Young Voters Still Don't Know Joe

Young Voters Still Don't Know Joe
Image: Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

The 2020 presidential election is less than 50 days away, and the Democratic Party and its allies are still trying to make Joe Biden look cool to young voters.

If the polls are to be trusted, Biden has a healthy lead over President Donald Trump, both nationally and in several battleground states. This lead has held strong after both the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention, a renewed surge of anti-police brutality marches, and violent clashes between pro-Trump militias and protesters. Trump’s law and order rhetoric is floundering as much as his handle on covid-19, and Biden has presented himself as the obvious choice for a restoration of sanity from the chaotic Trump years.

But despite this obvious appeal, an enthusiasm gap still exists, notably between young and old voters.

Biden’s grip on older voters—an age group that has historically leaned Republican—is steady. He’s outpacing Trump with this demographic by double digits, a first for a Democrat in over two decades. But while Biden has the trust of this older, reliable voting block, the story of younger voters is very different.

Younger voters prefer Biden to Trump, and his youth support has increased since Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic primary in March. But according to polling, Biden’s net favorability among voters aged 18-29 is -4 percentage points; even when the age range is expanded to 34, his favorability is in negative digits. (According to CNN, that is, “5 points worse than his net favorability with all registered voters in those polls.”)

On the flip side, Biden enjoys a favorability rating of +10 among voters aged 65 and older.

But Democrats and their allies aren’t giving up on youth outreach entirely. The Atlantic reports that NextGen, a youth-centered super PAC, is doing to engage young voters and get Biden elected. NextGen’s director, Ben Wessel, hired a polling firm to see what The Youths really care about, and it turns out they care about… policy. Shocker.

From The Atlantic:

At first, these focus groups only underscored Biden’s enthusiasm problem. In the words of one Hispanic Gen Z participant, “I honestly don’t know enough about Biden to really form an opinion.”
Some of the messages Baumann tried on the group didn’t perform very well. For instance, participants didn’t like being told that Trump is so bad, they simply must vote for Biden, even if they don’t particularly want to. “They needed positive reasons to do it,” Baumann told me. The “You must stop Trump” strategy didn’t work.

As much as the Democratic National Convention pushed the narrative that Americans “know Joe,” it turns out that there are plenty of potential voters who, frankly, don’t.

But given youth focus on policy, NextGen’s attempt to woo young voters seems somewhat misguided. After finding out that one of the participants in their focus group said that she feels like Katniss from the Hunger Games series—a hero in a dystopic world where everyone is at the mercy of elites—Wessel devised a concept he was certain would appeal to young voters:

He came up with what NextGen now calls “the Democratic Avengers,” after the Marvel movie featuring an ensemble of superheroes. The idea is that by voting for Biden, you’re voting not just for him; you’re voting for all of the Democrats—many of them cool and hip!—that Biden will have in his orbit. Biden might borrow policies from Warren, for example, or have Sanders as an adviser. “If he is elected, it won’t just be Joe Biden,” this message reads. “Biden has pledged to build an administration filled with progressive leaders, experts, and activists from inside and outside of politics.”

The comic book-inspired ad was an attempt to weave policy into its youth outreach, but the end result was pretty corny. The Marvel franchise might be popular, but its infusion into campaign strategy comes across as condescending.

News of this “Avengers” strategy received a negative reception on Twitter, where many young users replied with variations of “healthcare plz.”

Lee J. Carter, a 33-year-old representative of the Virginia House of Delegates tweeted, “I cannot stress enough that we don’t want [Biden] to be cool, we want him to help us.”

“We don’t want another round of Pokemon Go To The Polls,” Carter continued, referencing the cringeworthy 2016 moment when then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton namedropped the popular video game. “We want a massive shift in the structure of our economy that guarantees people don’t starve and the planet doesn’t boil.”

If young voters are persuaded by substantive policy above all else, why are strategists still pushing out-of-touch aesthetics that any savvy zoomer would ridicule?

Similarly perplexing is a recent NextGen ad relying on Biden’s “bromance” with President Obama and Biden’s aviators. With such played out signifiers of Biden’s cool factor, they might as well have thrown in the “Crush On Obama” woman for good measure:

But forget super PACs: Biden’s official camp doesn’t seem to have gotten the message either. A Biden/Harris campaign ad that debuted at the end of August shows clips of the Democratic candidates at campaign rallies with a hip hop track cementing the cool factor. But splaying “college debt” and “social justice” and “climate change” in big, bold letters don’t really tell young voters much of anything. There is a time and a place for policy agenda, of course, and only so much can be pushed in a 30-second ad spot. But perhaps some clarity as to what exactly a Biden/Harris administration will do for young voters who don’t need to be convinced of Trump’s badness would be a more effective use of the campaign’s time and money.

Obama set the bar for what youth enthusiasm can look like for the Democratic party. Clinton couldn’t reach it in 2016, and while NextGen’s research indicates that young voters are more likely to vote now than they were at this time in 2016, Biden’s youth outreach seems pretty scant. Covid-19 chaos on college campuses is likely doing little to help the campaign, but the Biden camp’s lackluster appeal toward young voters is disappointing. When The Atlantic asked the Biden campaign to comment on Biden’s negative favorability among voters aged 18-35, a spokesman said, “Poll after poll shows Joe Biden leading the race, and our campaign will be working hard to win every vote.”

But Biden is leading in spite of his lack of appeal to young voters. Young voters might not make or break the election, but if the Democratic party intends to maintain their loyalty, they’re going to have to try a little harder.

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