Young voters played a critical role in delivering Joe Biden to the White House in 2020. But as his reelection campaign kicks off, leading activists are uneasy about vouching for the president and concerned the administration could squander years of momentum
In 2020, Biden’s campaign aggressively courted younger, progressive voters as part of a strategy to fire up the grassroots and bridge the divisions that roiled the party in the run-up to Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
More than three years later, though, the relationship between the White House and young organizers is at a crossroads. The president and congressional Democrats have delivered on many notable promises but fallen short on others – a frustrating reality that has contributed to Biden’s plunging approval ratings with 18- to 29-year-olds.
The administration’s recent decision to approve a controversial Alaskan drilling project outraged young climate activists whose work on the last campaign was vital in establishing trust – and even excitement – about a Biden presidency. The White House pushed back, arguing that its legal options were constrained because the project had already been greenlit by the Trump administration. But the controversy has contributed to a resurfacing of old suspicions across aligned youth voter groups. Their leaders expressed concerns that Biden and senior aides appear increasingly determined to own the political center, even at the cost of alienating this increasingly powerful voting bloc. Young voters have turned out in record numbers in recent elections and proven their mettle as organizers by establishing a vast web of interconnected groups, with focuses on climate, immigration, gun violence, student debt, health care, LGBTQ rights and more.
“It’s a hard sell to us ourselves. If your own activists, the people who are supposed to be convincing other people, are wondering, ‘Are we convinced at all whether he’s doing a great job or not?,’ then how are we supposed to go out and convince other people?” said Noah Lumbantobing, from the anti-gun-violence group March for Our Lives. “Biden has done good things. He hasn’t done enough in terms of using his bully pulpit.”
In more than a dozen interviews with organizers from leading youth groups, front-line activists, and young Democratic strategists and legislative aides, a portrait emerges of a hyper-engaged and idealistic generation that, in a break from the past, has become remarkably savvy about how to wield its power. Forged during Trump’s presidency and the Covid-19 pandemic, they are ardent opponents of the right’s political and cultural agenda – a reality that could ultimately prevail over disappointment with Biden – but also determined to make leading Democrats, many of them five or six decades older, earn their support.
A number of them, who asked to remain anonymous to protect relationships inside the administration, said the Biden team is accessible and proactive in asking for their input. But they said that the interactions can often feel perfunctory and their suggestions are largely ignored.
“We don’t need help being convinced that the Republicans are the bad guys, and we need to fight against them,” said Michele Weindling, electoral director for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate group. “We need to be told not just why we’re voting against the right, but what we’re voting for.”
Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz noted the spike in youth voter turnout during the 2020 election and said the campaign would “work hard to earn every Americans’ vote by using innovative ways to reach them, and highlighting the stakes of this election.”
“There’s only one candidate in this race who is fighting – and delivering – on (the most important issues to young voters),” Munoz added. “And it’s President Biden.”
Biden this week also received an endorsement from the progressive group NextGen, a leading youth voter turnout organization. NextGen PAC President Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez said in a statement, “It is clear that Biden is not only listening to us, but is taking robust action to signal to young people across the country that unprecedented change is possible.”
Youth vote on the rise
For generations, Democrats have talked up the electoral power of young voters. When the voting age was lowered to 18 from 21 ahead of the 1972 elections, many liberals expected the new electorate to break strongly to the left. But the statistics told a different story. Youth turnout tended to be middling and younger Americans were not, as so many predicted, dramatically more liberal than their parents – at least in the voting booth.
That dynamic, though, has changed in recent elections. Young voters today are more liberal than their parents and increasingly likely to vote that way. By the fall of 2024, experts predict Gen-Z and Millennials – a range roughly spanning those older than 18 but younger than 45 – will make up 40% of the vote-share. And with older voters, from Generation X to the Baby Boomers, more consistently choosing conservative candidates, there is an increasing onus on Democrats to dig in harder on issues that resonate most with younger Americans.
The Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee are investing early in efforts to reach those voters. A campaign official told CNN that they held a call with social media influencer managers last week after the announcement. The DNC, a spokesperson said, has begun a partnership with gun violence prevention groups “on a training series to engage young voters in schools and on campuses.”
John Della Volpe, the polling director at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and the author of “Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America,” said Biden is better off with young voters now than at a similar stage of the campaign four years ago, but he is currently not as strong as he was by Election Day.
“We started that summer of 2020 kind of where we are now, which is with a lot of young people questioning,” said Della Volpe, who took leave that year to advise the Biden campaign. “But I was always incredibly confident that young people would respond to not just to his message, but his values and vision.”
The challenge for Biden this time around, he added, will be in convincingly informing and selling young voters on Democrats’ accomplishments – including the massive green investments in the Inflation Reduction Act and executive efforts to cancel up to $400 billion in student debt.
There is also a psychic hurdle that needs clearing, Della Volpe said, for a generation that has only known dysfunction and division in Washington and across the federal government.
“The other piece that’s unique about talking to younger people is you can’t assume that they have the trust in the system that it’s ever worked,” he said. “You need to do two or three steps with this demographic group, where in other groups who’ve got a stronger connection with government and elections, maybe you can do it in one or two steps.”
Last week, Della Volpe and five students from the Harvard Youth Poll visited Washington to brief senior advisers to Biden and staff on the issues that young people care about, a tradition of sorts that began during the Obama administration.
Perhaps the clearest opportunity for Biden to juice support with young and first-time voters, advocates agreed, was on the issue of abortion. Turnout among the 18-to-29 set came in at about 27% in 2022, according to Tufts University’s CIRCLE, the second highest rate for a midterm election after 2018, when the number crossed 30%. That vote came months after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and as abortion was on the ballot across several states. Last month in Wisconsin, young voters played a key role in electing a liberal state Supreme Court judge who, with the court’s new left-leaning majority, is expected to strike down Wisconsin’s abortion ban.
Teddy Landis, the 25-year-old director of Project 72 WI, helped lead on-campus organizing ahead of the April election. His efforts won national attention after Judge Janet Protasiewicz outperformed recently reelected Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ share of the vote on campus, according to the group’s stats. The main driver, he said, was concern over abortion – especially in a state where it’s been outlawed.
“In the fall, the election was an election about abortion. And then in the spring, we have an election, which is an election about abortion. And so I was concerned that if this is all we talk about, people are going to feel sick of it,” Landis said. “The reality was people are not sick about talking about abortion and it does really matter to them.”
That dynamic, he added with a note of regret, will likely become even more pronounced over the coming months as more young voters feel the effects of anti-abortion laws.
Republicans’ parallel efforts to pass legislation aimed at transgender youth is creating a similar dynamic – genuine sorrow and anger at the real-life consequences, but also a realization that the GOP might be overstepping, and creating new political opportunities for Democrats.
More than 400 anti-trans bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year, including many that would forbid gender-affirming care for minors, ban certain books and prohibit teachers from discussing certain subject matter in the classroom. Nearly all the 2024 Republican primary candidates are using anti-trans rhetoric and suggesting support for new federal legislation.
Trump has described gender-affirming surgery for minors as “child sexual mutilation,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pushed a series of measures that would make it more difficult for trans people to receive health care and, last week, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley mocked and misgendered Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender woman and social media influencer, calling her “a guy dressing up like a girl making fun of women.”
Biden has spoken out forcefully against Republican efforts to limit the rights of transgender youth at the state level. His administration is also seeking a federal rule change that would block policies that “categorically” bar trans students from participating on sports teams consistent with their gender. The push, though, would allow for schools to place some restrictions on those athletes – a provision that was met with pushback from advocacy groups.
“There’s one side that is trying to take away our rights, and there’s another side that has completely squandered any opportunity to enshrine our rights,” said non-binary activist Esmée Silverman, the co-founder of Queer Youth Assemble. Silverman also criticized the White House and Democrats for not parlaying its two-year governing trifecta on Capitol Hill – now gone after Republicans won the House in the midterms – into a “a single piece of long-term solution” for transgender people.
Biden has also been a frequent advocate for the Equality Act, a federal bill to prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in nearly all aspects of American life. The legislation, however, is mired in a divided Congress. In June 2022, he signed an executive order directing the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to broaden access to gender-affirming care and counter, to the extent possible, the rising tide of anti-trans legislation in the states.
“My message to all the young people: Just be you,” Biden said at the signing. “You are loved. You are heard. You are understood. You do belong.”
Landis, the campus organizer, said the GOP attacks would backfire politically and that Biden has a major opportunity to win over skeptical young voters by not shying away from future criticism.
“Young voters are pretty likely to know someone who is trans or identifies as non-binary,” he said. “And so when they see these extremist Republicans talk about people they know in these crazy ways, that does a lot to repel them from the idea that they could even be someone that they would vote for one day.”
A turn to the center?
Backlash to Biden’s recent actions on climate and immigration has been increasingly pointed.
The young activists from Climate Defiance, another youth-led group, made headlines recently by interrupting a speech by White House senior adviser John Podesta. Days later, they disrupted entry to the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner while demanding the president honor his pledge to stop fossil fuel extraction on public land.
Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones, the 27-year-old Democrat who was voted out of the body over a gun violence protest on its floor before the Nashville Metropolitan Council reinstated him, spoke at the weekend protest.
“I wanted to come out here and stand with you all,” Jones said through a bullhorn. “We are going to continue to push the fight and stay with the people because we know our generation is dealing with the long-term implications of these decisions.”
Another young activist with a large social media following told CNN that they believe “the administration is listening,” but that the Willow Project, a massive oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, and other expansions of the fossil fuel economy undermine other, substantial achievements.
“I appreciate all those efforts,” the activist said, “but if you approve the Driftwood Pipeline in Louisiana, if you approve exports for the Alaska LNG projects, if you approve two LNG projects in Texas, how are young people expected to see that you’re listening to us when you continue to approve projects similar to Willow?”
Young immigrants’ rights activists are particularly sour on Biden’s tenure. That troubled relationship came to the fore during the 2020 primary and remains in flux. The administration’s actions on asylum restrictions and the treatment of migrants at the border has stoked further distrust.
Michelle Ming, the political director for United We Dream, praised Biden for extending access to the Affordable Care Act to participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, the Obama-era program that allows undocumented immigrants who came to the US under age 16 to apply for protection from deportation.
But that move, she said, has been a lonely highlight for activists who believe Biden could more aggressively use his executive power to expand DACA and further grow eligibility for immigrants seeking Temporary Protected Status, which applies to people who would face extreme hardship if forced to return to their homelands.
“I don’t think immigration has been his strong suit, to put it very nicely,” Ming said. “He has definitely not been as bold as we would like him to be on immigration. That’s not just a him problem, it’s a problem with the Democrats as a whole.”
Like so many other organizers, Ming said the prospect of any potential Republican nominee being elected would ultimately be reason enough to vote for the president. But convincing others, she added, is getting increasingly difficult.
“We first of all have to be honest, because young people detect bullsh*t really easily and they hate that,” Ming said. “He has not been as progressive as we’ve wanted him to be. But he’s also not a fascist, a White supremacist, or a blatant racist.”
The seething antipathy toward Republicans, especially in the party’s MAGA camp, might ultimately be sufficient to assure Biden the continued support in the voting booth – if not the polls – that his reelection campaign needs.
“Gen Z recognizes that, although the Biden-Harris administration and our federal government at large has a lot of work to do, and there’s still a lot of work that our generation and the generations after us have, it’s better than Trump,” said Haley Taylor Schlitz, a 20-year-old Democrat and candidate for school board in a Fort Worth, Texas, area suburb. “Let’s just start there.”
Billy Honor, the director of organizing for the New Georgia Project Action Fund, told CNN he’s more excited about upcoming local races in battleground states than the presidential contest. When facing disillusioned voters when he’s knocking doors, his argument tends to be more holistic.
“It is more about the process,” Honor says, “than it is about the candidates themselves.”
Then there is the math. For Biden, he said, the equation is actually pretty simple.
“You don’t need a mass movement. … You just need a really good, really good number,” Honor said. “And I do think that that’s possible, even in a climate where you’re not going to have college students who are excited for Joe Biden like they were for Barack Obama.”