Friday, July 19, 2024

Joe Biden, America’s oldest sitting president, needs young voters to win again. Will his age matter?

At 24, Alberto Rodriguez has grandparents younger than Joe Biden. But he’s more interested in the 80-year-old president’s accomplishments than his age.

“People as young as me, we’re all focusing on our day-to-day lives and he has done things to help us through that,” Rodriguez, a cook at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, said of Biden’s support among young voters. Rodriguez pointed specifically to federal COVID-19 relief payments and government spending increases on infrastructure and other social programs.

President Joe Biden poses for a photo with the Students Demand Action group after speaking at the National Safer Communities Summit at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Conn., June 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Voters like him were a key piece of Biden’s winning 2020 coalition, which included majorities of young people as well as college graduates, women, urban and suburban voters and Black Americans. Maintaining their support will be critical in closely contested states such as Nevada, where even small declines could prove consequential to Biden’s reelection bid.

His 2024 campaign plans to emphasize messages that could especially resonate with young people in the coming weeks as the anniversary of the sweeping Inflation Reduction Act approaches in mid-August. That legislation includes provisions that the White House will embrace to argue that Biden has done more than any other president to combat climate change.

Such efforts, however, could collide with Biden’s personal reality — like when he recalled that, while attending a St. Patrick’s Day parade at age 14, he appeared in a photo with President Harry S. Truman.

“Purely by accident — I assume it was an accident — the photographer from the newspaper got a picture of me making eye contact with Harry Truman,” Biden said to chuckles last week at the Truman Civil Rights Symposium in Washington.

In 2020, 61% of voters under age 30 — and 55% of those between 30 and 44 — supported Biden, according to AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of the electorate.

It’s an age group with which Republicans hope to make inroads. Former President Donald Trump, who is the early front-runner in the GOP presidential primary and is only 3 1/2 years younger than Biden, said Friday, “We are hitting the young person’s market like nobody’s ever seen before.”

Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign, referred to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement in arguing that “young people are acutely impacted by the issues front and center in this election, driven by the extreme MAGA agenda.” He said that included inaction on climate change, gun violence and student debt.

“We will meet younger Americans where they are and turn their energy into action,” Munoz said in a statement.

That might not defuse questions about age, though, when it comes to Biden or Trump.

“There’s a frustration and exhaustion that they feel with the rematch,” Terrance Woodbury, co-founder & CEO of the Democratic polling firm HIT Strategies, said of young voters.

President Joe Biden looks to Delaware State University students as he speaks about student loan debt relief at the university on Oct. 21, 2022, in Dover, Del. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

“That’s more of a problem than either of those two candidates individually, is that a system can just keep reproducing,” Woodbury added. “And I think a lot of people just find that untenable.”

An April poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that just 25% of Democrats under 45 said they would definitely support Biden in a general election, compared with 56% of older Democrats. A majority of Democrats across age groups said they would probably support him as the party’s nominee, however.

Biden’s campaign is relying heavily on the Democratic National Committee, which during last year’s midterms, hired campus organizers in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona and other battleground states and offered weekly youth coordinating meetings to encourage in-class contacts and “dormstorms.” The DNC sees young people as some of the most critical voters it will need to reach in 2024 and promises “significant investments” to mobilize them. Plans are underway to expand on its work last cycle, including trainings it held on how best to turn out voters.

The Republican National Committee is trying to use Biden’s age against him, posting online videos of Biden seeming frail or making verbal gaffes, such as when he declared in June “God save the queen,” nearly nine months after the death of England’s Queen Elizabeth II.

Rodriguez shrugged off online attacks, “People can make all the hit pieces and memes and TikToks all they want.”

A starker contrast might be between the president and rising Democrats such as 46-year-old California Rep. Ro Khanna and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, 41, one of Biden’s primary rivals in 2020. Neither seriously entertained running for the White House in 2024 and have backed Biden’s reelection.

“The only thing that really matters is your ability to do the job,” Buttigieg, who was 37 when he launched his 2020 presidential bid, said recently on CNN. Khanna told Fox News Channel that age will “obviously” be a 2024 factor, but suggested that Biden’s staff “overprotects” him and “the more he’s out there, the better.”

Other top young Democrats have lined up to back Biden. Florida Democratic Rep. Maxwell Frost, who was elected to Congress last year at 26, is on the Biden campaign’s advisory board, as is Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, 44. New York Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, 33, recently endorsed Biden.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, a progressive who says strong turnout among young voters helped him win a runoff election this spring, said Biden’s policies transcend his age. Johnson noted that the president’s work “around climate justice speaks not just to this generation, but generations to come.”

“The excitement that I believe that we’re going to have is going to speak to the incredible work and organizing that we are committed to doing as a party,” said Johnson, 47. “And we’re looking forward to working with the president over the course of his next four years.”

President Joe Biden addresses the nation on the budget deal that lifts the federal debt limit and averts a U.S. government default, from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 2, 2023. (Jim Watson/Pool via AP)

Still, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, acknowledged that even the president’s supporters understand how demanding the White House can be.

“People worry about Joe Biden. They worry like you would worry about a beloved father or grandfather,” said Weingarten, 65. “What you normally hear from Democrats is this sense of, ‘OK, I just want him to be OK.’ And you’re hearing just the consternation of, ’This is a hard job.’”

Biden said he “took a hard look” at his age while deciding to seek a second term. But he’s also tried to suggest his age and experience are assets rather than liabilities by joking repeatedly about them. That’s a departure from 2020, when Biden called himself a “transition candidate” and pledged to be a “bridge” to younger Democrats.

Santiago Mayer, the founder of Voters of Tomorrow, which has 20-plus chapters nationwide and works to increase political engagement among young voters, argues that Biden is not defying his past promise by running for reelection, but keeping it.

“He just needs more time,” said Mayer, who graduated from California State University at Long Beach in May. “I think the second term is a very important part of that pledge. He’s building a progressive future for young people and he can’t actually pass the baton until that’s done.”

One key policy piece of Biden’s efforts to appeal to young voters, providing student debt relief, was recently struck down by the Supreme Court. The White House has launched a new effort, but it will take longer.

“Of course it’s going to dampen some of that because people are disappointed,” Weingarten said of the ruling’s effect on enthusiasm for Biden. But she said the decision could also motivate young Biden supporters anxious show their support for the president’s alternative plan.

“It is also about the fight,” Weingarten said “not just about the results.”

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