The old problem with the young: Biden courts elusive voting bloc

Elections 2022

President Biden is aggressively pursuing younger voters, leaning into the issues of reproductive rights and student loan forgiveness in an effort to drive to the polls a bloc that traditionally sees lower turnout.

“Historically we’ve had a problem with younger voters falling off during the midterms,” said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau, who served as an aide to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“Yes, it may be about his legacy and his standing and positioning for 2024, but the main beneficiary right now are candidates in close races that are going to need every single vote, and that means turning out young people.” 

Biden took a victory lap Friday on his student loan forgiveness plan after applications officially opened on Monday with 22 million Americans applying so far. He told a group at Delaware State University, “I will never apologize for helping working- and middle-class Americans.”

The president earlier this week focused on reproductive rights issues, pledging at the Howard Theater in Washington that he would make a bill to codify abortion access his top legislative priority if Democrats retain their majorities in Congress.

In focusing on these issues, “he’s appealing to a significant portion of the voting population,” said Nayerra Haq, who served as an official in the Obama administration. “Any politician who wants to win or serve the public needs to realize this is the demographic they should be addressing.” 

Haq said millennials are the first generation “that will not be able to advance beyond their parents because of the flaws in our economic system.”

“That requires systemic solutions, and that’s what Biden is doing,” she added.  

Young people typically don’t show up in large numbers for midterm elections. In 2018, only 36 percent of 18 to 29 year olds voted, which was still a huge improvement from the 20 percent turnout in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

With three weeks before the midterm elections, the administration opened applications for its student loan proposal, which is set to forgive up to $10,000 in federal debt for borrowers earning less than $125,000 and as much as $20,000 for borrowers who received Pell Grants.

The plan has been hit with multiple lawsuits, and on Friday a federal appeals court ruled that it should be temporarily put on hold as a GOP challenge plays out.

Steve Schale, the prominent political strategist who ran former President Obama’s campaign operation in Florida in 2008, called Biden’s efforts “a big deal.” 

“Student loan debt is a significant issue among young people,” Schale said. “He’s talking to a segment of the electorate.”

Biden has also been bringing up his marijuana policies more often, telling the audiences at both Delaware State University and the Howard Theater this week that he is keeping his promise that no one should be in jail for using or possessing marijuana.

Democrats applaud Biden’s focus on issues centering around marijuana and child care, both of which are important to young voters.

“Now he can be delivering on those bigger ticket items that are necessary for generational change,” Haq said, referring to both issues. 

Biden has focused much of his attention on the economy, which has consistently polled as the most top-of-mind issue among voters this cycle. Amid high inflation and gas prices, the president for months has been tasked with trying to prove to Americans that he cares about costs and is working to get them down.

But new polling this week showed that 63 percent of Americans still wish Biden would give more attention to their top issues, with inflation topping that list. Other top issues included immigration and crime, two areas where Republicans have bashed Democrats.

The focus on young people also comes as support for Democratic candidates among independent voters appears to be waning.

Independent women, who are a pivotal voting bloc this cycle following the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, are leaning more towards Republicans recently. Polling released on Monday showed the bloc favored Republicans by 18 points, which is a sizable increase since September.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the White House did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment about the timing of the president’s recent focus on issues that attract young people.

“Biden’s strategy seems to be two-fold, to highlight initiatives popular with younger voters for the midterms, and to solidify younger voter support going forward. He is drawing a clear distinction between Democratic and GOP principles that he hopes will enhance Dem turnout in 2022, and in the years moving forward,” said former Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.), a Biden ally.

“Both reproductive rights and student loan forgiveness poll well among young voters, and Biden sees those issues as bringing fresh, traditionally less-involved midterm voters to the polls in November,” Carney added.

While young voters helped catapult Biden to the White House in 2020, his numbers with the demographic have fallen during his presidency. An NPR-PBS Newshour poll out in July showed that just 5 percent of voters under the age of 45 strongly approve of Biden’s performance. 

Strategists attribute the problem partly to a generational gap between Biden and the demographic. But at the same time, as one progressive strategist pointed out, “Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren haven’t had that problem ever.” 

“They were both very much in touch with the needs of these younger voters,” the strategist said. “In fact, I think Bernie was boosted by this demographic.” 

Xochitl Hinojosa, former communications director at the DNC, argued that issues like student loans and abortion go beyond young people and appeals to voters of all ages.

“The President has been laser focused on the issues important to voters, and yes, those do include gas prices and student loans, as well as reproductive rights. Many of these issues not only target young voters, but the broader electorate,” Hinojosa said. “Americans want to hear directly from their president about how he is going to tackle the issues confronting our nation, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.”

While the president is reaching out to young voters, so are other Democrats. 

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a millennial herself, is rallying students at the University of California, Irvine on Sunday. Meanwhile, Sanders is using his star power with young people to help Democrats in Nevada, Florida, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, heading to those Senate battleground states before election day.

“You’re building a coalition,” Schale said, adding that “our coalition requires younger voters to get a win.”

The president leaned further into his support for abortion access this week when he said in an interview that he would support a federal fund to help patients pay for the procedure, reaffirming his stance against the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used to pay for abortions.

His support for federal funding follows months of backlash over whether the White House has done enough in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision. When Roe was first overturned in June, the president faced fierce criticism for moving too slowly on actions to help protect access.

But the White House has seen some success since then, particularly when it comes to legislation that passed over the summer. 

Schale said Biden has much to tout in the final weeks on the campaign trail. 

“… If I’ve had any criticism of the administration, it’s that we haven’t done a good job telling the success stories, and yes, they should lean into it,” he said. “Our coalition requires younger voters to get a win. … We should go tell the story. We have a good story and I’m glad they are.”

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