Joe Biden, upon first meeting his current campaign pollster John Della Volpe at a gala dinner in 2018, started taking notes from their conversation about the student debt crisis and gun violence on the back of a name placard at the table between speeches honoring former secretary of State Colin Powell.
Biden made clear the issues facing young people were deeply personal to him, well before he announced his run for president, said Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics who started officially advising the Biden campaign on the youth vote last month. Biden spoke about helping pay off student loans taken on by his youngest daughter Ashley, now 39, as “the kinds of things you do for your kids,” Della Volpe said.
With less than eight weeks until the Nov. 3 election, the Biden campaign is making an urgent and final push to turn out the voting bloc that has proved to be his most elusive: Young voters that he struggled to win over in the crowded Democratic primary. Biden’s team, previously criticized for lackluster youth outreach, is now pulling out all the stops – bringing celebrities to virtual policy conversations and launching massive grassroots outreach campaigns to better introduce Biden to younger voters and convince them he is attuned to their concerns.
The campaign is working overdrive to depict Biden and now his vice presidential pick, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), as the candidates of compassion as they seek to woo socially conscious millennials and Generation Z voters amid dual crises: the coronavirus pandemic and a national reckoning on race.
“The empathy these generations have for other, often voiceless Americans — that’s the same empathy that Biden has,” said Della Volpe.
The campaign is betting that young voters, hit hardest by the economic crisis as coronavirus derails life on college campuses and job prospects for many recent graduates, will identify with Biden’s personal story once they get to know him. “It’s powerful when young voters understand his story, his empathy — and how the challenges and trauma in his life have shaped his political views,” Della Volpe said. “All of that makes him a genuinely kind person but it has much more meaning in a political context — especially with younger people who remind me that they are living through two recessions and in a dystopia at the same time.”
Biden, who at 77 would be the oldest American president ever elected, has boosted his standing among millennials and Generation Z voters since he clinched the Democratic nomination — and was embraced by his more progressive rivals Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the preferred candidate of younger voters. Though a recent CNN poll showed Biden leading President Trump by over 20 points with voters under the age of 34, his campaign is still struggling to excite the youngest Americans.
Young voters turned out in historic numbers in the 2018 midterms, helping to elect a Democratic House. Yet it’s unclear if the notoriously fickle electorate will come out as robustly in this year’s contests, despite its fierce opposition to Trump. An August Post-ABC poll found 25 percent of Biden supporters aged 18 to 39 said they were “very enthusiastic” about supporting Biden, compared with two-thirds of Biden supporters over 65.
And they’re also less certain to vote than older Biden supporters. The same poll found 61 percent of Biden supporters under 40 saying they were “absolutely certain to vote” compared with 85 percent of those over 65. Younger Biden backers were also less likely to report being registered to vote: 73 percent of supporters under 40 said they were registered, a key initial hurdle to turnout, versus 91 percent of seniors.
The campaign has worked hard to boost Biden’s favorability among young voters: The August Post-ABC poll, from just before the party conventions, found Biden at a split 49 percent favorable-49 percent unfavorable among adults ages 18 to 29. This is much improved from previous polls, but the support is still soft for a group that consistently leans Democratic.
Campaign advisers point to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which ignited mass protests against police brutality and racism across the country, as an inflection point for the candidate who has struggled to excite young voters.
Biden’s plan to address racial profiling in law enforcement still falls short for some young activists who have been critical of the candidate for not supporting key demands from the Black Lives Matter movement. But Trump’s pro-law enforcement positions seem to have sharpened Biden’s standing as the lesser of two evils among even some of the more ardent young leftists who have resisted supporting a candidate whose decades long career includes working closely with police groups to craft the landmark 1994 crime bill.
“There is this global pandemic that has disproportionately affected young people but George Floyd was really American voters specifically saying ‘enough,’” said Symone Sanders, a top Biden adviser who worked for Bernie Sanders in 2016. She now runs the “League 46″ grassroots get-out-the-vote effort by pro-Biden students, young professionals and elected officials.
A Biden campaign official, speaking under condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, says the campaign believes the youth vote is even more consequential in the final stretch since the slightly tightening margins of Biden’s lead in national polls over Trump since the Republican National Convention have been largely due to older voters.
“[Biden’s team needs] to do a better job of reaching these voters where they are and connect the most progressive parts of the campaign’s platform to [Gen Z],” said Colton Hess, the founder of Tok the Vote, a TikTok creator-led coalition to mobilize younger voters. “Because they don’t have a clear picture of Biden and who he is and what he stands for… they were young during the Obama presidency and don’t know a lot about him but they’re missing a lot of pieces of the puzzle about how Biden does have one of most progressive platforms of all time.”
The Biden campaign is acutely focused on how coronavirus is already worsening young people’s struggles in paying for education and housing. For the first time since Great Depression, a majority of 18- to 29-year-olds live with their parents, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. Fifty-two percent of young adults resided with one or both parents in July – prior to 2020, the highest share of young adults living with their parents stood at 48 percent in 1940.
“We’ve been thinking a lot about how to create community during this lonely and stressful time,” said Hannah Bristol, a former Warren aide who is now leading the campaign’s youth vote team.
The campaign is dangling celebrities to entice young people to their online events: Actress Ashley De La Rosa appeared on the campaign’s just-launched national #YouthVote “virtual bus tour,” a online townhall-style series with young local leaders and campaign officials. Model Karlie Kloss, and the wife of Jared Kushner’s younger brother, headlined a recent “Young Folks for Biden” event about the Democratic ticket’s plans for young women in science, technology and the arts.
And Harris, the first woman of color to be nominated for national office by a major party and a graduate of Howard University, is tapping into the network of historically Black colleges and universities to galvanize young Black voters. Jill Biden, a former public school teacher, is also viewed inside the campaign as an asset with younger voters.
“I think young people are very fired up to cast their ballots this year — we’ve seen so much direct impact of the last election on our lives in terms of the economy, racial justice, immigration, climate change and student debt — there are so many ways that our future is at risk in this election and most young people know that and are committed to casting their ballot,” Bristol says.
While some activists say they are concerned by some of Biden’s squishy language that has yet to materialize into concrete commitments, others say they are pleased to see some movement to the left.
Post-primary policy changes that have drawn in new young supporters, such as speeding up Biden’s plan to transition to clean energy to within 15 years, show Biden is “moveable and will listen to our demands,” said Ben Wessel, executive director of the progressive group NextGen America. Wessel emphasized that more conversation about policy specifics would probably drive up his support.
Biden’s relationship with top youth vote-getter Bernie Sanders has also caught the attention of young voters. Symone Sanders, stressing the “genuine friendship and mutual respect” between the former opponents, dismissed the notion that Biden might not harness the momentum from the Vermont senator’s younger supporters seen in 2016.
After all, she said, Biden started his career as a young public servant. “Young people didn’t just pop up for the first time in 2016 — young people have been a part of every single major movement,” said Symone Sanders. “Joe Biden got into office as a young person — he was 29 at the time. Young people have always been doing this for themselves and have commanded space within the political conversation. As Sen. Harris often stays — you can’t have a campaign that centers around working families and seeks to address major crises and not have young people at the forefront of that conversation.”
If there is a youth-driven political revolution during the global pandemic, it might not happen in real life, or as the youths say, IRL.
The campaign fever that perennially sweeps college campuses in the the fall is bound to look different this cycle. The Biden campaign has so far not made any plans for in-person voter contact programs like door knocking, according to Bristol and Lubna Sebastian, the national director of “Students for Biden,” the campaign’s coalition for college and high school students.
The Biden campaign saw a significant bump in campaign volunteers and registration for online events geared toward students in March and April as people started leaving campuses and transitioning to virtual school due to the coronavirus. The campaign – over phone, Zoom, text, and email – is focused on pulling in student leaders who worked on other primary campaigns as school starts up again.
The campaign, however, will have to compete with the Trump campaign’s continued in-person field operation and door-to-door canvassing. And Trump’s attacks on expanded mail-in balloting to accommodate voters who don’t want to cast in person ballots because of the pandemic make get-out-the-vote efforts even more complex, advisers say.
Much of the final outreach, according to Sebastian, will be focused on “demystifying the voting process,” and allaying doubts that young people may harbor about the electoral system.
“We are working with various battleground state teams to build up these events with very specific information aimed at demystifying the voting process – young people want to vote, some just find it confusing,” said Sebastian. “Everyone has a friend who they go to to ask for their voting questions. So we are figuring out how we can make sure those friends are well resourced to do relational voter education. Young people are the best messengers to their peers.”
Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.
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