on foreign policy, with youth activists warning that Biden’s strong support for Israel could lead many young voters to skip voting and complicate efforts to recruit young activists to campaign for the president.
Young voters might still turn out to support Biden and other Democratic candidates in 2024, especially if Trump is the only viable alternative. However, Democrats cannot take young voters for granted. Republicans have an uphill battle to gain more young Americans’ votes, but they might have some success and would benefit if many young people simply chose not to vote at all.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. X: @KBAresearch