Joe Biden is trying to break out of his coronavirus pandemic-induced campaign limbo by reaching the segment of the population most likely to be online: younger voters.
It’s a voting bloc the former vice president had trouble with in his Democratic primary fight against Bernie Sanders, which he’s poised to win in early June once a slate of virus-delayed primaries take place. And a group that could help Biden topple President Trump this fall, if they actually cast ballots.
Unable to leave his house and hold traditional campaign events, Biden last Wednesday gave a live-streamed address in which he connected the coronavirus pandemic to larger issues that affect younger voters. That evening, Biden hosted a virtual “happy hour” targeted at younger voters — though he does not drink alcohol and instead sipped on Gatorade.
“We need to think about those of you who are hustling in the gig economy, who deserve the same benefits as everyone else does,” Biden said. “We need to think about those of you who are already struggling with student debt before this crisis and now need a lifeline.”
Sanders, though, is much more popular with younger voters than Biden. An Economist/YouGov poll conducted March 22-24 found that around 59% of Democratic primary voters aged 18 to 44 would prefer the Vermont senator as the Democratic presidential nominee rather than Biden. In what could be a close election against Trump, Biden will need to grow Democrats’ 2016 margin among young voters in order to win against President Trump.
The challenge is motivating younger voters to cast votes for Biden.
While a 2019 Harvard youth poll found that a majority, 51%, of young people think that the country is “on the wrong track,” Biden can’t assume that millennials and Generation Z will flock to him in November. Studies suggest that they do not have the same level of party loyalty as older generations, said Elizabeth Matto, a professor at Rutgers University and director of the Center for Youth Political Participation.
“One of the biggest challenges for any Democratic nominee right now is making sure you don’t assume that because you get the nomination you’re going to automatically get the youth vote,” Matto said.
The former vice president seems to recognize this and is hoping to reach younger voters by touting new policy proposals.
Biden adopted part of one of Sanders’s most popular policy proposals the day before their first one-on-one debate: Free tuition at public colleges and universities for those from families making less than $125,000 per year.
Last week, as coronavirus-related closures brought on a record unemployment surge and economic downturn, Biden announced support for student loan debt cancellation up to $10,000, another left-wing proposal popular with younger people.
A Wednesday op-ed from Biden on “protecting future generations after coronavirus” was published by Crooked Media, a company created by former Obama administration staffers that host the popular podcast Pod Save America. The former vice president stressed the importance of social distancing and warned that if President Trump encourages people to return to work too soon, it could exacerbate both the health and economic crisis.
Biden runs a risk, however, of turning younger voters off if they perceive him as adopting certain positions or activities purely because he wants their votes.
“There’s a real attraction to candidates that seem authentic, that seem real, that seem genuine,” Matto said. “Anything that seems like an obvious and inauthentic grab for a particular voting segment, I think young adults will look at it with skepticism.”
In his happy hour, Biden took softball questions from fawning supporters that included Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a former intern for Biden now in law school, and a co-chairman of Students for Biden. One questioner asked what role Biden would have the United States play “as a leader in the global community,” while another asked him how personal tragedies in his life help him “connect with everyday Americans.”
But here is an opportunity for the former vice president to provide the kind of leadership that younger voters are looking for. Though Sanders himself is viewed favorably, the socialist revolution he preaches is not the common preferred path for younger people.
“Young adults are actually sort of mixed in their feelings about the sort of changes they want with the next president — not necessarily wanting broad structural changes, but maybe offering more pragmatic and realistic changes,” Matto said.