AMES, Iowa ― It’s day five of former Vice President Joe Biden’s bus tour around Iowa, and the Democratic presidential candidate has made his way to the heart of the student union at Iowa State University, which has an enrollment of about 33,000 students.
For the middle of the day on a Tuesday, it’s a healthy-sized crowd, about 300 people. But for a college campus, something stands out: There is quite a bit of gray hair and bald heads in the crowd. Before Biden was introduced, a speaker asked for every student in the crowd to raise their hand. Less than two dozen hands shoot up.
The Biden campaign frequently boasts of its diverse coalition: Biden has a dominant lead among black voters and is competitive with both non-college and college-educated white voters, as well as with Latinos. That’s given Biden a healthy lead in national polling on the 2020 Democratic contest while keeping him competitive in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
But Biden’s struggle with young voters, illustrated by the scene in Ames, could be a preview of a significant flaw in the general election, when Democrats will need liberal-leaning young voters to turn out in significant numbers if they want to oust Republican President Donald Trump. An Iowa State University poll found him earning the support of just 2% of caucus-goers younger than 34. A WBUR-FM poll of New Hampshire shows him earning the support of 0% of voters younger than 30. Among the younger voters, just 29% have a favorable opinion of him while 55% have an unfavorable opinion.
Biden, 77, does do better with younger voters in national primary polling: He earned the support of 16% of Democrats ages 18 to 34 in the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, trailing only Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Interviews with young voters in Iowa and South Carolina, as well as with Democratic elected officials and operatives and an examination of polling data, found significant hurdles for Biden to overcome: Young Democratic voters are often simply more liberal than Biden. And though Biden often leans on his decades in the Senate and his ties to longstanding Democratic Party politicians to prove his credentials, young voters view both established politicians and long careers with skepticism. Even’s Biden’s trump card in the primary ― his friendship with President Barack Obama, for whom he was vice president ― can mean little to voters whose formative political experiences postdate the “Hope and Change”-inspired rise of the last Democratic president.
“He’s more for the status quo, the establishment,” said Aaron Thomas, a 30-year-old educator who was attending a Sanders event in South Carolina. “My grandma likes Biden. He’s attached to Obama. I guess she looks at him like the standard choice that she can rely on.”
Biden’s entire campaign often seems to have a nostalgic sepia filter applied to it. His Iowa tour was famously dubbed the “No Malarkey” tour. His signature endorsement in recent weeks came from 76-year-old former secretary of state and 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry. And a television ad the campaign aired in Iowa prominently features an image of John F. Kennedy, a president no one under the age of 80 was able to cast a ballot for.
As Andy McDonald, a 22-year-old student teacher who was attending a Warren campaign event in Iowa the same week as Biden’s tour, put it: “He feels outdated, like he’s trying to go back to a time that never existed.”
His lack of support from young voters is unlikely to doom him in the primary, where voters older than 50 have historically dominated. But top party strategists are increasingly worried that young people’s enthusiasm to vote in 2020, while high by historical standards, trails that of other demographic groups. Operatives focused on youth turnout are also worried about Generation Z and millennial voters, who are skeptical of the two-party system and most establishment politicians, voting for third-party candidates. Either low enthusiasm or significant defections could hamper Biden’s ability to defeat Trump next November.
“Young voters trail other voters in their interest in the elections,” Guy Cecil, one of the party’s top strategists and the chair of the super PAC Priorities USA, told reporters at a briefing last month. “That’s obviously a really critical part of the work that we have to do.”
On Iowa State’s campus, Biden seemed to realize the crowd was older than anticipated. “I’m going to be coming back to the university to do a large student event sometime in mid-January,” he said before launching into a version of his stump speech. A Biden staffer noted some students were stopping by, often to snap a quick picture of the former vice president on their phones before leaving.
Biden’s campaign noted the campaign has hired youth vote directors in the early states of Iowa and South Carolina, and it boasted that it was the first campaign to organize at the University of Nevada and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. And other Biden campaign trips to colleges, like one to the historically black Texas Southern University after the September Democratic debate, have been more successful than his sojourn to Ames.
“Young Democrats know that Vice President Biden is the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump next November and restore the soul of our nation,” campaign spokesman Mike Gwin said. “Biden has put forward bold, progressive plans on the issues that matter most to young Americans ― from ending the epidemic of gun violence to combating climate change and making higher education more affordable.”
Even his allies, however, acknowledge Biden has work to do with the nation’s youngest voters. Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a 28-year-old who has endorsed Biden, said the former vice president’s campaign needs to do more to highlight Biden’s liberal successes, including introducing one of the first bills intended to combat climate change and defeating the National Rifle Association to pass gun control bills in the 1990s.
“I know it sounds weird that someone who was vice president for eight years has to reintroduce himself for voters, but he does,” Kenyatta said, predicting the vice president’s performance with his fellow millennials would soon improve. “He has to educate people on the fights he’s taken on and won.”
Many of those fights took place during the Obama administration. But many of today’s 18-year-olds were just 7 when Obama and Biden won their first term. Fittingly, one Democratic operative who focuses on youth turnout noted Obama-centric ads tended to appeal to older millennials but were less effective on the youngest eligible voters, who tended to trace their political awakenings to either Sanders’ 2016 campaign or to the Trump backlash in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections.
“I love that he served with Barack Obama,” said Alex Linden, a recent college graduate who was attending an event for Warren in Iowa City a few days before Biden’s Ames event. “But to me, Barack Obama wasn’t a perfect Democrat.”
Linden and many of the other young voters interviewed for this story ― all of whom were politically active and informed enough to show up to a presidential candidate event in the first place ― had basic policy reasons for opposing Biden. Several noted he has not gone as far as Sanders and Warren in pushing for universal free college, and others were skeptical of his commitment to battling climate change. (Biden has proposed making community college free and limiting yearly student loan payments to 5% of discretionary income, and he favors spending trillions to battle climate change ― a proposal praised by mainstream and some progressive environmental groups.)
Cathy Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who conducts the GenForward survey of young adults, said the policy differences are the simplest explanation for why young people remain resistant to Biden.
“I think he’s struggling because the things that they care about are not the things his campaign is focused on,” she said. “He’s leading with the idea that he can beat Donald Trump. They clearly want to beat Donald Trump, but they also have a vision of a progressive agenda, and that’s not what the vice president has been articulating.”
I think he’s struggling because the things that they care about are not the things his campaign is focused on. Cathy Cohen, political scientist, University of Chicago
Cohen also noted the age gap alone can’t explain young people’s low levels of support for Biden. After all, the 78-year-old Sanders typically leads among young voters, while some remain skeptical of their general counterpart, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg.
But it’s also clear some young voters do worry about Biden’s mental fitness for office. “I’m on edge every time he speaks because he could say something that ends his campaign,” McDonald said.
“Something seems wrong with his speech patterns,” said John Tarr, a 32-year-old cable salesperson from Columbia, South Carolina, who attended a Sanders event in the city. “I mean, they make no sense. And I think it’s important for somebody that’s going to be ruling the U.S. to at least be able to put a sentence together that makes some sort of coherency.”
(Biden released medical records earlier this week, including a doctor’s report calling him “fit to successfully execute the duties of the Presidency.”)
Biden, who tries to emphasize one-on-one interactions with voters, has also occasionally condescended to young voters on the campaign trail. When a 23-year-old voter asked Biden at a May event in New Hampshire about his vote for a crime law that progressives blame for mass incarcerations, he said she had asked a “good essay question.” When a protester affiliated with the progressive climate change group the Sunrise Movement challenged him on his decision to accept the backing of a super PAC, the former vice president dismissed her concerns.
“Look at my record, child,” Biden told her. “Look at my record.”
The former vice president’s response points to another problem with his approach: Biden often relies on his long political career and the cadres of current and past elected officials who have endorsed him as a way to push back on criticism. For instance, both Kerry and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack joined him during the “No Malarkey” tour. But pollsters and operatives focused on young voters said that millennials and members of Generation Z, who grew up facing seemingly endless wars, the Great Recession and general economic uncertainty, are skeptical of the political system, both parties and established politicians.
“They don’t see politicians as advancing their interests or working on their behalf,” said Cohen, the University of Chicago professor. “There’s a deep skepticism and alienation.”
Still, Biden is not a hopeless cause with young voters. John Della Volpe, who conducts polls of Americans under the age of 30 for Harvard’s Institute of Politics, said a chunk of more centrist young voters remains up for grabs in the primary, and doing well with them could help Biden reassemble the coalition that powered Obama to victory in 2008.
“There is a significant cohort of young people that are looking for someone who has a pragmatic progressivism about his campaign, and those voters are yet to settle on who they’re going to vote for,” Della Volpe said, adding, “His campaign won’t be complete unless he can solidify his position among younger voters.”
Public polling, at this point, generally indicates Biden is the strongest potential general election nominee against Trump. There are some young voters, mostly staunchly leftist and mostly supporters of Sanders, who said they could not support Biden if he were the general election nominee. But many other young people indicated they would line up behind the party’s nominee, and Della Volpe said all other signs point to record levels of turnout among young people in 2020.
“Unless Joe Biden purposely offends millions of young people, young people will vote for him in historic numbers,” he said. “I’ve never seen a more enthusiastic cohort of young voters.”
And Biden does have one always-elusive quality young voters value: He’s broadly seen as authentic and straightforward.
“Young people are willing to be excited about candidates who are authentically themselves, and basically all of the candidates are doing that,” said Ben Wessel, the director of the youth vote initiative at NextGen America, which plans to spend $45 million registering and turning out young voters ahead of the 2020 election and is neutral in the primary. “Biden is so authentically Biden, Warren is authentically Warren, Bernie is so authentically Bernie.”
Daniel Marans contributed reporting from South Carolina.