Young voters who previously wrote off President Biden are now jump-starting Democrats’ midterm fortunes and possibly imperiling Republicans’ hopes for sweeping gains after a whirlwind of summer action on issues that the upcoming generation holds dear, including abortion, climate change and crippling student debt.
Mr. Biden’s approval among voters younger than 30 surged from 49% in late July to 59% in late August, according to a CBS News poll that reflects the period before and after Democrats passed a tax and climate deal and Mr. Biden outlined his plan to cancel $10,000 in student debt for borrowers earning less than $125,000 per year and $20,000 in relief for Pell Grant recipients.
The 10-point swing was higher than the 4-point jump among those ages 30-44, from 47% to 51%, and stable attitudes among older voting groups.
A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed Mr. Biden with a negative rating of 40% approval to 52% disapproval, a dramatic improvement from the woeful 31% to 60% rating he received in July.
Again, the president was buoyed by young voters who overwhelmingly liked his debt relief plan.
“A summertime surge. President Biden’s approval number bounces back to the long-elusive 40 percent mark, as he rides increased support among young adults who may well be encouraged by Biden’s decision to erase some student debt,” Quinnipiac University polling analyst Tim Malloy said.
Meanwhile, surging voter registration is creating a sense among Democrats that they can beat a dire midterm election forecast by focusing on the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the nationwide right to abortion and triggered state-level restrictions.
After the Dobbs decision, more than 70% of newly registered voters in Kansas were women. A surge of new and younger registrants was credited with fueling a resounding rejection of a state referendum that would have allowed the Legislature to restrict abortion.
The changes enthuse the White House.
Mr. Biden is enjoying the young-voter bump after months of doubts that he could flex executive powers or marshal narrow Democratic majorities to address some of the most intractable issues in Washington, including how to manage climate change and student debt.
“They questioned whether he would deliver [and] punished him in the polls — until he did,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.
The upshot is a spring in Mr. Biden’s step and a midterm election season with a different look from a few months ago, though it might not be enough to salvage Democrats’ narrow majorities on Capitol Hill.
The headwinds, though weaker, remain for Democrats, who currently control all the levers of power in Washington.
A Rasmussen Reports poll released Sept. 1 showed 65% of likely voters think the country is on the wrong track and 29% say it is on the right track. That mirrored most other recent polls, including a Politico/Morning Consult survey with 72% of registered voters saying the country is on the wrong track.
A leaked opinion and a new course for wounded Democrats
For the past year, Mr. Biden and his party have been scrounging for good news.
Economic headwinds have dogged the president, and the party that controls the White House historically gets battered in midterm elections. Younger people, who tend to vote for Democrats, are often less engaged than older voters in non-presidential cycles.
The younger generation fueled Mr. Biden’s victory over President Trump. Nearly 6 in 10 voters ages 18-29 opted for the Democrat in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center.
Still, signs of serious trouble emerged in the spring.
A Gallup poll in April found that Mr. Biden’s approval rating dropped by 21 points, from 60% to 39%, among Generation Z — voters born after 1996 — from the start of his term and the period spanning September to March. Mr. Biden’s approval rating dropped by 19 points among millennials, born from 1981 to 1996.
Mr. Biden’s approval dropped among all generations after the chaotic military exit from Afghanistan and upheaval from COVID-19, though young people, in particular, are sensitive to economic policies given their concerns about job prospects and crippling debt.
Democrats got their first hint of a rebound in May when a draft Supreme Court opinion overturning the broad right to abortion was leaked in the press. The leaked majority opinion largely mirrored the final decision, triggering a series of abortion restrictions in conservative states — and a reaction from young people.
A YouGov poll from June showed that more than two-thirds of voters younger than 30 disapproved of overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which provided a national right to abortion.
Before the Dobbs decision, 23% of new voter registrants were younger than 25. That number jumped to 29% after the ruling.
“That matches the youth new [registration] share from ’18 when younger voters drove the blue wave,” tweeted Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic political data and data services firm.
That augurs a good trend for Democrats, though trackers caution that plenty of young people are pro-life, well-organized and enthused about new abortion restrictions.
“I think the abortion issue cuts differently in what part of the country you’re from and less what age demographic you’re from,” said Colin Reed, a Republican Party strategist who served as a spokesman for Chris Christie, a New Jersey governor who ran for president in 2016. “The conservative movement got what they were seeking. Now, the shoe is on the other foot, that issue is just totally flipped on its head. Anyone who says they know how the cookie is crumbling is just prognosticating.”
Let’s make a deal
During the 2020 campaign, Mr. Biden promised young voters that he would take climate change seriously and deliver debt relief to students. His razor-thin Senate majority and political risks left those efforts on the back burner for the first year and a half of his term.
Yet in late July, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat and key swing vote, shocked everyone by announcing a deal on a major tax and climate bill that included provisions to negotiate down the price of prescription drugs and retain supersized Obamacare subsidies.
“For many younger voters, their expectation of what was doable was so sky-high that anything short of complete victory was probably going to turn them off,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who served as a spokesman for Harry Reid of Nevada when he was the Senate Democratic leader. “The administration managed to thread the needle on student loans and climate change. When it comes to the Supreme Court, hopefully, they’ve given young voters and many others a powerful incentive to go out and vote in November. Whether it happens or not remains to be seen, but I am a lot more hopeful than I was.”
The conventional wisdom is that student loan reductions will improve Mr. Biden’s standing with young college-educated voters, who tend to vote Democratic but are skeptical of politicians’ promises.
“He said he would cancel student debt, and here it is. While a relatively small proportion of young people name ‘student debt’ as the most important issue — 3% in our 2020 survey — we think it is affecting a much larger group of young people’s perception of the president’s integrity, which counts a lot for young voters,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts University, which tracks civic engagement among youths.
Indeed, people who track youth trends say the issues, not party affiliation, will drive their engagement. Gallup pollsters who saw a huge drop in youth approval of Mr. Biden last spring theorized that older voting blocs remained faithful to their selected parties instead of fluctuating with news of the day.
Sara Guillermo, the CEO of Ignite, which promotes political engagement among young women, said one of the top questions she gets from Generation Z voters is “Do I have to choose a party?”
“The issues are driving them to the ballot box, and we are seeing them rise up to the moment, whether that means focusing on climate change, student debt, mass shootings or reproductive choice, and we are surely going to see them mobilize ahead of the midterms,” she said. “Gen Z wants results, and so if the administration is able to deliver on these issues, it is much more likely the administration will be able to count on their support.”
GOP not panicking
The CBS poll that showed momentum for Mr. Biden and other Democrats, particularly among young voters, might have disappointed Republicans, but it was hardly a disaster.
The Battleground Tracker showed that the Republican Party was on course to win House control with 226 seats, down from an estimated 230 in July but above the 218-seat threshold to take the gavel and launch investigations.
The Senate, meanwhile, remains a toss-up. Republican hopes to control the chamber have taken a hit by doubts about the quality of nominees.
“It’s going to be a good night for the Republican Party,” Mr. Reed said. “Whether it’s the red tsunami? That is what these campaigns, these candidates will hash out these next 70 days.”
The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, pointed to data showing it is gaining the upper hand after a string of wins.
The CBS poll found that 75% of voters younger than 30 support the president’s targeted action on student loan debt relief and 66% of voters younger than 30 said the Roe v. Wade decision made them want to support Democrats more.
“From passing the most significant legislation ever to combat climate change to historic, targeted student loan debt relief, and fighting to protect reproductive freedom, President Biden and Democrats have delivered a strong record of results on the issues that matter most to young voters,” DNC spokeswoman Elena Kuhn said.
The Republican National Committee said that optimism ignores broader worries. A Gallup poll last week found that 86% of Americans ages 18-34 describe current economic conditions as “only fair” (44%) or “poor” (42%) and 76% of Americans ages 18-34 think the economy is getting worse.
“Young voters cannot afford Biden’s recession and will see right through his desperate vote-buy attempt with the loan bailout,” RNC spokeswoman Emma Vaughn said. “Skyrocketing prices on everything from gas to groceries, rising crime in Democrat-controlled cities, and increased taxes will drive voters of all ages to the polls for Republicans in November.”
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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