The Biden Youth Bomb

Joe Biden speaking to teens
Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Peter Hamby
December 22, 2021

Joe Biden has a problem with young voters—and it’s not just because he’s 79. Since the spring, Biden’s approval ratings have fallen across the board, a spiral worsened by the ongoing pandemic, rising inflation and a fragmented media. Gas prices, which always correlate with national sentiment, are a particular source of public dissatisfaction. But one group of voters is making the problem worse—and it’s not S.U.V.-driving, Facebook-addled Boomers. It’s Americans under the age of 30. 

Gen Z (and older millennials) showed up in record numbers during the anti-Trump midterms of 2018, and broke for Biden by a more than 20-point margin in the 2020 election. But today, according to Ben Wessel, a Democratic strategist who formerly directed the youth outreach group NextGen, “almost all his negative movement comes from young people. Older voters are wildly stable in mild dislike for Biden.” Data released by The Economist and YouGov last week found that just 29 percent of American adults between the ages of 18-29 approve of the job Biden is doing as president, and a full 50 percent of young people now disapprove of Biden’s performance. Go ahead and read that sentence twice.

This drift of young people away from the president flies in the face of a common assumption on the left, that earnest young people are a secure part of the Democratic coalition, and that it’s the aging curmudgeons who are ruining progress for the rest of us. No, young people aren’t suddenly going to embrace MAGA Republicans in next year’s midterms. Younger millennials and Gen Z care deeply about diversity and inclusion. Youth voter turnout smashed records back in 2018, largely a reaction to Donald Trump. But their eroding support for Biden today is a fundamental driver of his upside-down approval ratings, a problem that Democrats must fix if his party wants to stave off a bloodbath in 2022. 

And winning back their favor is likely the Democrats’ only hope in 2022. “Democrats have a clear path to greater success in 2022 and beyond,” Wessel told me. “It’s to make sure young people are happy with the job you’re doing. Because right now that’s not the case. Young people seem to be the only Americans who are willing to change their minds about the president and the Democrats, so we need to make sure they’re excited, not pissed.”

But this isn’t just a story about the next election. The whims of America’s youth also tell an important story about our political moment: The growing distance between official Washington and the priorities of a huge and often misunderstood slice of the electorate, the fraying of institutional trust, and the dismal drag of the lingering pandemic. It’s too long for a CNN chyron, which is probably why no one knows about it.

The idea that America’s youth are born Democrats became conventional wisdom during the Obama presidency. His groundbreaking campaign in 2008 supercharged youth turnout. But those millennials who gave their hearts to the Democratic Party during the Obama years are now aging into their 40s. And the generation coming up behind them didn’t enter politics with the same kind of attachment for the Democratic Party. “If you entered politics in the Obama years or were mobilized by his campaign, that created a lasting impact and a kind of loyalty,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, which focuses on the political life of young people in the United States. 

Politics behaves like brand loyalty, she continued. If you learn to buy Coca-Cola instead of Pepsi as a child, you tend to continue that purchasing behavior through life. “How you enter into politics, and how you see leadership at the time, in a close way, really matters. If you were 22 or 23 during Obama’s campaign, you clearly saw this leadership change that got us to a new vision of America. But I don’t think [Hillary] Clinton or Biden ever did that.” 

Kawashima-Ginsberg said that record youth turnout in 2018—which doubled from the previous midterm election—was a result of grassroots movement politics and a negative partisan reaction to Trump among young people. The Parkland generation rose up on their own, without a single political leader as their pied piper. In House races, they favored Democratic candidates by a historic margin: 67 percent to 32 percent. That margin was mostly sustained in the 2020 general election. But as with many Democrats, Biden represented compromise, not passion. He wasn’t beloved in the Democratic primaries. He just offered the best chance to boot Trump from office. “Young people identify with movements, not parties,” Kawashima-Ginsberg told me. 

One politician who did marshall movement-style support among left-leaning young voters was Bernie Sanders, who never became a Democratic nominee, let alone a president. Beginning in 2015, when many of today’s young voters weren’t even eligible to cast a ballot, Sanders inspired devotion by rejecting institutional party politics and promising radical, structural change—a message that resonated with many in a generation unimpressed by neoliberal centrism and the slow burn of legislating in Washington. 

It’s no wonder that Biden’s poll numbers are sinking with young people as he struggles to pass his signature economic plan, the Build Back Better agenda. “There’s the gutter-cleaning that Washington has got to do every year, like passing a budget and raising the debt limit. Important stuff, yeah yeah, I know,” said Cyrus Beschloss, the founder of Generation Lab, a polling outfit that focuses on college-aged voters. “But then you’ve also got 50-foot forest fires threatening to burn the whole house down, the threat of climate change, threats to voting access, et cetera. So as Democrats publish fifty op-eds about gutter-cleaning, young people are out here staring at the forest fire and sweating bullets.” Put another way: official Washington, and the blue-blazered journalists who chronicle it, is preoccupied with the cost of BBB and whether Chuck and Mitch will hash out a fresh deal on the debt ceiling. Young people aren’t interested in that kind of incrementalism. They’re scrolling through clips of Greta Thunberg in Glasgow, talking shit about the lassitude of COP26.

Biden’s legislative agenda, and the mainstream press coverage of both major bills, doesn’t exactly stir the passions of an impatient generation. The infrastructure bill and Build Back Better both include long-tail investments that, if successful, won’t even come to life for years. While many of the headline goals are worthy—Medicaid expansion, child tax credits, universal pre-K—they’ll be felt more immediately by parents and retirees than young people who have different priorities. 

At Snapchat, where I hold down my day job, the company’s policy team recently launched a “Run For Office” platform, designed to help engaged Zoomers of all political persuasions sign up to run for local offices around the country—everything from to city council to Mosquito Abatement Board. Over two million young people have already engaged with the tool. In the sign-up process, after entering their zip code, Snapchatters can select up to five issues to refine their search results of upcoming elections. Out of the 18 issues available for selection, “Infrastructure”—a topic that consumed the Washington political class for months on end—was the second least important selected by Snapchatters. Foreign Affairs—a Biden specialty—was in last place. What came out on top? Civil Rights, Education, Environment, Healthcare and Jobs were the top five most selected issues. 

Plenty of items in the infrastructure legislation and the Build Back Better framework address, tangentially or directly, several of these Gen Z priorities. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki recently told me that there’s plenty in both bills for young people to like—expanding broadband access, investments in electric vehicles, replacing lead pipes so kids can have clean drinking water. “This is one of the biggest climate bills in history,” Psaki said of Build Back Better. “It has a huge investment in climate tax credits. It funds a Climate Corps. It’s going to have a huge impact and be a huge down payment on addressing climate change.” 

But even Psaki admitted that the White House has had a difficult time getting that news out to the public. As usual, the Beltway press has a tendency to cover what’s in a bill only after it passes. Until then, policy conversations are lost in the fog of price tags and process-focused media coverage.  

Like most voters, Gen Z and younger millennials pay attention to politics and issues when they are relevant—when they directly intersect with their lives. And right now, their lives don’t seem great. “Covid is a big part of this,” Kawashima-Ginsberg told me. “A lot of young people today, they’re saying, when is this going to get better? We are exhausted.” Survey after survey has shown that Gen Z, more than older generations, feels a sense of hopelessness, isolation and depression stemming from the long pandemic. The attendant economic disruption hasn’t helped, either. The pandemic added yet another layer of volatility for the gig economy so many younger Americans depend on. While wages are rising for plenty of hourly jobs, they aren’t keeping pace with inflation. Even before Covid, those hourly wages, Uber tips and Venmo payments weren’t doing much to help pay down the student loan debts carried by over 17 million younger Americans. 

When Biden came into office, he re-upped those precious stimulus checks and initially suspended loan repayments, but those relief efforts ended this year. Biden has yet to follow through on his campaign pledge to cancel up to $10,000 of federal student loans per borrower—an idea supported by huge majorities of Americans under 30. “I don’t actually think his low approval rating with young people is that complicated,” said Joe Mitchell, a 24-year old Republican state representative in Iowa. “He made these promises to forgive student loans. He hasn’t kept it. That’s a broken promise specifically to young people. Obviously I’m a Republican here, but leaders suffer when their rhetoric and promises don’t match their policies. Trump was always going to be polarizing. But Biden came in promising to fix everything and bring us back together. He hasn’t. So it’s just really bad for Democrats.”

The under-30 voting bloc incorporates two generational types. Those aged 18-24 are technically Gen Z. Those aged 25-30 are millennials. Younger millennials often have more in common with Gen Z than with older millennials, an age group that remembers a society and political system before 9/11, before the global economic collapse, and before the anxieties brought on by social media and smartphones. 

Not all of those older millennials have found economic security, but far more of them have than the younger Americans behind them—a generation that’s come of age at a time of growing income inequality, the existential threat of climate change and worries about a crumbling democracy. They carry with them a kind of existential impatience that makes all those concerns seem even more dire. 

“Every generation has its share of angst and turmoil, but no generation in the last 75 years has been confronted with more chaos than Zoomers,” said John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard’s Institute of Politics who also worked on the Biden campaign. “Rather than melting like snowflakes, these pressures from the outside world have made them harder. Yes, they’re anxious, but they’ve also emerged as stronger, more resilient, and determined to change the world.” 

Many millennials, he told me, have found fulfillment in the world beyond politics, and feel somewhat less urgency than Gen Z, which is less likely to sit elections out, even if they aren’t enamored with their choices on the ballot. “With Gen Z, you see this urgency of action that’s less apparent in millennials, who have found ways outside of politics to try to affect change. But Gen Z is telling us they don’t have the luxury.”

The Harvard I.O.P. Youth Poll, released in early December, found Biden with a higher approval rating among young people—46 percent—than other recent polls. But the poll also revealed that their outlook on the world was borderline apocalyptic. A majority of young voters said that American democracy is either “in trouble” or “failing.” Over a third of them said we will see “a second Civil War” in our lifetime. Majorities said the government was not doing enough to combat climate change, and that it will have a serious impact on their lives moving forward. And crucially—with the pandemic continuing to spoil the economy, schools, and everyday life—more than half of young Americans said they have recently “felt down, depressed, and hopeless,” with 25 percent of young people having thoughts of self-harm. The overall message: The system doesn’t work for us. 

For a generation that was already skeptical of institutions—corporations, campuses, churches—conventional politics isn’t seen as much of a balm. “There’s a generational shift in how people attach themselves to institutions, and build identities as they relate to institutions,” Kawashima-Ginsberg told me. “Young people that aren’t attached to any institution, they are less engaged and less connected, and that’s happening with political institutions too. Young people prioritize a green economy. But they don’t see the parties as a solution to that, including the Democratic Party. So they can’t see themselves aligning with Democrats, growing with them, partnering with them. They are looking for other options, which explains the appeal of socialism for many of them.” 

Kawashima-Ginsberg cited CIRCLE’s recent finding that the percentage of young people who reported participating in marches—for gun safety, climate action, racial justice—surged dramatically from 5 percent in 2016 to 27 percent in 2020. Young people care deeply about political change and take pride in their political identity, but they don’t do it by slapping a “Yes, We Can!” sticker on their car or donating to a party committee.

In conversations with activists and experts in youth voting behavior, a term many experts used to describe Gen Z was “searching.” Despite the loudest voices we hear on social media—Turning Point USA lib-owners on the right, social justice virtue-signalers on the left—polls show that Gen Z is less strident than people might assume. Millennials are the ones more likely to yell at you about identity politics and shun people who disagree with them. Zoomers, though, are more open to having conversations about difficult issues, willing to experiment with different identities, and inclined to research tough questions on the internet and social media. Wessel, the former NextGen strategist, referred me to a recent McKinsey study about Gen Z that described them as “Identity Nomads.” Unlike the pre-Trump years, he told me, young people are less interested in identifying as part of a group, and more interested in their individual expression. 

“Young people don’t sign up for membership in the same way millennials did,” Wessel said. “It connects to the social cohesion thing, that people aren’t part of the Rotary Club anymore. And that’s especially true among people who grew up as digital natives. Old people are part of Facebook groups. Young people are part of 1:1 messaging with their friends. So as an operative, it’s harder today to talk to a series of individuals.” 

Wessel said that Democrats can’t just broadcast a digital ad on a certain issue and expect young voters to come along. Zoomers need more personal attention, to have conversations with influencers in their networks—which requires tactics like peer-to-peer text messaging, two-way conversations in DMs, customized responses from canvassers and phone bankers. “I came up as a climate activist,” Wessel said. “And with millennials you could say, ‘Hey! You care about this issue, so vote for this person, and it would work. But now, you have all these concepts of intersectionality that have become so routine in Gen Z that you don’t have single issue voters anymore. You don’t identify as a member of a group, or a Democrat. You are more likely to identify as an individual engaging with the world.”

Biden’s challenge is particularly acute with young Hispanics. A new post-mortem from the research group Equis, which studies Hispanic voting behavior, found that “less-partisan Latinos are navigating their identities and values in ways that don’t always map out neatly on the political spectrum and aren’t always consistent”—a line you could cut and paste to describe Zoomers of all races. But back in August, Equis found that young Hispanics were less engaged with politics than their white and black peers. Only 45 percent of 18-29 year old Latinos were motivated to vote in 2022, they found, a percentage far below that of older Latino age groups. 

Claudia Yoli Ferla, the executive director of MOVE Texas, a grassroots organization working to engage younger Hispanic voters in the state, said they’ve started to redirect their organizing efforts to local races—like county commissions and district attorney races—where they can see the tangible impact their vote on advancing racial justice and climate action. The national conversation feels too remote for Hispanics who have a hard time caring about politics in the first place, or young voters who believe that Washington isn’t acting with enough urgency on issues that matter in their communities, she told me. “Unfortunately, President Biden has failed to deliver on many of his promises for young people across the country, failing to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, Immigration Reform, and ending the moratorium on student loan debt payments being the most recent example,” said Yoli Ferla, a 29-year old Dreamer who grew up in El Paso.

Yoli Ferla said that during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary in Texas, 75 percent of Gen Z and millennial Hispanics said they hadn’t heard from any candidate or campaign before the election. Sustained, on-the-ground engagement is the only way to bring those voters to the polls, she said. Otherwise, they’re poachable on the margins for Republicans, who made inroads among Hispanic voters in 2020, especially in Texas. 

“We are a serious constituency and we deserve to be treated like it and have our values championed by those that we elect. That means seeing meaningful policies that reflect our priorities. This dynamic could change as more young voters become aware of the impact of the Infrastructure Bill on tackling the climate crisis as it is being implemented.” 

But “Bing-Bong” TikToks about “Joe Byron” aren’t going to make up for a lack of results, Yoli Ferla told me. “Young people are looking for real solutions, not just pandering. All the influencers in the world aren’t going to be enough to change young people’s attitudes so long as candidates continue to ignore the promises they made on the issues mobilizing our generation.”