Last night, we looked at the establishment's never-ending/always wrong narrative about how the Democratic Party has to move right with Charlie Cook and Ruy Teixeira playing the roles of fools on the hill. A week ago, another top pundit, Ron Brownstein, viewed the Democrats' conundrum from a very different perspective: Youth turnout could save, or sink, Democrats in 2022.
Keep in mind what progressives have been telling Biden to do by executive order in terms of student debt and some of the other issues that are most popular with young voters and that are being blocked by the trans-partisan conservative coalition: wipe out federal student debt entirely. "Soaring turnout and big margins among young voters," wrote Brownstein, "were central to the Democratic victories in the 2018 congressional and 2020 presidential elections. But with many young people expressing disenchantment with Biden's performance, preserving those advantages looms as one of the biggest challenges facing Democrats in the 2022 midterms. There's widespread concern among Democrats that turnout for young people this November could fall back from its gains in 2018 toward the meager levels that contributed to the party's crushing losses in the 2014 and 2010 midterm elections. 'If you accept the status quo with young people, it's not going to go great,' says Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin. 'Turnout is not going to be good.' Most Republicans are expecting exactly that sort of decline, driven both by waning enthusiasm for Biden and diminishing concern about Trump, whose visibility has dimmed since he left the White House."
Top House Democrats I've spoken with believe that the way to increase turnout is to raise Trump's visability-- rather than in doing anything significant for young voters. Brownstein sees the nonsense for what it is and warns that "more important may be Biden finding ways to generate more progress than he has so far on issues important to younger generations, particularly combating climate change and reducing the burden of student debt."
Someone should ask Cook and Teixeira to try to understand that young voters don't want to waste their votes on lesser-of-two-evils Democratic candidates. "In 2016, Hillary Clinton was held below 60% of the vote among young adults not because they preferred Trump but because so many of them defected to third party candidates, according to most data sources about the election results. But in 2018 and 2020, Democrats swelled that advantage. In 2018, they carried at least two-thirds of voters aged 18-29, according to sources such as the exit polls conducted by Edison Research, the Pew Research Center's validated voters study and the analysis by Catalist, a leading Democratic targeting firm. In 2020, all three of those sources (as well as CIRCLE's analysis) found that Biden carried around three-fifths of young adults. Still, Biden's showing represented a decline from the Democratic performance among young voters in 2018 and extended the difficulty he had connecting with them during the 2020 Democratic primaries -- when they broke for Sanders over him by about 4 to 1, according to a cumulative CNN analysis of exit polls at the time. Public opinion polls show that Biden's troubles with young voters have persisted into his presidency. In the latest CNN national survey, just 40% of those aged 18-34 said they approved of his job performance, and fewer than 3 in 10 described him as a strong leader. Other polls, like last week's Monmouth University survey, have registered similar weakness."
The fall-off between Biden's 2020 vote share among younger people and his current approval rating may be larger than for any other major group. That gap is the principal reason why many in both parties believe Democrats will struggle to match the elevated youth turnout during the past two campaigns. "They are not going to show up in a midterm election to support a president that they are not ... enthusiastic about," Brabender predicts.
...[P]olitical operatives agree that even the most expertly constructed turnout machine needs some enthusiasm to fuel its engine. Those focusing on the youth vote say progress on criminal justice or climate change might help engage more young people this year-- as might Democrats focusing more attention on the threats across Republican-controlled states to abortion, voting and LGBTQ rights, and the proposals to censor teachers and ban books. But without exception, each activist and operative I spoke with said the most important thing Biden could do to energize more young voters would be to cancel more student debt. "I don't think it's enough for Democrats to simply point to the other side and say, 'Life could be worse,'" says Tzintzún Ramirez. "Ultimately they also need to show people how their lives could be better."
Nothing would send that message more powerfully, she says, than canceling more student debt, as Biden promised during the campaign. "There is deep, deep economic pain for many young adults across the country, and there is nothing I can think of that the Biden administration could do that is a real campaign promise fulfilment, is obviously politically advantageous and is advantageous to the lives of millions of people," Tzintzún Ramirez says in a view echoed by many of those in the field.
...Biden's hesitancy about canceling debt has left advocates for young voters in the same frustrated position as many groups in the Democratic coalition, from civil rights lawyers to climate activists. All can point to actions Biden and the Democratic-led Congress have taken to advance their causes and benefit their constituents; young people, for instance, received critical economic benefits from many of the provisions in the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 recovery plan Biden signed last year.
But those benefits, for many, have been overshadowed by the many promises Democrats haven't fulfilled on issues important to their voters.
"Young people turned out in huge numbers, basically they won the election" for Democrats, says Brandon. "And what have they seen delivered? That's the issue. Unfortunately, like the public at large, all the stuff that has been delivered just doesn't feel like it."
Unless that changes for more young adults before November, Democrats may be left lamenting a lost opportunity-- and facing the sort of depressed youth turnout that battered them so badly in 2014 and 2010.
WAKE UP, SLEEPY JOE! Or do you want to lose the midterms?*
* real question