Joe Biden struggled to win over young voters in the Democratic primary.
Now, as the 77-year-old turns his sights to the general election, many young people – a number of whom rallied behind some of his more progressive rivals in the primary – want to see if the presumptive Democratic nominee can give them the inspiration and bold change that they crave.
Ja’mal Green, a 24-year-old activist from Chicago, said young people want “a candidate who is going to change their lives.” Green was in Minneapolis over the weekend protesting the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody after a white officer kneeled on his neck.
“What it all boils down to is: Can Joe Biden be bold for America? We need him to start being bold,” Green told CNN. “What is he going to do to about police shooting people because of the color of their skin?”
Green supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 and 2020 primaries, and pointed to criminal justice reform, “Medicare for All,” the climate crisis and the elimination of student debt as key issues for young voters. If Biden does not move to the left on these issues, Green said he and young people on the left of the political spectrum “won’t support either candidate.”
Biden has in recent weeks ramped up efforts to engage young voters. Last week, the campaign announced a new initiative called League 46. It consists of three teams – Students for Biden, Young Professionals for Biden, and Young Elected Officials for Biden – that will work to whip up support for the former vice president ahead of November.
View 2020 presidential election polling
“Young people more than anyone understand, frankly, that this is one of the most consequential elections in our lifetime,” Biden senior adviser Symone Sanders, who is chairing the campaign’s new youth voter outreach program, told CNN.
Sanders pointed to the unity task forces set up by the Biden campaign as an example of the former vice president listening and responding directly to the wishes of the progressive community. The Biden campaign and members of Bernie Sanders’ former campaign are working together on policy surrounding the climate crisis, health care, immigration, criminal justice reform, the economy and education. The groups include a lineup of progressive leaders, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and top Biden campaign aides and allies.
“They’re not for show,” Symone Sanders said of the task forces, noting she is on the criminal justice task force and that the group’s first meeting consisted of a “very robust” conversation. Sanders said that the reports from the task forces would be used to draft the party’s platform.
Ahead of November, the campaign is hoping to win over people like Roxie Richner, 18, who supported Sanders in his 2016 and 2020 campaigns. Richner, of Michigan, will be able to vote for the first time in November. She said she will probably vote for Biden, but said she is “not 100% sure.”
“My generation is leading the push for change on many fronts. Everyone can see and knows that,” Richner said. But she said Biden needs “a shift in tone and policy,” to attract younger voters. She said there have to be “concrete solutions and action plans put on the table before young people can feel ready to get behind him.”
Richner told CNN that Biden has yet to make the “necessary concessions” such as a commitment to support Medicare For All and the Green New Deal, “that he would need to have progressives jump on board.”
‘I think they are making real progress’
Sarah Audelo, the executive director of Alliance for Youth Action, said the Biden campaign has not been doing enough to reach out to young voters. “But I think they are making real progress, which is important,” Audelo said, pointing to the task forces.
Audelo said it will be important for Biden to show leadership on the economy as millions of young people are loaded with student debt and trying to enter the job market in an economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Heather Greven, the communications director at NextGen America, told CNN that having Ocasio-Cortez co-leading one of the task forces “is a big sign to young folks and folks organizing in the progressive sphere that Biden is not going to fight us, and he understands that he needs us to win in November.”
Greven said that one of NextGen America’s most effective messages is “explaining to folks that Biden is not perfect.” She said, “We’re not going to sell him as some progressive savior, but we are going to sell him as the competent alternative to disaster, which is another four years of Donald Trump.”
NextGen America, which was founded by billionaire and former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer and focuses on mobilizing young voters, last week endorsed Biden and said it would invest $45 million to target more than 4.5 million potential voters ages 18-35 in key battleground states.
As Biden looks to win over young progressives, he has been taking steps to embrace his former rivals and adopt parts of their platforms, and has shown a willingness to move left. He now supports lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60, the cancellation of more student debt and backed a plan to make universities tuition-free for those families that make less than $125,000 per year.
But many young people want Biden to make more significant changes to his policy platform.
“There are some things that (Biden) needs to be pushed on and challenged over,” said Davonte Johnson, a youth organizer with Detroit Action, a group fighting for economic and social justice for working class people of color. Johnson, who supported Warren in the primary, pointed to issues like criminal justice reform, education, and plans to bring people out of poverty as things Biden needs to be pushed on. “Young people are still just waiting to see what’s what, like what’s going on.”
Still, Victor Shi, who turned 18 over the weekend, said he found Biden’s plan acceptable and backed the former vice president in the primary.
“I thought his policies were progressive enough to actually get enacted once he is president,” Shi told CNN. He liked the policies put forward by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders, he said, “but I just didn’t think they were really realistic.”
Shi, who will be a delegate at the Democratic National Convention was told by the campaign he would be the youngest delegate from Illinois, said he believes the former vice president connects with people on a deeper level than most politicians. “When he speaks, you can definitely sense the empathy that is just naturally there,” Shi said.
He pointed to the differing responses from Trump and Biden to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans to date.
“The difference in how the two candidates are responding to coronavirus is a real indication of what might come when he actually is in the White House,” Shi said, “like (Biden) will be guided by scientific facts and real information and, as opposed to what the President is doing right now.”
Opposition to Trump
Many young voters may not have picked Biden as their first choice in the primary, but they tell CNN they will vote for him in the general election simply because they do not want four more years of President Donald Trump.
Trump is a highly motivating factor for young voters, according to a spring Harvard Youth Poll, and the Trump presidency has propelled many young Americans, particularly on the left, to become politically active.
“Yes, I’m voting for Joe, but I don’t have to be excited about it,” Cameron Kasky, the 19-year-old co-founder of March For Our Lives, told CNN. “I just don’t understand how somebody could be pumped about Joe.”
But according to Kasky, when it comes to 2020, “It’s not about getting young people excited, it’s about getting people pragmatic.”
“My message to young people is: I’m not too excited about voting for Joe Biden, but whenever I think about how unexcited I am, I just YouTube videos of Trump, and I’m like, ‘OK, I’m voting for Joe Biden,’” Kasky said.
A spring Harvard Youth Poll found that Biden has a significant lead (+23) over Trump among young Americans aged 18 to 29. The poll also found Biden’s advantage (+30) among young voters is comparable to what Sanders would have had if the Vermont senator were the presumptive Democratic nominee.
But CNN’s Harry Enten noted Biden seemed to be underperforming 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton with young voters. Biden was leading Trump by 14 points but doing about 10 points worse than Clinton did on average among the last five high-quality national probability polls with an 18-34-year-old voter breakdown.
In the 2016 presidential election, Trump carried only about one-third of voters younger than 30, but Clinton won only 55% of younger voters, well below Obama’s 66% in 2008 and 60% in 2012, according to exit polls. One in 11 of those younger voters backed third-party candidates in 2016, more than among any older age group. Obama’s campaign appealed to a desire for hope and a constituency ready for change.
“You have to meet people where they are”
Biden has in recent weeks appeared on several social media platforms as he makes efforts to reach out to younger audiences. He made his debut on TikTok, a video-sharing platform especially popular among young people, appeared on the Snapchat political show Good Luck America, and went on Instagram Live with soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Biden also delivered a speech on his plans to address skyrocketing unemployment and economic turmoil on NowThis, a left-wing, social media-focused news outlet.
Over the next two weeks, Young Elected Officials for Biden will host “mini Instagram town halls,” where a young elected official is paired with a celebrity, according to Sanders.
The campaign also launched a show on Snapchat called Wine Down Wednesdays, where Sanders answers questions posed by young people on Snapchat. The show, which aired for the first time last week, will air every week leading up to the general election, Sanders told CNN.
“We truly believe you have to meet people where they are. And that means sometimes you got to go to Instagram, sometimes you got to go to Snapchat, sometimes you got to have a town hall with a really cool state rep. We have to get creative,” Sanders told CNN.
Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, 37, voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016 but endorsed Biden this year ahead of Michigan’s Democratic primary.
“The reality of the Trump presidency has just raised the stakes for this election so high,” Gilchrist said of his decision to back Biden instead of Sanders this year.
He recently participated in a virtual brunch put on by the Biden campaign alongside former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, 45, whose support mostly came from young voters.
“We need someone that we can trust to pull us forward, to work with us, to have important enough and big enough ideas that actually we can believe will work for people,” Gilchrist said. “That’s what’s at stake for me here, that’s what’s at stake for me as a young parent and a young person. And I think Joe Biden is the right person for this job and for this moment.”
This story has been updated.