Following a string of primary victories and the announcement that Sen. Bernie Sanders, his remaining rival, would be suspending his campaign, former Vice President Joe Biden is now the presumptive Democratic nominee. While exit polls show that most women and Black voters chose him over Sanders during this year’s primaries, there is one important demographic that vastly preferred Sanders: people who are between 18 and 44 years old. In many states, Sanders won about two-thirds of the under-45 crowd, while Biden won about two-thirds of the over-45s.
Now, Biden needs young people in November’s general election, most crucially in swing states that could tip the Electoral College. But a significant number of them have said they will stay home or vote for a third-party candidate unless Biden makes significant overtures to the party’s left wing, which is primarily comprised of young Americans. In addition, voter turnout among this group is already fickle (partially due to voter suppression, as we saw in this primary).
It stands to reason that if Biden and Democrats want to beat President Trump, they need to listen to young people and make significant shifts, both policy- and rhetoric-wise. And if Biden’s camp wants to prove their oft-repeated point that politics is about compromise and coalition-building, there’s no better place to start than by building a bridge to the youth of America.
There are several things Biden needs to do.
First is policy. It’s true that Biden’s proposals on issues like climate change, immigration, criminal justice, and student debt are objectively more progressive than Obama’s during his presidential run. But for many young people today, that’s not enough. We are in a very different moment than we were in 2008, and the urgency around income inequality, climate change, and student debt has magnified — partially because the scope of the problems has worsened, and partially because Bernie Sanders’ movement has influenced the Democratic Party to address these issues more boldly.
Immediately after Sanders dropped out yesterday, a group of millennial- and Gen Z-led progressive organizations issued an open letter to Biden, urging him to drop his “return to normalcy” messaging if he wants their support and enthusiasm. “For so many young people, going back to the way things were ‘before Trump’ isn’t a motivating enough reason to cast a ballot in November,” the letter reads. “And now, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed not only the failure of Trump, but how decades of policymaking has failed to create a robust social safety net for the vast majority of Americans.”
The organizations included the Alliance for Youth Action, Justice Democrats, IfNotNow Movement, March for Our Lives Action Fund, NextGen America, Student Action, Sunrise Movement, and United We Dream Action.
“We need you to champion the bold ideas that have galvanized our generation and given us hope in the political process,” they wrote, reminding him that young people are “issues-first,” rather than party-first voters. “In order to win up and down the ballot in November, the Democratic Party needs the energy and enthusiasm of our generation.”
They are asking for Biden to: adopt the framework of the Green New Deal and commit to $10 trillion in green and infrastructure investments, take an intersectional approach to reducing gun violence with the goal of reducing gun deaths by 50% in 10 years, support Medicare for All, support marijuana legalization, support free undergraduate tuition and the cancellation of student debt, and more.
They are also asking Biden to appoint progressive-minded legislators, including Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as policy advisors to the campaign and to his potential presidential-transition team. Bold, younger policymakers such as Pramila Jayapal, Katie Porter, and Ayanna Pressley are also on the list. In light of the Trump administration's abuses of immigrants, they are asking him to appoint a Department of Homeland Security secretary who would be “committed to holding [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] agents accountable, dismantling ICE and CBP as we know them.” Finally, they asked him to create a task force of young Americans at the White House to advise him as president.
But that’s not all. The letter stressed that it’s not only about the issues, it’s about how Biden talks about them, and whether it’s clear that he’s both passionate and sincere. “You must demonstrate, authentically, that you empathize with our generation’s struggles.”
On the 2020 campaign trail, candidates like Biden and Amy Klobuchar opted for a “get real” approach, rather than a “big ideas” approach when it comes to everything from healthcare to free tuition. This is a tactic that comforts closer-to-the-center Democrats and policy wonks, because they recognize that manifesting big, sweeping, ambitious change is very hard — and very rare. Some people would rather hear “let’s keep Republicans from repealing the Affordable Care Act” than “we need Medicare for All, now” because the first seems more tangible and doable.
But young people don’t want to hear their politicians hedging and saying big, necessary things are not possible. They want to see ambitious ideas, and political will, and urgency, around all of the crises the country is facing now. They want them to speak the language of change. That’s why Sanders’ message appealed to them so much.
For Biden, speaking the language of change means addressing the substance of the youth organizations’ letter. It means not saying things like “time to get real” when asked about Medicare for All, or telling young people it’s not really so tough for them out there. It also means he must not only make it clear that his positions on issues from abortion to LGBTQ+ rights to bankruptcy law have changed, but also address the impetus for these ideological evolutions — and not defensively.
It's also important for Biden to find the right surrogates for his message, and that means people who relate to and know how to reach out to young voters. The other day, a friend told me she’s not sure if she wants to vote for Biden because “where has he been while all this is going on??” Biden is everywhere a presidential candidate can reasonably be right now: in TV appearances, advising Trump on his response to coronavirus, holding virtual town halls, starting a podcast. But there’s still a disconnect when it comes to reaching young voters, and the right surrogates could help with that.
It could certainly take more young people, like Daniela Ferrera, who already support Biden making the case to their peers. Ferrera is 22, lives in Miami, and has supported Biden from the start.
Part of reaching young people, she believes, is hammering home that “there’s no equivalency between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.” Four more years of Trump means more stripping away of independent oversight of government agencies, more filling crucial government positions with incompetent cronies — or no one at all, and more far-right judges on the Supreme Court and other courts. It means descending further into nightmarish reality-TV dictatorship. “Young people need to understand that these choices are not just about Trump and Joe Biden, it’s about the Supreme Court, it’s about the down-ballot candidates — it’s about the impact we’re going to have on our country for decades to come,” Ferrera told Refinery29.
It appears as though Biden is hearing young people’s message. How he and his team interpret it over the coming months will have a huge impact on what happens in November. “To Bernie’s supporters: I know that I need to earn your votes,” he tweeted yesterday. “And I know that might take time. But I want you to know that I see you, I hear you, and I understand the urgency of this moment. I hope you'll join us. You're more than welcome: You're needed.”