Joe Biden has a serious college-voter problem

Daniel A. Cox October 8, 2019

Business Insider

It’s no secret that Joe Biden has struggled to appeal to younger voters, and so far the 76-year-old former vice president has been unable to shore up support among a key Democratic constituency: college students.

Biden may be leading in recent national polls, but a tracking survey of Democratic college students by Chegg and College Pulse has shown Biden consistently trailing Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Now a new survey by Chegg and College Pulse provides even more troubling news for the current frontrunner.

Lack of enthusiasm

Nearly half of Democratic students express uncertainty about whether they would support Biden’s candidacy if he were to become the nominee.

About 53 percent of Democratic students say they would be very likely to vote for Biden in a general election. One-quarter say they would be somewhat likely, and one in five students say they are not likely to support him.

In contrast, 74 percent of Democratic students say they would be very likely to support Sanders if he were the Democratic nominee, while 72 percent say they would be very likely to support Warren.

The lack of enthusiasm for Biden is evident among Democratic students — even among students who do not necessarily dislike him.

“I’m a bit iffy about him,” says Jarrod, a Democrat, who attends the University of California at Davis. “If this were 1980, I would support him.” He pauses before adding: “Although I would have supported Jesse Jackson first.”

Only 6 percent of Democratic students say Biden would be their first choice to win the primary. In contrast, Sanders and Warren are roughly tied among Democratic students, with roughly equal support (31 percent and 30 percent). “I don’t know anyone under the age of 40 who supports Joe Biden,” says Reece, a Democratic student at Truman University in Missouri.

Given their liberal politics and aversion to President Donald Trump, college students have become a critical Democratic constituency. What’s more, with interest in the 2020 election at record levels among both Republicans and Democrats, college students could be pivotal in an election that will most likely come down to a few key states.

Some of the most competitive states have a sizable population of college students. Pennsylvania, which Trump won by fewer than 50,000 votes, has more than 150 four-year colleges and universities.

Likability problem

But it may be that Biden’s problem is more fundamental than simply getting students excited about his candidacy. Democratic students are simply not overly fond of him.

About 45 percent of Democratic college students say they have a favorable view of Biden, compared to 54 percent with an unfavorable opinion of him. In contrast, 89 percent of Democratic students express a favorable view of both Warren and Sanders. The intensity gap is also notable. While about half of Democratic students have a very favorable view of Sanders (51 percent) and Warren (46 percent), only 10 percent of Democratic students feel as strongly about Biden.

It’s also unclear how easy it will be for Biden to make a course correction. Only one-third of Democratic students say policy disagreements are the most important reason they would not support him. This is particularly telling given that 85 percent of Democratic students identify as liberal, and Biden is one of the more moderate candidates in the race.

Some 20 percent of Democratic students say an important reason not to support Biden is that he is unlikely to inspire the base to turn out. About 10 percent of Democratic students cite electability as the most compelling reason not to support him. Only 9 percent of Democratic students say he is too old, while 4 percent believe he has been in politics for too long.

Another challenge for Biden is that Democratic students have put a priority on turning out the base, where Biden’s brand of moderate, consensus-building politics is not an asset.

About 54 percent of Democratic students believe it is more important for Democratic candidates to persuade core Democratic voters who do not vote regularly to turn out, rather than trying to persuade voters who might be on the fence. Reece suggests that there are few persuadable voters left.

“We’re so polarized at this point I don’t know how many persuadable voters there are. I mean, what kind of people are on the fence at this point? We’ve persuaded who we are going to persuade. You need to turn out people who don’t vote. And you need an inspiring candidate to do that.”

There are abundant lessons offered for Democrats in the 2016 election, but one of the most enduring of electoral politics is that excitement matters. A motivated base matters. The politics of college students make them pivotal for the Democratic Party, and it’s not clear the current front-runner is the candidate who can capitalize on it.

Lack of inspiration

If Biden becomes the Democratic nominee, he doesn’t just have to persuade reticent Democratic students to pull the lever for him; he also faces an uphill battle to get them involved in his campaign.

Roughly 4 in 10 Democratic students say they would be very likely to talk to friends and family about supporting Warren and Sanders if they became the Democratic standard bearer; only 15 percent of Democratic students say the same about Biden. Democratic students are also more likely to say they’d volunteer for and donate to the campaigns of Warren and Sanders than that of Biden.

For many students, electability is about excitability, and Biden has a deficit of enthusiasm on college campuses. David, a junior and registered Democrat at Carnegie Mellon University, is unsure he’d support Biden in the general election. “I don’t buy the electability argument,” he says.

He adds that even if young voters supported Biden, he’d struggle to get them involved in the campaign.

“It’s more of an issue of general activism — young people would not be as willing to volunteer for him. It would have a ripple effect that could harm his ability to get other people to turn out.”

It’s far from clear that Biden will be the Democratic nominee, but if he is, his work may be just beginning.

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