Young voters mostly see presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as a standard-issue career politician and that’s dampening their enthusiasm for a candidate they know little about, according to a new report from a major Democratic advocacy group released Thursday.
The new report, prepared by Democratic pollsters Global Strategy Group for the youth outreach organization NextGen America, is based on online focus groups and discussions held last month with voters aged 18-34 in 11 presidential and Senate battleground states. The participants, all either Democrats or independents, were skeptical of Biden. Many had previously been enthusiastic backers of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
The report’s authors say Biden is in a better position with many Sanders-supporting young voters than Hillary Clinton was four years earlier. While young voters then were often hostile to Clinton, their impressions of Biden are not as deeply ingrained.
But messages as simple as comparing Sanders, Biden and President Donald Trump or hearing Biden talk directly to the camera about his priorities can go a long way toward persuading voters.
“These people don’t know much about Biden. They don’t know much about who he is or what he’s for, even if they’re political animals. They think of him as a generic Democrat, a typical politician,” said Ben Wessel, NextGen America’s executive director. “It’s an opportunity because we can change their minds. The flip side is that ‘generic Democratic politician’ is a super unpopular category with these people.”
The young voter reviews of Biden included in the report are often scathing.
“While I like Biden better than Trump, he’s just another politician catering to the ultra wealthy,” said one Asian voter in Generation Z who planned to reluctantly vote for Biden. “We need someone who is willing to fight for people instead of corporations.”
“The biggest issue again for me is that I don’t know enough of his viewpoint,” said one Hispanic Generation Z voter who was iffy on supporting Biden. “I would feel more confident supporting him if I actually heard more of what his stance is on the economy, health care, the environment, jobs.”
And there were clear holdouts: “Nothing will fundamentally change. He has nothing to offer and voting for him would be an endorsement of the disgusting rigged process that got him on the ticket,” said a white millennial who had almost no enthusiasm for the former vice president. Other voters brought up concerns about Tara Reade’s accusation that Biden had sexually assaulted her.
The report’s authors divided young voters into four groups: The two largest groups are those who aren’t excited about Biden but are resigned to voting for him and those who say they need to learn more about him. A smaller group, mostly made up of staunch Sanders supporters, might choose to vote for a third-party candidate. A fourth “idiosyncratic and marginal” group might cast a ballot for Trump.
NextGen and Global Strategy Group tested a number of messages designed to persuade voters to be more excited about Biden ― and were seemingly helped by the voters’ “low expectations” of him. Many of these voters were in elementary or middle school for significant parts of Biden’s vice presidency, and his campaign has spent little time reaching out to them during this year’s primary.
“The position on gun safety surprised me. I honestly thought he’d be more vague about his stance on it,” a white millennial wrote. In fact, one of Biden’s signature legislative accomplishments was passing an assault weapons ban through Congress. Many of these voters were also unaware of the role Biden played in pushing President Barack Obama to embrace the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage in 2012.
Another strategy that tested well was to portray a future President Biden as just one part of an administration. Showing young voters a video of Sanders telling Cardi B how he plans to pull Biden to the left was persuasive, as was pointing out that Biden has “even asked young activists to keep pushing him to go further on the issues when he is president” and that Biden has “pledged to build an administration filled with progressive leaders, experts, and activists from inside and outside of politics.”
But the strongest argument to vote for Biden might be who he’s running against. The young voters were almost unanimous in their disdain for Trump, critical of everything from his handling of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts to his lack of effort on climate change. A simple comparison of Biden’s, Sanders’ and Trump’s stances on key issues was effective.
“When comparing and contrasting Biden, Sanders and Trump side-by-side, many come away surprised that Biden is not so far from Sanders on many issues, and nearly everyone comes away willing to accept that the differences between either Democrat and Trump are real (even if some remain doubtful Biden will deliver),” the report’s authors wrote. “This reflects the honest reality for many young people: Biden may not be perfect, but he represents an improvement on Trump.”
NextGen, which is funded by billionaire Democratic donor and former presidential candidate Tom Steyer, has already pledged to spend $45 million on youth voter turnout in the 2020 elections. Biden, benefiting from a dip in Trump’s political standing over the federal government’s haphazard efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic, holds a steady lead in public polling both nationally and in key swing states.
The Biden campaign ― which won the primaries with overwhelming support from older voters, who turn out more reliably at the polls ― says it’s expanding its outreach to young professionals and students. Biden held a virtual town hall with young voters last month.
“As President Obama has said, Joe Biden is running on the most progressive platforms in modern history and laid out bold ideas to tackle climate change, expand health care, and make college affordable,” said Matt Hill, a Biden campaign spokesperson. “Joe Biden knows that young Americans are a driving force of the progressive movement and will work hard to earn their votes, unite our country, and ensure we achieve the ultimate goal we all share: defeating Donald Trump.”
Biden has made a series of overtures to the party’s left wing in the weeks since Sanders dropped out of the contest, endorsing a plan to eliminate student debt for the first time and promising to work with the Sanders campaign on crafting the Democratic Party’s platform. But operatives hoping to convince young people to back Biden shouldn’t try to oversell his left-wing credentials, according to the report.
“He doesn’t have to pretend to be some dyed-in-the-wool Bernie-style progressive. He just needs to tell them what he’s actually for,” Wessel said.
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