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Younger Voters Don’t Have the Power to Deliver Biden a Second Term

Why Biden’s struggle with that voting bloc isn’t as worrisome as it looks

President Joe Biden speaks during a student debt relief event in Madison, Wisconsin.
Daniel Steinle/Getty Images
President Joe Biden speaks during a student debt relief event in Madison, Wisconsin.

President Joe Biden has a problem with young voters. He’s addressing this problem: This week he put forward an ambitious proposal to extend student debt relief to 30 million Americans—on top of the $146 billion in student debt relief that he’s already achieved for four million Americans (as well as his failed earlier attempt to extend up to $400 billion to up to 43 million Americans, which was struck down by the Supreme Court).

Student debt relief is a worthwhile policy in itself. It will help to ease, somewhat, the ever-growing burden of paying for college in an era when tuition and fees are fast approaching, at the priciest private institutions, $100,000 a year. Biden’s commitment will also help lure back young voters, who gave him strong support in 2020 but lately have been drifting toward Donald Trump. A Marist poll conducted March 25–28 showed people under 45 favoring Trump against Biden, 50-49 percent, and a Fox News poll conducted March 22–25 showed an even heavier pro-Trump tilt, 40–35 percent.

Other polls show Biden ahead of Trump among under-30 voters, including national and swing-state polls conducted by The Wall Street Journal. But even these, Politico’s Steven Shepard pointed out earlier this week, show a weakening of Biden’s support among younger voters since the 2020 election. In that year Biden crushed Trump among voters aged 18 to 29, 60–36. Among voters aged 30 to 44 Biden beat Trump by a very respectable 52–46. The Journal, by contrast, shows Biden up only 10 points among voters aged 18 to 29, Shepard notes.

This is very much at odds with the experience of the past three decades. The last Republican presidential candidate to win the youth vote was George H.W. Bush in 1988. Since then, young people have voted fairly consistently Democratic. The change reflected in polls may be a protest against U.S. support for Israel during the Gaza war, which younger voters (18 to 29 years old) oppose. It’s worth remembering that young people showed a similar disenchantment with Biden before the 2022 midterms but nonetheless ended up voting Democratic, E.J. Dionne pointed out last year, by 70 percent. That prompted Jordan Weissmann of Semafor to observe, “Young people hate the Democratic party, except on election day.”

The greater danger is that disaffected younger voters will stay at home. A youth poll conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics said young Americans are “less likely to vote in 2024 than they did in 2020, which was a record-setting year for youth turnout.”

All this has me worried—but only a little, because the youth vote doesn’t loom that large in the American electorate. It should loom large, because millennials, or the cohort born between 1981 and 1996, number 72 million, making them not the greatest generation but certainly the largest. Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, is the second-largest cohort, numbering 70 million. The third-largest cohort is my generation, the baby boom, born between 1946 and 1964, which numbers 69 million.

There was a time, from the airing of Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett miniseries in 1954–5 through Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Woodstock, The Big Chill, and Bruce Springsteen, when the baby boom owned popular culture. It was heady stuff, though mostly for my older siblings, because it was led mostly by older boomers. (I could comfort myself that I was three years too young to register for the Vietnam draft.) With passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which lowered the voting age to 18, the baby boom aspired to own the political culture too, and in 1972, the first presidential election in which 18- to 20-year-olds could vote, George McGovern pinned some hopes on a youth-driven victory. Instead, President Richard Nixon won reelection in a landslide.

What happened? The Democrats learned two hard truths. The first was that the baby boom was, ideologically, much more diverse than reading Newsweek would have you believe; many baby boomers were conservative.

The other truth was that young people don’t vote all that much—even in a year, 1972, when one candidate favored continuing the Vietnam War and the other favored ending it. (In the end there was less difference than met the eye because Nixon ended both the Vietnam draft and American participation in the war shortly after the election.) Among 18- to 20-year-olds, only 48 percent voted, and among 21 to 24-year-olds, only 51 percent voted. By comparison, 71 percent of people aged 45 to 64 voted, and 64 percent of people aged 65 and older voted. For the next three decades, the percentages of 18- to 20-year-olds and 21- to 24-year-olds who voted fell while the percentage of 45- to 64-year-olds held steady—and the percentage of 65 and older voters increased.

By 1996 voter turnout for people 65 and older was twice that for people aged 20 to 24. Bob Dole, the last presidential candidate from the World War II (“greatest”) generation, lost to boomer Bill Clinton in a sort of generational changing of the guard. But the result was more complicated than it appeared. Yes, the baby boom finally took firm control of the government (even as its influence over popular culture disappeared). But the baby boom (its self-deceptions to the contrary) wasn’t young. It was middle-aged, with its oldest members turning 50, and getting older every day. A gerontocracy was born.

In recent years voter turnout among the young has been rising, and in 2020 its turnout was indeed, as the Institute of Politics says, “record-setting.” Voter turnout for 18- to 29-year-olds rose 11 percentage points over 2016. But it was still only 50 percent, while turnout for 45- to 64-year-olds was 66 percent and turnout for people over 65 was 72 percent. Looking at the composition of voters in 2020, we find slightly more than 60 percent of them were aged 50 or over. Only 17 percent were aged 18 to 29, and only 23 percent were aged 30 to 44.

The aging of the electorate—the combination of the baby boom increasing the number of elderly voters and the higher propensity of older voters to vote—has historically been bad news for Democrats. That’s because older voters lean Republican. Biden won in 2020 in spite of losing (narrowly) the baby boom vote. If Biden loses younger voters in 2024, that could hurt him in a close race.

But winning older voters matters more, politically, because, well, they’re 60 percent of the electorate. And here the recent news has been strangely good. Even as Biden is losing altitude among younger voters, he appears to be picking up support, Politico’s Shepard reports, among older voters. This, Shepard notes, is approximately as bizarre as younger voters drifting into Trump’s column.

That Marist poll found baby boomers supporting Biden over Trump, 53–45 percent. A February New York Times poll similarly found Biden leading Trump among voters 65 and older, 51–42 percent. As a boomer, I find it exciting that my generation may, at long last, seize an opportunity to save the country. But if Biden wants to clinch the deal, he’ll need to talk more about capping the cost of insulin for Medicare patients at $35 per month and perhaps a bit less about helping young people get out from under their college student loans. In this gerontocracy of ours, it pays to keep retirees happy. If you’re a young person and don’t like that arrangement, there’s a simple solution. Vote.