by Karen Tumulty
There has been an assumption that former vice president Joe Biden could have a problem inspiring young people to vote this year. Not only is he of a generation far removed from theirs, but he also acts that way. In the Democratic primaries, Biden got trounced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) among people under 30 — or at least among that disappointingly low proportion who bothered to vote.
But a survey released Thursday by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics suggests that Biden has something going for him that could matter more than anything else to young adults: He’s not Donald Trump.
The latest installment of the Harvard Youth Poll, a survey that the Harvard institute has been doing biannually for two decades, shows that 18-to-29-year-olds favor Biden over the president by 23 percentage points. Among those who are most likely to vote, Biden has a 30-point edge. More surprising: That is almost identical to the margin that Sanders would be enjoying if he were at the top of the Democratic ticket, the survey says.
Of course, with young voters, the question to ask is whether they will actually show up at the polls. The survey indicates that 54 percent say they plan to, which is a slight uptick from this point four years ago, when 50 percent said they would. By the time the 2016 election rolled around, however, only 46 percent did. By comparison, 71 percent of those older than 65 turned out.
This is a generation that has been buffeted by anxiety and fear. Their economic prospects took a gut-punch during the recession that followed the financial meltdown of 2008. They grew up terrified of mass shootings in their schools. And now comes the coronavirus.
So it is not all that startling that less than 10 percent of them say the country is working as it should be. What has changed in this latest crisis are the specifics of what worries them the most. As recently as last fall, young voters cited the economy and the environment as their top concerns. The proportion who mention those issues hasn’t changed much since then, but now a plurality — 19 percent — mention the coronavirus, and the percentage who say health care is a chief concern has more than doubled, to 17 percent. As John Della Volpe, director of polling for the institute, put it: “Self-defense, in 2020, is one of the primary motivations for voting.”
All of which brings us back to Trump. “It’s very hard to find someone my age who feels that President Trump has made their life better,” said Harvard student Richard Sweeney, class of 2022, who was chair of the polling project last year. Two-thirds this year said they disapprove of the president’s overall performance. The poll was conducted March 11-23, during the early days of the covid-19 crisis. That was just a month ago, but it already feels as though it was a different era.
Whether this translates into the kind of intensity that brings young people out to vote will be a big question, and potentially a decisive one, in the fall. Certainly, Biden still has some work to do when it comes to connecting with their generation. But if — as Bill Clinton used to remind us constantly — elections are about the future, it is worth keeping an eye on the voters who have the greatest stake in it.
Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics. Follow Karen