Why are Young Voters So Down on Joe Biden?

Daniel A. Cox June 29, 2023

Biden taking a selfie in crowd of young Americans

Starting in about 2004, young voters emerged as a consistently reliable Democratic voting bloc. Barack Obama enjoyed a massive advantage among young voters in the 2008 election, besting 72-year-old John McCain by a 34-point margin. Even as public support waned for Obama during his first term, young adults remained steadfast in their support. Young voters were critical for Biden’s win in 2020 as well. Six in ten young adults voted for Biden in 2020, while only 36 percent supported Trump.  

Despite this substantial margin, there were early signs that young voters were not sold on Biden. A survey we conducted in the summer of 2020 found that nearly one in three young adults said the decision about who to support in the coming presidential election would be difficult. Older voters were far less likely to say deciding who to support in the 2020 election would be a difficult choice. 

I’m hardly the first person to notice Biden’s troubles with young voters. Last year, Vox’s Christian Paz and FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley, noted that young adults have become increasingly frustrated with Biden. Both are worth reading, but new research presents additional arguments we might consider. 

Are Young Voters Looking for Youthful Candidates?  

One obvious explanation for Biden’s trouble with young voters is that he is old. Very old. Polls have shown Biden’s age is an issue for voters, but it’s not clear that younger voters are especially concerned about it. In fact, researchers show that even young voters tend to prefer somewhat older, more experienced candidates or find minor effects of age on youth voting trends. Survey experiments find weak support for age as a significant determinant of candidate preference.  

This is supported by previous election results as well. Barack Obama was only 47 years old when he was elected president, and his historic candidacy garnered widespread support among Millennials. Even a decade later, Millennials still view Obama favorably. But Obama was not just young, he was new. And that was probably more important than his age. Bill Clinton was comparatively young when he first ran for president at 46 years old—he was and remains the third youngest ever. His vice president, Tennessee Senator Al Gore, was also relatively young. But Clinton failed to attract widespread support among younger voters. In fact, Clinton’s largest advantage over incumbent president George H. W. Bush came from seniors. According to exit polls, 43 percent of young adults supported Clinton in the 1992 election compared to 34 percent who backed Bush. Third-party candidate Ross Perot captured an impressive 22 percent of the youth vote.  

A Preference for Outsiders 

Historically, young adults have expressed a strong independent streak, but young Americans today are even more likely to identify as politically independent, even as their political views have shifted left. Today, more than half (52 percent) of young adults are political independents, a 10-point increase over the last two decades. 

In 2021, Pew’s long-running political typology study identified a group of young, left-leaning disaffected Democrats they called the “Outside Left.” Pew describes them this way: “Holding liberal views on most issues and overwhelmingly voting Democratic, they aren’t particularly enamored with the Democratic Party—though they have deeply negative views of the GOP.” They overwhelmingly favor free college tuition, but remain skeptical of government. 

These voters are less invested in the existing political order—which many view as being flawed or broken—and are less interested in candidates who seek to uphold it. This helps explain why young voters swarmed to Independent-Socialist Bernie Sanders who regularly critiqued the unfairness of the economic and political systems and attacked Democrats and Republicans alike. In fact, Sanders remains the top choice of young Democrats in 2024—more than twice as many say they would prefer the Vermont Senator to be the 2024 nominee than Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris. 

Biden, who was first elected to the US Senate in 1972, has been around a long time. He has been described as a “creature of the Senate”, and maintains a deep and abiding respect for the institution. None of this is going to endear him to young voters. 

A Lack of Progress 

Rightly or wrongly, Joe Biden is viewed by the public as something of a mainstream or moderate Democrat. He sold himself as something of a placeholder candidate in 2020, but he has hardly governed that way.  

The fact is, Biden has as strong a legislative record as any recent Democratic president, if not stronger. He’s made progress on issues, such as climate change, the cost of higher education, and guns, that are priorities for young people. But much of this has gone unnoticed or unappreciated. We found that young people give Biden extremely low marks for his legislative accomplishments. In the report, we note: 

Only 27 percent of young adults say Biden has accomplished a good amount or a great deal during his time in office. By contrast, more than four in 10 seniors (45 percent) say Biden has made some significant accomplishments.  

It’s probable that young people are less aware of these successes—polls have shown that—but I think there’s more to it. In an interview with CNN, Noah Lumbantobing, of March for Our Lives, captured the problem many young voters have with the president: “Biden has done good things. He hasn’t done enough in terms of using his bully pulpit.”  

I’m not so sure this is the issue. I think more than anything, the problem young people have with Biden is what he represents: a political system dominated by America’s oldest generations that in turn preferences the interests of America's oldest voters. Nearly half of all members of Congress are Baby Boomers, though they comprise only 21 percent of the public overall. America's political leaders have never been so old, and young people have noticed. A recent Data for Progress poll finds that 70 percent of young Americans believe their generation is underrepresented in Congress. They are. 

Looking Ahead 

What does this mean for the 2024 election? A New York Times/Siena College poll suggests that young voters, fed up with current political leadership, might sit out the election altogether. As Maya King and Jonathan Weisman write in that article, “Of all age groups, young voters were most likely to say they wouldn’t vote for either Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump in a hypothetical 2024 rematch.” I’m doubtful that we’ll witness mass abstentions in 2024. Most young voters loath the two leading contenders for the GOP nomination. In fact, 44-year-old Ron DeSantis is viewed more negatively among young people than Trump. That’s probably sufficient motivation. 

Looking beyond the next election, things are less certain. If you’re a regular reader of Storylines, you know that surveys show a growing division in the politics of young men and women. Young men and women have similar (and mostly negative) views of Biden, but young women have a far more positive opinion of the Democratic Party. Only 28 percent of young men view the Democratic Party favorably, compared to 42 percent of young women. I’m not sure young men see either party as advocating for their interests. If you’re trying to understand why people vote the way they do, there’s not much more to it than this.

Read More on American Storylines

Survey Reports

Daniel A. Cox, Kyle Gray, Kelsey Eyre Hammond
May 28, 2024

An Unsettled Electorate: How Uncertainty and Apathy Are Shaping the 2024 Election

A survey of more than 6,500 US adults focused on the 2024 presidential election reveals a pessimistic and unsettled American electorate fractured by education, ideology, class, and gender.

Generation Z and the Transformation of American Adolescence Cover Image

Daniel A. Cox, Kelsey Eyre Hammond, Kyle Gray
November 9, 2023

Generation Z and the Transformation of American Adolescence: How Gen Z’s Formative Experiences Shape Its Politics, Priorities, and Future

This report explores the foundational differences between American generations through their formative adolescent experiences.

Young man sitting in a dark room before a wall featuring various conspiracy theory-related items illuminated by a computer screen

Daniel A. Cox, M. Anthony Mills, Ian R. Banks, Kelsey Eyre Hammond, Kyle Gray
September 28, 2023

America’s Crisis of Confidence: Rising Mistrust, Conspiracies, and Vaccine Hesitancy After COVID-19

America is experiencing a crosscutting crisis of expertise and scientific distrust accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic that poses significant challenges to democratic debate and public decision-making

A cartoon showing a vibrant office from the ceiling view.

Daniel A. Cox, Brent Orrell, Kyle Gray, Jessie Wall
September 14, 2023

The Social Workplace: Social Capital, Human Dignity, and Work in America, Volume II

The Social Workplace, Volume II examines Americans’ expectations and experiences surrounding work, the workplace, and key job-related priorities such as pay and interpersonal connections.