To win in November, Democrats need young people to vote in record numbers. Gen Z and Millennials (that is, people aged 18-38) will make up nearly 40 percent of the eligible voters this fall, but to date, turnout figures for these voters have been mixed. Young Americans are clear in their disdain for President Trump (nearly 70 percent of them disapprove of his performance as president), but if Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee, he has to make sure that young people don’t stay home or vote third party in November. As the executive director of the country’s largest young-voter mobilization organization, I know there’s a few things Biden can do to get the skeptical youth on board.
First, he has to shift on the issues. Young people vote to make progress on the issues that matter most to them—and Biden has to work to make sure his policy positions align with views that are mainstream among young voters.
It all starts with the economy. Millennials got screwed by the 2008 financial crisis, when they started entering the workforce, and now it’s Gen-Z’s turn with the coronavirus crash (which will be a double whammy for Millennials). Millions of young people, already the poorest generation in our society, are losing their gig-economy jobs, turning to GoFundMe to cover healthcare costs, and leading rent strikes as their already unstable sources of income dry up. No wonder Bernie Sanders’s call to overthrow our current economic system resonates so broadly. Biden is already starting to call for more drastic economic reforms to meet this moment, pushing Congress to include student-debt forgiveness in the emergency stimulus bill and calling for a three-month rent freeze. But our candidate’s response to this moment will shape the political leanings of the youngest Americans forever—and Biden can show a generation of progressive Democrats he’s in their corner by proposing bold, sweeping economic-recovery plans and daring Trump to reject them.
One way to fill young people’s now-empty wallets (and stave off future crises) is by taking aggressive action to tackle climate change and invest in clean energy. It’s a political winner with young people across the political spectrum (including some young 2016 Trump voters) and the suburban moderates he needs to win in November. Biden can go far beyond his existing calls to “rejoin the Paris Agreement on day one,” and propose solutions that match the scale of the crisis. By increasing his ambition, speeding up the timeline for phasing out fossil fuels, and making sure the next big American public works project is a green one, Biden can appeal to the young people who have been striking in the streets and chart a clean-energy powered path out of our current economic crisis. It’s a win-win.
With young people of color making up the majority of young Democratic voters, there’s one more shift Biden can make: he can strengthen his policies to address racial inequity, especially in the criminal-justice system. On drug policy, Biden can call for the legalization of marijuana, a position incredibly popular with the marginal voters and non-voters that Biden needs to motivate to turn out in November. Moving on legalization is also an easy way for Biden to show young people that he can evolve on the issues. Further, we know Trump will disingenuously attack Biden for his 1990s-era votes on criminal justice, and in fact has already recruited major influencers like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian to his side on the issue. Biden has begun to repent for some of these decade-old positions, but proactively reaching out to young people hurt by mass incarceration and championing reforms will show he’s listened and make his transformation more credible to skeptical young people.
In the last month or two, Biden has made it clear he can grow on the issues in ways that will make him more appealing to young voters, improving his college-affordability plan and adopting ideas from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in an effort to unify the party. Biden’s platform is likely more progressive than any previous Democratic nominee’s, but the perception among skeptical young Americans is that it’s not enough change to meet the challenges they face, especially in a post-coronavirus world. Movement on the issues now will go a long way in November.
Second, Biden needs to show young Americans that he’s listening to them. Young people are demanding drastic changes to a political system that they feel is broken and an economic system that seems rigged against them. NextGen America organizers have thousands of conversations with young people each week from all ends of the political spectrum who are scared about the future, and for good reason. So far, Biden’s message has prioritized healing the country and returning us to normalcy, but for so many young people going back to the way things were before Trump isn’t a sufficiently motivating reason to cast a ballot in November, because life for them wasn’t so great then, either. Biden has the opportunity to bring young Americans together and make them a part of his decision-making process in his campaign, lifting up their voices and empowering them to succeed.
To Biden’s credit, he is already starting to change his tune. He extended an olive branch to young Bernie Sanders supporters, saying “I hear you, I know what’s at stake.” His campaign has used the candidate’s valuable time to host a virtual Happy Hour with Young Americans and address young people on the COVID-19 crisis. He reached out to Gen Z on a campaign livestream, saying “I hope I can be one of those transition figures to get to the point where you guys are running the whole show.” Now, when our country is facing unprecedented challenges that will spell financial and public-health ruin for young people, Biden needs to continue to hear young people, listen to them, trust them, and empower them. Pursuing the support of and recruiting popular young movement leaders like DREAMers or March for Our Lives organizers to speak on his behalf would be a powerful signal that Biden is listening to young voters and and taking them seriously. Wooing young progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to be surrogates for his campaign, or even picking a running mate from the Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic party, would surely help too.
Lastly, Biden needs to be authentically Biden. If there’s one thing young voters crave above all else it is authenticity. They grew up in the fake news era and have incredibly good bullshit detectors, so they need candidates to speak honestly from their hearts. Luckily, Joe Biden has been an empathetic leader who speaks from the heart, not from the head, his whole career. When Biden talks to young people, he should talk about what it was like to be a young parent who lost his family in a car accident. He should talk about sticking his neck out to support marriage equality before President Obama was ready to. He should talk about why he’s been such a strong advocate for gun-violence prevention, even before the age of mass shootings.
Older Millennials like me remember “Cool Uncle Joe” from the Obama years. He’d put on aviator sunglasses and a leather bomber jacket and even drop the F-bomb when he thought the mics were off. During this campaign, we haven’t seen that side of him. We liked the version of Joe Biden from The Onion parodies—don’t be afraid to be funny. We cannot win in November without record turnout and support from young voters and the establishment can’t just tell young people to shut up and get on board. Joe Biden needs to earn their votes. The fate of the country depends on it.
Ben Wessel is executive director of NextGen America.