Jemal Countess / Getty Images for Green New Deal Network
In 2020, around 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-old voters cast a ballot for Joe Biden, making them the most Democratic-leaning voting group by age. This was in line with recent presidential elections, too, as young voters have been the most likely age group to vote Democratic in every presidential contest dating back to 2004. Yet this group, once Biden’s best demographic, has now shown the largest drop in support.
Why have young Americans soured so dramatically on President Biden?
From my conversations with experts who study the political beliefs of young Americans and an examination of recent polling data, I’ve identified a few key factors that help explain the large drop-off in support. First, of course, they are concerned about the economy — a major driver of disapproval of Biden overall — and about the direction the country is headed. But young Americans also have some concerns that set them apart from older Americans. They are particularly worried about achieving financial independence and other markers of adulthood, for instance. They are also frustrated with the Biden administration’s limited progress on issues like tackling climate change and forgiving student debt, which many young people care a lot about. Moreover, Biden wasn’t the first choice of young voters in the 2020 Democratic primary, so his approval among this group may have been soft to begin with. The question now is whether this dissatisfaction with Biden will affect whether young Americans vote in the midterms, a potentially significant factor in determining how poorly the midterms could go for Democrats since young people voted at a higher rate in 2018 than in previous midterms and overwhelmingly backed Democrats.
In some ways, Biden’s decline among young Americans mirrors his standing overall. As Biden’s approval rating has fallen to 38 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,1 18- to 29-year-olds’ approval of Biden has also slipped to 37 percent, with 53 percent disapproving of his job performance, based on data from FiveThirtyEight’s polling database.2
John Della Volpe, director of polling for the Harvard Institute of Politics, told me Biden’s slide “is part of the broader disillusionment that Americans and young people are having about the country and the state of politics.” (Della Volpe consulted on Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign.) In fact, Harvard’s spring 2022 poll of 18- to 29-year-olds found that 36 percent of the respondents who disapproved of Biden (56 percent overall) said “ineffectiveness” best explained their disapproval.
As is true of other Americans, the economy seems to be an area where young Americans are particularly unhappy with Biden. In last week’s YouGov/The Economist survey, 34 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds approved of the way Biden was handling jobs and the economy, slightly lower than the 37 percent who approved of his economic performance overall. Similarly, polls released in mid-July by Fox News (of registered voters) and SSRS/CNN (of adults) found that less than 30 percent of American adults under 35 approved of Biden’s work on the economy (28 percent in Fox News, 25 percent in SSRS/CNN), compared with about 30 percent overall. Meanwhile, in Harvard’s spring 2022 poll, 74 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said inflation had affected their personal finances “a lot” or “some,” and inflation has worsened since then. The Fox News and SSRS/CNN polls found that about 1 in 5 of those under 35 approved of Biden’s handling of inflation, compared with 25 percent overall.
Such economic concerns may be particularly acute for young people because they’re just getting their lives off the ground. A survey report on Generation Z, conducted by Della Volpe’s company Social Sphere on behalf of Murmuration, found earlier this year that 35 percent of Americans age 15 to 25 said financial independence was their most or second-most important life aspiration, ahead of other priorities such as having a fulfilling career or being married. “Financial independence was number one — not wealth independence — but literally doing something that millennials couldn’t do, which is leave their parents’ home,” said Della Volpe.
The fact that so many young people are prioritizing making ends meet is understandable considering how many are worried they will have a tough time doing so. A Pew Research Center poll found last year that 80 percent or more of adult Americans under 30 — a group that also includes some younger millennials — said it was harder for young people to afford to pay for college tuition, buy a home or save for the future compared with their parents’ generation.
Woven into these larger financial concerns are worries about student debt, a particularly big issue for 18- to 29-year-olds because many have student loan debt to pay off — 34 percent according to the Education Data Initiative, roughly twice the rate of any other age group. Moreover, despite campaigning on student-loan forgiveness, Biden has yet to make any progress on relieving student debt, which exemplifies another possible source of the president’s struggles with young Americans — the overwhelming sense that he hasn’t done what he promised.
Harvard’s spring poll found, for instance, that 14 percent disapproved of Biden “for not following through on campaign promises,” second only to “ineffectiveness” on a list of reasons for their disapproval. This feeling was especially prominent among the 29 percent of young Democrats who disapproved of Biden overall, as nearly one-third of them fell into this camp, similar to the share who cited his ineffectiveness. In that same poll, about 3 in 5 respondents said that the government should cancel at least some student loan debt.
Della Volpe felt student debt was an area where Biden could change young Americans’ perception that the administration hasn’t made progress on key issues. “Discreetly addressing his promise to deal with the student debt crisis would be the fastest thing to reset that conversation,” said Della Volpe. Biden is reportedly considering issuing an executive order to forgive some debt given Congress’s inaction on the issue, but it’s possible such an order could be shot down by the Supreme Court.
These sorts of challenges — a conservative judiciary and a sharply divided Congress — make transformational change so difficult for Biden to accomplish. This, in turn, has dampened the spirits of some younger liberals. Take something like climate change, which young people overwhelmingly cite as a top issue and want to see action on. It’s an issue, though, that has proven challenging for the Biden administration to act on and has led to a growing sense of frustration among young Democrats. In May, 26 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Democrats3 told Pew that the Biden administration’s climate policies were taking the country in the wrong direction, compared with just 9 percent of Democrats 65 or older.
Even when the White House seemingly gets a political “win,” like the bipartisan gun-control law, it still struggles to highlight this for young people. “It would be really helpful for the White House to play up what just happened with gun policy since that is something that youth groups and gun-violence-prevention groups have been touting,” said Abby Kiesa, deputy director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. But a poll conducted by Morning Consult/Politico right after Congress passed the bill on June 24 found that 60 percent of Generation Z registered voters (18- to 25-year-olds) had not seen, read or heard much or anything at all about the legislation, which was much higher than for other age groups.
It’s possible, though, that some young Americans’ dissatisfaction with Biden predates his presidency. After all, among 18- to 29-year-olds, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won 63 percent of the Democratic presidential primary vote up through mid-March, while Biden won just 17 percent, according to exit polling.4 Della Volpe pointed out that by the end of the 2020 campaign, young people did like Biden, but recent polls suggest he has lost his appeal: YouGov/The Economist, Morning Consult/Politico and Quinnipiac University all found Biden’s favorability rating underwater among the pollsters’ youngest respondents.
The million-dollar question now is whether young Americans’ negative views of Biden will affect their voting behavior this November. When it comes to turnout, the answer, at this point, looks like no. Harvard’s spring poll found that 36 percent of young Americans said they would “definitely” vote, which was similar to the 37 percent who said the same in spring 2018. And that midterm experienced historically high turnout, including among 18- to 29-year-olds, 36 percent of whom voted according to the U.S. Election Project. Other polls have also found that other groups in the electorate are engaged, perhaps auguring high midterm turnout once again.
“Despite the frustration that young people have about government in general, they just feel more connected to voting,” said Della Volpe. “I think this is just a new era of engagement.” At the same time, even though 36 percent said in that Harvard survey they would “definitely” vote, 43 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they didn’t believe their votes “make a real difference,” and 57 percent said “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing.”
Despite the rampant skepticism about politics among young people, Kiesa also felt fairly upbeat about their participation: “Indicators of youth engagement in a midterm election are pretty good, relatively speaking.” She pointed out that a lot of young people were already registered to vote thanks to 2018 and 2020 being such high-water marks for youth voter engagement. Moreover, according to CIRCLE’s data, about half the states in the country now have more 18- to 24-year-old registrants than they did in 2018, including many battleground states such as Arizona, Michigan and Nevada. Kiesa did note that it’s not all good news, however, as registration among 18- and 19-year-olds is lagging.
But it’s not just a matter of how many young people show up to vote; it’s also whom they vote for, and on that point the data is less clear. In 2020, roughly 60 percent of voters under 30 backed Biden, according to Pew, and in 2018, around 70 percent backed Democratic U.S. House candidates. It’s hard to imagine, though, that Democrats will get that level of support in 2022, as polls suggest Democrats’ leads are much narrower with those under 30. For instance, YouGov/The Economist’s survey last week found Democrats leading 52 percent to 23 percent among registered voters 18 to 29, while the GOP pollster Echelon Insights gave them an edge of just 49 percent to 42 percent.
Kiesa told me that young people remain the most likely to vote Democratic, but added, “Young people are not blind party followers. We’ve learned that they’re really focused on issues and really focused on how to urgently make change on those issues.”
That’s why Biden and Democrats’ policy shortcomings on some key issues, along with the broader discontent over the economy, could help Republicans narrow the margins among younger voters this year — whether through shifts in turnout or some degree of vote-switching. Suffice it to say that young Americans could play a major role in determining a number of close elections in 2022.
Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight. @geoffreyvs