Let Them Eat Avocado Toast
Young voters' disappointment with Biden can't be hand-waved away
Democrats spend a lot of time thinking about electability. Say what you want about how such concerns sometimes seem reflexively ideological or contrary to actual polling, but there are some realities about the electorate that a winning campaign must accept.
Here’s one of them: Taking young voters for granted is a surefire way for Democrats to lose elections. So while it’s not news that Joe Biden is fairly unpopular these days, the way his approval numbers have plummeted among his best age group from 18 months ago ought to grab your attention.
At the risk of rehashing the endless discourse about the Democratic primaries, let’s get some context out of the way: Biden was not young voters’ choice to be President. Millennials and Gen-Z overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders in the early primaries, while older folks went for Biden. Yet despite the false stereotype, it was unambiguously the youth vote, not his initial base, that won Biden the general election. It’s not remotely an exaggeration to say that, if not for the younger demographic’s participation and pragmatism (neither of which my generation’s political inclinations ever get credit for, mind you), Donald Trump would be in the midst of his second term right now.
Which is why, if you care about keeping the federal government as progressive as possible for the foreseeable future, some new polling data should set off some alarm bells. First came a Quinnipiac poll last week that put Biden’s job-approval rating among 18-34-year-olds at just 21%, while 58% disapproved of his performance. With a -37% net favorability, the left-leaning group that delivered him the Presidency is now literally his second-worst demographic split — warmer in sentiment only than Republicans.
There’s also Civiqs’ large-sample research panels. Their data show a similar precarious slide in how young people see Biden:
At the beginning of Biden’s Presidency, under-35s comprised his most-supportive age bracket, with a +13 net-approval rating (compared to +5% in Civiqs’ overall data). Over the last 15 months, that has slid down to -26%, below every other generational subset (overall: -18%), and a shift of negative-37 points.
The trend is particularly pronounced among young Hispanics (+32% to -17%, a 49-point drop):
And young Black folks: (still above-water at +18%, but that represents a 48-point fall from their initial +66%):
This isn’t the first time that this trend has been noticed. And to be clear, there’s no love lost between Millennials/Gen-Z and the GOP — per Civiqs (and most other polls in my lifetime), they are also Republicans’ worst age demographic, so I don’t think there’s much risk of Trump (or Ron DeSantis, or Kristi Noem, or Ted Cruz) winning the youth vote anytime soon. But if young people start staying home on Election Day, as older folks so often complain? Then the Democrats have a big problem.
What can Biden do to win back young people? It’s true that his agenda has been constrained by the slimness of the Democrats’ Senate majority, but then again Biden sold himself as a uniquely effective legislative dealmaker, he has taken non-binding rulings against passing bills through reconciliation as gospel, and excusing the party that controls both Congress and the White House’s inability to enact its agenda is hard to sell to someone who isn’t a dyed-in-the-wool partisan.
There’s also plenty more that Biden has pledged to do that he doesn’t need Congress for. A non-exhaustive list of policies he has claimed to support but has yet to fully enact despite having the power to do so includes: treating hopeful immigrants humanely, ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen, ensuring that public-health institutions offered clear and trustworthy guidance, canceling student debt more broadly, disallowing expanded oil-drilling on public lands, and pressuring the WTO to waive international vaccine patents, just to name a few.
This is the part where I tell you that you don’t have to yell at me. I vote in every election. I did my part to elect Biden in what turned out to be the most-important state in the Electoral College. If you absolutely must chastise some whippersnapper for not doing their civic duty, take it up with somebody who didn’t make literally a thousand phone calls for a school levy that passed by 135 votes. As someone who plans to be around for a few more decades, I care very deeply about who holds the power in our country and communities.
Perhaps the Democrats’ likely losses in the upcoming midterms are unavoidable; the President’s party almost always underperforms two years after the higher-profile campaign. Maybe no amount of political boldness would unshackle perceptions of Biden from supply-chain issues, from the composition of the Senate, from the war in Ukraine. For all we know, sending out the $2,000 checks that the party explicitly promised after the election would have alienated more people than retconning the pledge to $1,400 did. But there was nothing inevitable about so dramatically disillusioning the generation that carried him to power.
Say whatever you want about the young voters who have soured on Biden. You can say that they’re expecting too much from him, or not giving him enough credit for the positive policies he’s enacted. You can say they’re blaming him for Joe Manchin’s intransigence, or for economic factors that are beyond his control. You can even say that, after four years of Trump, simply returning to a veneer of normalcy should be enough. But just as you might say that a left-wing candidate can’t talk conservatives into crossing party lines, dismissing a whole generation’s frustration as an overreaction isn’t a good way to win their votes.
At this point, Democrats have a choice to make. They could see these polls as canaries in the
oil well on public land coal mine, a wake-up call to rethink their approach to governance. Biden could spend the next six months using his office to enact the changes within his purview, closing the legislative deals we were promised only he could make, and unlearning the reflex to resist thinking bigger that the administration has demonstrated. In addition to being the right thing to do, it at least gives the party a chance to staunch the bleeding in November and beyond — which certainly isn’t in the cards as things currently stand.
Or they can keep heading down this road. Party leaders will insist that they’re doing the best they can, comforted in the West Wing fantasy that politicians’ belief in their own good intentions matters just as much as what they actually accomplish. Sometime around Labor Day they’ll see the dire midterm polls and pretend to be surprised by the imminent Red Wave. They’ll pray that young people trudge to the polls despite their disillusionment, or short of that, that they can at least scapegoat my generation when the GOP takes back Congress to avoid any self-reflection on their part.
Of all the pie-in-the-sky ideas bandied about in liberal circles, none is more unrealistic than thinking that the Democrats can win national elections without the enthusiastic support of young people. It’s time for the party to grow up and see us as a critical constituency to cater to and deliver for, not just assumed supporters who can be biennially dragooned into voting and then pushed to the side. Taking the youth vote for granted is getting awfully old hat.
Thanks for reading The Lewsletter! If you enjoyed reading this, subscribe for free to receive new posts as soon as they’re available.