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Are The Kids Alright?
The news for Biden is not quite so dire in 2024.
What on earth is happening with young voters? A New York Times/Siena College poll of six battleground states found Joe Biden with a one-point lead over former president Trump among 18 to 29 year old registered voters, representing a 25-point swing from the 2020 election. There’s no doubt that Biden is less popular today than when he first took office, and voters have major concerns about his age and leadership.
Yet these numbers are utterly perplexing because in no way are young voters a swing constituency. No Republican presidential candidate has won the majority of voters under 30 since 1988. In 2020, Biden beat Trump among young voters by 26 percentage points and Democratic congressional candidates performed even better among young voters in the 2022 midterms. It’s difficult to imagine a universe in which young voters split their voters between Biden and Trump given their well-documented liberal views and visceral dislike of Trump. But here we are.
It would be easy to dismiss the finding as an outlier. But it’s a result that has turned up in polls again and again. A Quinnipiac poll released just a few days earlier found Biden and Trump essentially tied among younger voters at 46 percent versus 44 percent.
But not every poll shows Biden struggling with young voters. The Republican polling firm Echelon Insights found Biden cruising among under 30 voters, leading Trump 61 percent to 34 percent. This is a situation where canvassing the broader landscape of polling before drawing sweeping conclusions about the state of the race is important.
A cursory inspection of recent pre-election polls reveals a remarkably inconsistent pattern in the candidate preferences of young voters. Quinnipiac shows Biden losing ground, a trend supporting the argument that Biden’s support of Israel has hurt him with young voters. But Echelon shows exactly the opposite pattern. Their September polling shows a much tighter race between Biden and Trump than their more recent polling.
Can we make sense of this?
First, there is going to be a fair amount of volatility in candidate preferences a year out from any election. This is especially true of young voters who mostly do not pay attention to politics at this early stage. Gallup found that only nine percent of young adults (ages 18 to 29) report that they are following news about national politics very closely compared to half of seniors (ages 65 and over). In fact, Gallup shows that young adults are paying less attention to politics in 2023 than they typically do.
Sample size is another issue. Most of results reported out on national polls are based on small sample sizes. This means there is going to be greater variation in responses even if it’s the same pollster using the same methods. Finally, not all pollsters are using the same age categories, but these distinctions are not often noted in news coverage of these polls.
Biden Less Popular Among More Engaged Youth
But it’s not just that there’s variability a year out from an election. There’s some evidence that polls like the New York Times are not providing an accurate snapshot of youth voter preferences. Polls showing young voters abandoning Biden are capturing a distinctive segment of this population—those willing to respond to a survey about the 2024 election a year before voting takes place. It’s quite possible, these voters do not reflect the broader population of youth voters.
In a poll the Survey Center on American Life conducted over the summer, Biden fared much more poorly among the most engaged young voters. We found that young voters who claimed that they “always vote” in national elections Biden led Trump 47 percent to 45 percent. However, among young voters who said they “nearly always vote” Biden held a 21-point advantage over Trump (54 percent versus 33 percent).
This might happen if young conservatives were more committed to Trump than young liberals were to Biden. And this appears to be the case. Although liberals typically support the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates, young liberals have dramatically different views of Biden than older liberals. Only ten percent of young liberals have a very favorable view of Biden compared to 62 percent of senior liberals. And more than one-third of young liberals view the current Democratic president unfavorably. Young conservatives do not share similar reservations about Trump.
There is another factor worth noting. In 2024, it's possible we’ll see a larger gender gap among young voters than in previous elections. Since at least 2016, the politics of young voters have rapidly diverged with young women expressing much more liberal views than young men, especially on issues related to gender. In a poll we conducted over the summer, Biden had a ten-point advantage over Trump (50 percent to 40 percent) among young female voters while young men preferred Biden over Trump by four points (46 percent to 42 percent).
Young Americans, like a lot of Americans, are unhappy with their candidate choices. However, the people most displeased appear to be those who are most politically engaged. Young adults who are politically engaged tend to be much more liberal and more critical of Biden than those who are paying less attention.
This is not necessarily good news for Biden. He is definitely struggling with Democratic-leaning voters, a fact that should alarm his campaign. But it’s also not as apocalyptic as it appears. For now, the most plausible outcome would be for Biden to win young voters handily against Trump, while performing somewhat less well than he did in 2020. Perhaps the one bright spot for Biden is that young voters are still pulling the lever for Democrats.
Or as Semafor’s Jordan Weissmann put it: “At the moment, young people hate the Democratic Party, except on election day.”
Daniel A. Cox is the director of the Survey Center on American Life and a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a contributor to 538 and Insider and writes the newsletter American Storylines.