How Trump Is Helping Biden With Young Voters

Members of Generation Z prefer the Democratic nominee, but many are voting against Trump as much as they are voting for Biden.

From promising free college and student loan relief to hosting 18-year-old pop star Billie Eilish at the Democratic National Convention, the Biden campaign is pulling out all the stops to charm the country’s most apathetic voting bloc: young people. After his shaky primary season, are young voters finally warming up to the 77-year-old Democratic nominee? And if so, will they turn out to the polls in considerable numbers?

Recent surveys suggest Biden is headed for an electoral blowout among young voters come November 3. According to a September Forbes Under 30 Voter Survey, the Democratic nominee is on pace to carry 57 percent of likely Generation Z and millennial voters—down from his June peak of 60 percent in the same poll, but much stronger than Trump’s 35 percent showing. A Morning Consult/Politico poll conducted Sept. 17-21 also shows Biden in good shape, carrying voters age 18-23 by 51 percent to Trump’s 25 percent (16 percent had no opinion). 

This bump is here to stay. “I don’t perceive in any way the possibility of a shift of even a minuscule number of young people over to Trump, unless he absorbs college tuition and gets everyone a job and health care,” said John Zogby, the pollster specializing in young voter habits who conducted the Forbes survey. “So that’s another way of saying that that’s not going to happen.” 

Youth voter turnout projections also bode well for the Biden campaign. The Fall 2020 Harvard Youth Poll shows 63 percent of young voters saying they will “definitely” vote in this election, compared with 47 percent in the same survey four years ago. 

But even though younger voters prefer Joe Biden to Donald Trump by a substantial margin, they’re not exactly fired up about the Democratic nominee. Negative partisanship is the driving force for nearly half of Biden’s youth supporters: That Morning Consult survey found only 52 percent of young voters saying “I am voting for Joe Biden,” while 45 percent said “I am voting against Donald Trump.” By contrast, 75 percent of young Trump supporters say they are voting for the Republican candidate. That’s a striking enthusiasm gap.

Where does this voting bloc’s apathy for Joe Biden come from? “The younger millennials—Gen Z—they want problem solving,” Zogby said. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted last year, 70 percent of young people aged 13 to 21—and 52 percent of Gen Z Republicans—believe the government “should do more to solve problems.” 

Many young people perceive the government as a vehicle for radical socioeconomic change, which explains their attraction to universal health care, the Green New Deal, student debt cancellation, and other big government policy proposals. Even though the Biden agenda is one of the most economically progressive in American history, many young voters perceive the Democratic candidate as a boring centrist who favors “middle-of-the-road” policies and has spent far too many decades in Washington.

Ever since his decisive victory in the primaries—partly thanks to low turnout among young voters who might have supported his more progressive challengers—Biden has sought to dismantle Trump’s claims that he will be nothing but a figurehead for the radical left should he win the White House in November. “I am the Democratic party right now,” he said during the first presidential debate after Donald Trump claimed that socialists would “dominate” a Biden administration. 

“There’s not one single syllable I’ve ever said that could lead you to believe that I was a socialist or a communist,” Biden said during an NBC town hall in Miami last week, responding to a question about Trump’s appeal to Cuban and Venezuelan Floridians. “Do I look like a socialist? I’m the guy who ran against the socialist.”

But the GOP’s fear that far-left progressives will launch a backdoor coup of a Biden presidency seems ironically appealing to young voters who wish Sanders was the nominee instead. In April, Tom Steyer’s youth-focused super PAC NextGen America conducted a nationwide online survey of 3,000 Bernie-supporting young voters in key battleground states. Alongside a polling firm called Global Strategy Group, NextGen America concluded that “[painting] a picture of a Biden administration beyond Biden” polls really well with focus groups of young progressives who are much more likely to vote for Biden if they think his administration will be stacked with progressive superheroes. 

“Joe Biden is listening to experts and activists,” begins one of the super PAC’s July video ads before panning to “progressive champion” Bernie Sanders and “climate leader” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The ad uses comic book imagery and suspenseful music as a drumroll to the grand finale: Joe Biden, the presidential candidate who is “building the team that we want to run things!”

Other organizations, rather than trying to wheedle young people into Biden fandom, have simply leaned into the negative partisanship strategy. The “Settle for Biden” grassroots campaign, for example, plays up the prospect of a second Trump term as an apocalyptic threat to help mobilize young voters. “Okay fine,” reads the group’s Instagram bio, “Biden 2020. We’re a youth-led group of ex-Sanders/Warren supporters working to make Trump a one-term president.” Judging from the Instagram account’s 260,000 follower base, it appears that even the lesser-of-two-evils narrative is helping gin up enthusiasm for the Democratic nominee. (They’ve even got a merch store.)

What young voters see, Zogby said, is a binary choice: Trump or not Trump. “I think [Biden] looks—at least from the vantage point of today—to have passed that acceptability standard.”

“For many parts of the coalition, the desire to return to normalcy and move our country forward again trumps any concern or pause that someone has with Biden,” said Michael Gordon, a Democratic strategist in New York and principal of strategic communications firm Group Gordon.

“No candidate makes everybody in the coalition happy. It’s just not the way it works,” Gordon said. Even if young voters are not particularly jazzed about the Democratic nominee, it looks like anti-Trump animus might be enough to cancel out the enthusiasm gap for Biden. “Sometimes you vote for a candidate that you’re excited about, and sometimes you vote for a candidate holding your nose if they’re still better than the alternative.”

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.