by Bill Scher
Joe Biden has effectively secured the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, but he did so while getting trounced by Bernie Sanders among young voters. Understandably, party operatives and political analysts have concluded Biden has a weakness with young voters that needs to be addressed before the general election.
But, as Biden might say, here’s the deal: The polls show he does not have a serious weakness with young voters.
Since Super Tuesday, four general election trial heat polls have been released that break down the results by age. Biden, who beats Trump in all four surveys, is the leader among young voters in all of them, usually by blowout margins.
CNN has Biden winning the under-35 vote over Donald Trump, 64% to 33%. For Quinnipiac, it’s 59% to 30%. YouGov and Emerson published data for the under-30 vote. For YouGov, Biden was up 55% to 23%, and in Emerson, it’s 56% to 44%.
How does that compare to the last two presidential elections? Regarding Hillary Clinton’s performance, Biden does generally better. In the 2016 exit poll, she beat Trump 55% to 36% among under-30 voters, and 51% to 41% among voters in their thirties.
When you look at the CNN and Quinnipiac numbers, Biden also appears to be meeting Barack Obama’s 2012 standard—among voters under 30, he beat Mitt Romney 60% to 37%. And even if he’s a little behind Obama’s pace with young voters in the YouGov and Emerson polls, Biden is outperforming Obama with the senior citizen vote. Obama lost the 65-and-over vote by 12 percentage points, while Biden wins with seniors in every March poll except Emerson. And in that one, he only loses by four. In other words, Biden has broader generational appeal than Obama.
Why is he doing rather well with young voters in general election polling, but so poorly in primary voting? One reason is that most Democrats appear ready to accept Biden as their nominee. In the CNN poll, only 8% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said they definitely or probably would not vote for Biden in the general election. As Biden leads Trump by 10 points in the CNN poll, that’s an easily manageable loss on his left flank.
Furthermore, the pool of young voters for the general election is wider than in the Democratic primary. About 26 million people under 30 voted in the 2016 general election. That’s 2 million more than the number of people who have voted so far in the 2020 Democratic primary, of any age. In all likelihood, many of the young people who are not Democratic primary voters are also not of the “Bernie or bust” variety—after all, they couldn’t be bothered to vote for Sanders in the primary in the first place.
Does this data mean Biden need not make any sort of adjustment to connect better with younger voters? That would be a risky and oversimplistic conclusion to draw. If the 2020 primary has taught us anything, it is that polls are not static. The race could tighten by November—especially since no one has any idea how the coronavirus crisis will affect the electorate politically—potentially turning any soft elements in Biden’s coalition into major liabilities.
And there is evidence Biden is soft with younger voters. Yes, only 8% of Democratic voters aren’t planning to vote for him. But the group of holdouts skews young. For Democrat under 45 years of age, that figure is at 12%. For Democrats 45 and over, it’s just 5%.
In turn, Biden still should be mindful of the youth vote, and tweak his campaign strategy. For example, he probably should pick a relatively young woman of color for his running mate, subtly signaling that a vote for him in 2020 is not just a vote for an old white man, but—since many will assume Biden would not run for a second term at age 82—it also positions a groundbreaking figure to run for the president in 2024.
Biden should also emphasize the climate crisis more to show he is not simply running on nostalgia for the bipartisanship of the past, but also to make the future livable for younger generations. Climate is also an issue for which Biden can easily spotlight the massive difference between himself and the incumbent. Even if some on the left see Biden’s climate proposal as insufficiently radical compared to what Sanders has proposed, Biden can make the case to his left-wing critics that only one candidate for president will act at all to address the climate crisis, and in the process give climate activists a fair hearing on their proposals.
However, Biden should not overcompensate and adopt positions far to the left in order to appease his most strident critics in Sanders’ democratic socialist movement. That would risk alienating the older, more moderate swing voters who are also critical to his coalition. And unnecessarily so. Because to the extent he has a problem with the young, it’s just not that severe.
Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.