Do all younger Democrats have an Uncle Joe that they hate or something? Because there’s a good chance that Democrats under the age of 45 will prove crucial in preventing former Vice President Joe Biden from winning — or even getting close to winning — the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Younger Democrats, particularly younger white Democrats, are emphatically rejecting his candidacy. That cohort is a big reason why Biden has struggled in the first three states and fallen from front-runner status.
In fact, age might be the most important fault line in the 2020 Democratic primary.
Of course, Biden’s weakness among younger Democrats is in part the result of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s strength with that group. But Sanders’s appeal doesn’t totally explain Biden’s struggles. In Iowa, for example, Biden received just 4 percent of the under-45 vote, according to entrance polls. That trailed Sanders (41 percent), but it also lagged behind former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (21 percent), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (16 percent) and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang (10 percent). Biden also finished in the single digits among voters under 45 — and behind Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren — in New Hampshire and Nevada. A recent poll of Democrats in California, a Super Tuesday state, found Biden at 9 percent among voters under 45. He’s not faring better in other Super Tuesday states, as recent polls have him at 4 percent in Colorado, 11 percent in Texas and 11 percent in Virginia with this group.
Biden has a real problem with young voters
Candidate vote shares from entrance polls in Iowa and Nevada and from exit polls in New Hampshire, by age
|Voters under 45||Over 45|
If you start breaking down that under-45 group, there is some variation in how well Biden does, but not a ton. His numbers are especially bad among the youngest cohort of voters, 17 or 18- to 29-year-olds,1 but he generally does only slightly better in the 30-to-44 bracket. And we don’t have a lot of data breaking down the views of voters under 45 by race, but national polling and a recent survey in South Carolina suggests Biden is at least in double digits among black Democrats under 45. So the results in Iowa and New Hampshire and in other surveys make me think that Biden is particularly weak with younger white Democrats.
Not surprisingly, Biden’s weakness among these voters has a huge effect on his overall viability. In the first three states, exit and entrance polls suggest between one-third and 45 percent of Democratic primary voters were under 45. In other words, this is a big group.
And it’s not like this weakness for the Biden campaign came out of nowhere. HuffPost did an extensive story on Biden’s struggles with young voters in December. At the time it was written, though, the primaries had not actually started, so Biden’s lack of appeal among younger voters was just theoretical. And back then, it looked as if Biden and Sanders’s support simply mirrored one another: Sanders seemed as weak with older voters as Biden was with younger ones. But so far in the actual voting, these problems have not been equivalent: Biden beat Sanders by 2 percentage points among voters over 45 in Nevada, according to entrance polls, while Sanders beat Biden by 48 points among voters under 45.
The natural question is … why? Why is Biden struggling so much to win the support of younger people — not only trailing Sanders, but Buttigieg and Warren too? Here are the four most obvious explanations:
1. Younger Democrats are more liberal and anti-institutional
In some ways, 2020 is just a repeat of 2016: The party establishment and older Democrats embraced more center-left figures — Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Michael Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Biden in 2020 — while younger voters got behind the more liberal Sanders. Clinton lost to Sanders among younger voters by around 50 points in New Hampshire in 2016 — an even larger margin than Biden’s deficit this year.
Indeed, the Democratic Party appears to be in the midst of a generational fight that started in 2016 and is continuing now. For example, the left-leaning but gray-haired commentators on MSNBC have been deeply frustrated by the rise of Sanders. Conversely, it’s hard to find much Biden support on Twitter, which tends to be used by younger people and more liberal Democrats. Buttigieg and Warren, while not as liberal or as anti-establishment as Sanders, are also to the left of Biden, which in part explains why the ex-vice president isn’t the clear second-favorite of younger Democrats either.
The big difference between 2016 and 2020 is that Clinton was dominant among voters over 45 in many states, so she could overcome being the establishment candidate who young people weren’t excited about. In contrast, Biden has not consolidated that older bloc.
2. The electability argument doesn’t land
Polling suggests that the majority of Democrats this year are prioritizing a candidate who can defeat President Trump (a mantle Biden has claimed) over a candidate who they agree with on major issues. But that varies by age — older Democrats are more likely to say they prioritize “electability,” while those under 45 are much more split on this question.
This data may be a bit circular — perhaps the younger voters who support Warren or Sanders tell pollsters that they don’t prioritize electability because that is not a big part of either senator’s message, and maybe older people who are inclined to support Biden and Buttigieg point to electability because it’s been core to both candidates’ messages. But I think it’s also possible that many voters who are more liberal and interested in seeing systemic change genuinely don’t find Biden’s electability message that compelling. In this sense, I wonder if Biden’s struggles with young voters were almost inevitable — presenting himself as the party’s best hope for the general election may have required Biden to keep the Democrats’ younger, more liberal cohort somewhat unsatisfied during the primary.
3. Biden isn’t wooing younger voters well
In 2019, the former vice president and his team seemed to deeply internalize the conventional wisdom among many establishment and center-left figures: that “Twitter is not real life” and that Democrats should not be too “woke.” Biden has seemed very frustrated at times with young liberal activists who have confronted him at rallies and argued that he was too conservative on some issues. He was fairly dismissive of criticisms of his handling of the Clarence Thomas hearings and his touching of women in ways that some of them considered inappropriate. He suggested the views of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t represent those of many other Democrats. His campaign aides downplayed the power of “Pod Save America” and did little to court the “black left.”
This all looked fairly savvy (or at least somewhat harmless) … until voting started. And you wonder now whether the Biden campaign could have at least competed for young voters by taking a different approach.
4. Younger Democrats don’t want to repeat the Obama presidency
This overlaps a bit with No. 1, but it’s worth mentioning because carrying on Barack Obama’s legacy has been such a central part of Biden’s message. (The former president is immensely popular among Democrats.) But a HuffPost/YouGov survey conducted in April 2019 found that 42 percent of Democrats ages 18-29 want the next Democratic nominee to be more liberal than Obama, while only about a quarter of Democrats 30 and over had that view. So Biden’s strategy of positioning himself as Obama’s heir, while probably not costing him voters, may not help him court younger Democrats.
It’s still possible that Biden wins the nomination without carrying young Democrats. If older voters really mobilize behind him, he could defeat Sanders the way Clinton did in 2016. Perhaps more voters, old and young, will come to the vice president as the field narrows.
But it’s hard to see Biden securing the nomination without improving his appeal among voters under 45. If I were Biden, I might lean into strategies to excite younger people. At this point, I think it’s unlikely that younger elected officials in the Democratic Party are going to endorse Biden in meaningful numbers. But there’s nothing stopping Biden from effectively endorsing them. He could, for example, strongly imply that he would tap Stacey Abrams for vice president if he wins the nomination. (At 46, Abrams is not that young herself, but her campaign events during the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race were, I noticed throughout the course of my reporting, often packed with young Democrats.) Or perhaps Biden could shift his message a bit.