Dems look for ballot box payback from young voters after student debt, climate change action


Young voters who previously wrote off President Biden are now jumpstarting Democrats’ midterm fortunes and possibly imperiling the GOP’s hopes for sweeping gains after a whirlwind of summer action on issues the upcoming generation holds dear, from abortion and climate change to crippling student debt.

Mr. Biden’s approval among voters under age 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 who earn less than $125,000 per year and $20,000 in relief for Pell Grant recipients.

The 10-point swing compared to a 4-point jump among those ages 30-44 from 47% to 51% — and stable attitudes among older groups.

A Quinnipiac Poll last week showed Mr. Biden with a negative approval rating of 40%-52%, a dramatic improvement from the woeful 31%-60% rating he received in July.

Again, he was buoyed by young voters who overwhelmingly like 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 spurring a sense among Democrats that they can beat a dire midterm 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.

Following the Dobbs decision, more than 70% of newly registered voters in Kansas were women. What’s more, a surge of new and younger registrants was credited with fueling a resounding rejection of a state referendum that would allow the legislature to restrict abortion.

It’s enthusing 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 season with a different complexion from a few months ago, though it might not be enough to salvage Democrats’ narrow majorities on Capitol Hill.

And 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, with 29% saying 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, new course for wounded party

For the past year, Mr. Biden and his party have been scrounging for good news.

Economic headwinds have dogged Mr. Biden’s presidency and, historically, the party that controls the White House gets battered in mid-term years, with younger people who tend to vote for Democrats often less engaged than older voters in non-presidential cycles.

The younger generation fueled Mr. Biden’s victory over former President Donald Trump, with nearly six in 10 voters aged 18 to 29 opting for the Democrat in 2020, according to Pew Research Center.

But serious trouble signs emerged in the spring. 

A Gallup poll in April found Mr. Biden‘s approval rating dropped by 21 points, from 60% to 39%, among Generation Z — those born from 1997 to 2004 — between the start of his term and the period spanning September to March. Mr. Biden’s approval rating dropped by 19 points among millennials born between 1981 and 1996.

Mr. Biden’s approval dropped with all generations after the chaotic military exit from Afghanistan and upheaval from COVID-19, though young persons in particular sensitive to economic upheaval given their concerns about job prospects and crippling debt.

Democrats’ first hint of a rebound occurred 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 red states — and a reaction from young people.

A YouGov poll from June showed over two-thirds of voters under 30 disapproved of overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that had provided a national right to abortion.

Before the Dobbs decision, 23% of new voter registrants were under the age of 25. That number jumped to 29% after the decision.

“That matches the youth new [registration] share from ‘18 when younger voters drove the blue wave,” tweeted Tom Bonier, CEO of Target Smart, a Democratic political data and data services firm.

That augurs good things for Democrats, though trackers caution there are plenty of young people who are pro-life, well-organized and enthused by 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,” Mr. Reed said. “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 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 provision that also 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 late Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “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 anyway but are also 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 and Engagement at Tufts University, which tracks civic engagement among youth.

Indeed, persons who track youth trends say the issues will drive their engagement, not party affiliation. Gallup pollsters who saw a huge drop in youth approval of Mr. Biden last spring theorized older voter blocs remaining faithful to their selected party instead of fluctuating with the news of the day.

Sara Guillermo, the CEO of IGNITE — a group that 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 Democrats, particularly among young voters, might have disappointed Republicans, but it was hardly a disaster.

The Battleground Tracker forecast the GOP was still on course to retake the House with 226, down from an estimated 230 in July but still above the 218-seat threshold to retake the gavels and launch investigations.

The Senate, meanwhile, remains a jump ball. GOP hopes to retake the chamber have taken a hit by doubts about the quality of their 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 points that show it is gaining the upper hand after a string of wins.

The CBS poll found that 75% of voters under 30 support the president’s targeted action on student loan debt relief and 66% of voters under 30 said the Roe v. Wade decision has 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 recent Gallup poll on Wednesday found that 86% of Americans aged 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.”


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