While current polls place presidential candidate Joe Biden ahead of President Trump by double digits, Biden’s campaign still finds itself struggling to gain traction with young voters. Below, I examine different ways the campaign can boost its appeal with this critical demographic.
With the presidential election just months away, both President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have been doubling down on voter outreach. While Biden leads the incumbent president by a double-digit margin, he still struggles to secure support from a vital section of the electorate: the youth. The longtime senator has traditionally attracted a following among older, more moderate voters, leaving much of the 18-24-year-old crowd to support more progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren during the most recent Democratic primaries. But with national attention pivoting towards November’s general election alongside mounting pressure to avoid a repeat of 2016’s defeat, organizers and political experts alike look to Biden’s team to reach out to the youth population. Here are a few steps Biden’s campaign can take to win the youth vote.
1. Take an issues-first stance.
With just 56% of 18-24-year-old Americans affiliated with major political parties, according to a Tufts survey, many younger voters clearly prioritize issues over party membership. This means that Biden needs to center his appeals to young voters around the policy changes they seek. Shortly after Biden won the nomination in April, leaders from several youth organizations, including NextGen America and the Alliance for Youth Action, wrote him an open letter, elaborating the policies he needed to support to gain their votes. Many of these proposals, such as tighter gun controls and more aggressive climate change action, are the same ones millennial and Gen Z activists have been publicly championing over the past few years. The letter’s authors also criticized Biden’s previous campaign message that he would bring a “return to normalcy” by pointing out that even the pre-pandemic “normalcy” presented widespread social issues for their generations.
It might be too much to expect Biden to fully embrace left-wing policies like the Green New Deal or Medicare for all. But with the pandemic creating a bigger push for social safety nets and other progressive measures, it’s clear that Biden has room to move left on many issues without alienating his more moderate supporters. His recent announcement about forgiving student loans for low/middle-income graduates of public universities and HBCUs is a good place to start. Now he just needs to follow up with more concrete policy plans that show he intends to create a better future for young people.
2. Be Pro-Biden, not just Anti-Trump
Much of Biden’s campaign messaging has involved highlighting Trump’s failures as president, especially during the pandemic and George Floyd protests. While we should expect a certain amount of anti-Trump rhetoric, Biden’s main goal should not be to dissuade voters from supporting Trump; after all, two-thirds of young people already disapprove of the current president. If Biden fails to boost his approval rates among young voters, the main concern for November is not that youths will vote for Trump instead, but rather that they will support third-party candidates or simply not vote at all.
In addition to positioning himself against Trump’s policies, Biden should focus more on why he would make a good president. Highlighting his decades of political experience and growth over time, his backstory of overcoming tragedy, and future policy plans are all crucial strategies in motivating people to the polls. Right now, many millennials and Gen Zers mainly see Biden as an old-school senator. They need to get to know the man behind the uniform before they will pledge their support.
3. Build coalitions with existing youth organizations and movements
Since securing the Democratic nomination, Biden’s campaign has taken an important first step in reaching out to youth organizations, such as the Sunrise Movement, March for Our Lives, and others. But merely meeting with these groups is not enough; to gain their support, Biden needs to listen to their ideas and include them in his policy considerations. This inclusion could take many forms, such as co-hosting virtual events or coordinating joint press releases. Many of these organizations hold powerful sway among young followers. Depending on how actively Biden’s campaign manages these partnerships, these coalitions could make the difference between a major youth voter turnout or a repeat of 2016.
Reaching out to college-level student organizations could also attract new supporters. Although many schools may not return to in-person classes this fall, coordinating with campus political or activist groups to host virtual events could start conversations and spread campaign messaging in different youth communities around the country.
4. Reach out to Sanders, Warren, and other progressives
During the primaries, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren enjoyed 6 to 12 point leads in support from the coveted 18-24-year-old voting demographic. Thus, it stands to reason that Biden has much to learn from his more progressive counterparts in terms of gaining the youth vote. Indeed, shortly after securing the nomination, Biden issued a statement to his former rival’s supporters, saying, “I’ll be reaching out to you. You will be heard by me. As you say: Not me, Us.”
More recently, Biden and Sanders have created task forces on various hot-button issues, such as criminal justice reform, healthcare, and immigration, in partnership with colleagues with a wide political spectrum, including progressive Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and more moderate former Secretary of State, John Kerry. These types of party-unifying gestures provide hope that Democrats will avoid a repeat of 2016 where clashes between moderate Hillary Clinton supporters and progressive Sanders voters contributed to the 35% of registered Democrats who didn’t vote that year, according to FiveThirtyEight. However, it is important to remember that young voters are more tied to policies than they are to a particular candidate-meaning that the policy outcomes of these task forces matter just as much as the figures who lead them.