Young voters are fed up with their (much) older leaders

Alexandra Chadwick went to the 2020 election with the unique goal of ousting Donald J. Trump. As a 22-year-old first-time voter, she saw Joseph R. Biden Jr. as a protector rather than an inspirational political figure, someone who could fend off threats to abortion access, gun control and climate policy.

Two years later, after the Supreme Court eroded federal protections for all three, Ms. Chadwick now sees President Biden and other Democratic leaders as lacking the imagination and willpower to fight back. She points to a generational gap — one she once overlooked but now seems cavernous.

“How are you going to lead your country on target if you’re still stuck 50, 60, or 70 years ago?” Ms. Chadwick, a customer service representative in Rialto, California, said of the many 70-year-old leaders at the helm of her party. “It’s not the same, and people aren’t the same anymore, and your old ideas won’t work as well.”

A poll by The New York Times and Siena College found that just 1 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds very much approve of the way Mr. Biden does his job. And 94 percent of Democrats under 30 said they want another candidate to run in two years. Of all age groups, young voters were the most likely to say they would not vote for either Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump in a hypothetical rematch in 2024.

The numbers are a stark warning for Democrats fighting to ward off a caning in November’s midterm elections. Young people who have long been among the least reliable members of the party’s coalition have marched for gun control, demonstrated against Mr. Trump and helped stoke a Democratic tide in the 2018 midterm elections. They still side with the Democrats on issues that are only growing in importance.

But four years later, many are feeling disinterested and discouraged, with just 32 percent saying they are “almost certain” they will vote in November, according to the poll. Almost half said they didn’t think their vote made a difference.

Interviews with these young voters reveal generational tensions driving their frustration. Growing up with racial strife, political strife, high inflation and a pandemic, they sought help from politicians more than three times their age.

These older leaders often talk about maintaining institutions and restoring norms, while young voters say they are more interested in results. Many expressed a desire for broader changes such as a viable third party and a new generation of younger leaders. They are eager for innovative measures to deal with the problems they will inherit, they said, rather than going back to what worked in the past.

“I’m sure that every member of Congress, every single one of them, has gone through some pretty traumatic times in their lives and also chaos in the country,” said John Della Volpe, election director who studies young people’s opinions at the Harvard Kennedy Institute for Politics School. “But every member of Congress has also seen America at its best. And then we all came together. That’s something Gen Z didn’t have.”

At 79, Mr. Biden is the oldest president in U.S. history and just one of several Democratic Party leaders heading for, or making, their 80s. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, is 82 years old. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is 83. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, 71, is the baby of the bunch. Mr Trump is 76.

If the election were repeated in 2020, Mr. Biden would lead 38 to 30 percent of young voters, but 22 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 said they would not vote if these candidates were their choice, by far the largest proportion of all age group.

Among those voters is Ellis McCarthy, 24, who has a few part-time jobs near Bellevue. Ky. McCarthy says she longs for a government that is “brand new”.

Ms McCarthy’s father, an electrician and union member who teaches at a local trade school, met Mr Biden last summer when the President was visiting the school. The two men talked about his union and his job – two things he loved. Not long after, her father fell ill, was hospitalized and left sour after his recovery by the health care system and what the family saw as Mr. Biden’s failure to fix it.

“It feels like it’s Biden or Trump, nobody stepping in to be a voice for people like me,” she said. “Workers are left out to dry.”

Denange Sanchez, a 20-year-old student at Eastern Florida State College from Palm Bay, Fla., sees Mr. Biden as “wish-washy” about his promises.

Ms. Sanchez’s mother owns a cleaning service and does most of the cleaning herself, with Denange helping out where she can. Her whole family – including her mother, who has a heart condition and a pacemaker – has been wrestling with bouts of Covid without insurance. Even when she was sick, her mother was up 24 hours a day making home remedies, Ms. Sanchez said.

“Everyone said we would crush this virus. Biden made all of these promises. And now no one takes the pandemic seriously, but it still surrounds us. It’s so frustrating,” she said. Ms. Sanchez, who is studying medicine, also included college debt relief on her list of unfulfilled promises from Mr. Biden.

Democratic politicians and pollsters are aware of the problem they face with young voters, but they insist there is time to engage them on issues they prioritize. Recent Supreme Court decisions removing a constitutional right to abortion, restricting states’ ability to control the carrying of firearms, and limiting the federal government’s regulatory powers over climate-warming emissions are only now beginning to take hold in voters’ minds , said Jeffrey Pollock, a pollster for the House Democrats.

“We are no longer talking about a theory; we’re talking about a Supreme Court that will set the country back 50 years or more,” he said. “If we cannot deliver this message, then we are ashamed.”

While middle-aged voters consistently identified the economy as a top interest, for younger voters it is just one of many broadly linked to abortion, the state of American democracy and gun policy.

That poses a dilemma for Democratic candidates in troubled districts, who many say should focus their campaign message almost exclusively on the economy — but perhaps at the expense of activating younger voters.

Tate Sutter, 21, feels that disconnect. A native of Auburn, California, Mr. Sutter, who studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, told how he watched fireworks on July 4 and winced as another fire season began and aggressive federal measures to combat global warming stalled in Congress got. In fact, he said, he could see a brush fire rising in the hills to the south.

“Climate plays a big part in my politics for me,” he said, expressing his dismay that Democrats aren’t talking about it anymore. “It’s very frustrating.”

Mr Sutter said he understood the limits of Mr Biden’s powers with an evenly divided Senate. But he also said he understands the power of the presidency and hasn’t seen Mr. Biden wield it effectively.

“With age comes a lot of experience and wisdom and just know-how. But in terms of perception, he doesn’t seem to be in touch with people of my generation,” he said.

After years of feeling politicians don’t talk to people like him, Juan Flores, 23, says he has turned his attention to local electoral initiatives on issues like housing or homelessness, which he believes are more likely to have an impact on his life. Mr. Flores attended data analysis school but drives a delivery truck for Amazon in San Jose, California. Home prices there average well over $1 million, making it difficult, if not impossible, for residents to live on a single income.

“I’m like many politicians, they already come from a good upbringing,” he said. “A majority of them don’t really understand the magnitude of what the majority of the American population is going through.”

The Times/Siena College poll found that 46 percent of young voters supported Democratic control of Congress, while 28 percent wanted Republicans to take the lead. More than a quarter of young voters, 26 percent, don’t know or refuse to say which party they want to control Congress.

Ivan Chavez, 25, of Bernalillo, NM, said he identified as independent in part because neither party made convincing arguments to people his age. He worries about mass shootings, a mental health crisis among young people, and climate change.

He wishes that third-party candidates get more attention. He plans to vote in November but is unsure who he will support.

“I think right now the Democrats are afraid of the Republicans, the Republicans are afraid of the Democrats,” he said. “They don’t know which way to go.”

Young Republican voters were least likely to say they want Mr. Trump as the party’s nominee in 2024, but Kyle Holcomb, a recent college grad from Florida, said he would vote for him if it came to that.

“Literally, if anyone other than Biden ran, I would feel more comfortable,” he said. “I just like the idea of ​​having someone in power who can effectively project their vision and goals.”

Young Democrats said they expect the same from their leaders: vision, dynamism, and maybe a little youth, but not too much. Several young voters brought up Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 32-year-old Democrat from New York. Praising her youth and willingness to speak out – often in opposition to her older colleagues in Congress – Ms Chadwick summed up her appeal in one word: “kinship”.

Michael C Bender and Alyce McFadden contributed reporting.

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