by Geoffrey Skelley
Some Democrats are worried about former Vice President Joe Biden’s ability to appeal to younger voters. After all, the presumptive Democratic nominee struggled immensely to win young voters in the primary: From the Iowa caucuses through the March 17 primaries, Biden won just 22 percent of the vote among those younger than 45 years old, according to the exit polls,1 compared to 51 percent among those 45 and older.
Yet for all the concern, Biden isn’t actually doing that much worse among younger voters than Hillary Clinton did in the 2016 election. Looking at data from about 90 national polls conducted since April 1, Biden’s margins among different groups of younger voters is about the same — or just a tad worse — than Clinton’s margins were four years ago. (Pollsters don’t use the same age brackets, so there is some overlap in the different age groups.)
Biden’s young voter support only slightly trails Clinton’s
Comparison of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote margin and the average margin in national head-to-head polls between Joe Biden and President Trump since April 1, by different age groups.
For instance, Clinton won voters under the age of 45 by about 17 percentage points, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a survey of more than 60,000 voters organized by Harvard University and administered by YouGov, while Biden led by an average of 16 points among this group in polls conducted in the last two months. In fact, in each of the age groups we looked at, Biden’s margin ranged from about 1 point better than Clinton’s to just 3 points worse.2
In other words, Biden may not excite young voters, but this isn’t necessarily going to be an Achilles’ heel for his campaign either, especially considering Biden may be in a stronger position with older voters.
There was a fair amount of variation in how Biden did among younger voters in the polls we looked at, though. For example, while Morning Consult and YouGov both found Biden leading among voters aged 18 to 29 by an average of about 20 points over the past two months, they differed quite a bit when it came to voters aged 30 to 44. Morning Consult gave Biden an average lead of 6 points compared to YouGov’s 12 points. And although Data for Progress’s surveys gave Biden an average lead of 23 points among those aged 18 to 34, Firehouse Strategies/Øptimus only gave him an edge of 12 points across its tracking polls for that age group. But it’s hard to unpack what some of these differences might mean for Biden, as ultimately it may have less to do with different pollsters picking up different trends and more with sampling methodologies, house effects and the larger margins of error often seen in smaller sample sizes like age groups.
Still, even though Biden isn’t doing poorly with young voters, these polls don’t hint at whether he will have a turnout problem in November, which is arguably Biden’s biggest concern when it comes to young voters. Younger voters overwhelmingly lean Democratic, but they also turn out at much lower rates than older voters: Only 43 percent of eligible voters under the age of 30 voted in 2016, compared with 71 percent of voters 60 and older, according to census data compiled by the United States Elections Project. It’s not impossible to imagine a lack of enthusiasm for Biden and dislike of Trump leading to low participation among younger voters. For instance, a May Yahoo News/YouGov survey of registered voters found that 15 percent of respondents under 30 preferred a third-party candidate to Biden or Trump, which was the highest share of any age group (the next-highest was 6 percent among 30- to 44-year-olds).
Then again, it’s possible that young voters’ distaste for Trump could help Biden, as younger voters really don’t like the president. The Harvard Institute of Politics Youth Poll found in March that 66 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 disapproved of Trump’s job performance, and a May Fox News poll found 56 percent of voters under 45 disapproved. In other words, if November is treated as a referendum on Trump’s performance, it could push more young voters into Biden’s column even if they aren’t enthused by his candidacy.
What’s more, Biden may be able to overcome his shortcomings with younger Americans if his numbers among older voters hold true. It’s not just our analysis that finds Biden outperforming Clinton among older voters. Survey data from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape project also suggests that Biden’s strength among older voters isn’t a short-term, coronavirus-induced flash in the pan — in their polling, Biden has led Trump among voters 45 and older since last fall. These numbers could be pivotal, too, because older Americans will likely make up a large majority of voters — in 2012 and 2016, voters 45 and older constituted a little over 60 percent of the electorate, according to Census Bureau data.
Of course, Biden will still want to gin up enthusiasm among young voters. Tellingly, his campaign already took a page out of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s playbook by backing a plan to forgive college debt among many low- and middle-income borrowers. But even if Biden can’t improve on Clinton’s 2016 performance among young voters, polling thus far suggests he’s not really doing that much worse than she did. Biden’s problem with younger voters might be an exaggerated one at best.
Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight. @geoffreyvs