Do all younger Democrats have an Uncle Joe that they hate or something? Because there’s a good chance that Democrats under the age of 45 will prove crucial in preventing former Vice President Joe Biden from winning — or even getting close to winning — the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Younger Democrats, particularly younger white Democrats, are emphatically rejecting his candidacy. That cohort is a big reason why Biden has struggled in the first three states and fallen from front-runner status.
In fact, age might be the most important fault line in the 2020 Democratic primary.
Of course, Biden’s weakness among younger Democrats is in part the result of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s strength with that group. But Sanders’s appeal doesn’t totally explain Biden’s struggles. In Iowa, for example, Biden received just 4 percent of the under-45 vote, according to entrance polls. That trailed Sanders (41 percent), but it also lagged behind former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (21 percent), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (16 percent) and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang (10 percent). Biden also finished in the single digits among voters under 45 — and behind Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren — in New Hampshire and Nevada. A recent poll of Democrats in California, a Super Tuesday state, found Biden at 9 percent among voters under 45. He’s not faring better in other Super Tuesday states, as recent polls have him at 4 percent in Colorado, 11 percent in Texas and 11 percent in Virginia with this group.
If you start breaking down that under-45 group, there is some variation in how well Biden does, but not a ton. His numbers are especially bad among the youngest cohort of voters, 17 or 18- to 29-year-olds,1 but he generally does only slightly better in the 30-to-44 bracket. And we don’t have a lot of data breaking down the views of voters under 45 by race, but national polling and a recent survey in South Carolina suggests Biden is at least in double digits among black Democrats under 45. So the results in Iowa and New Hampshire and in other surveys make me think that Biden is particularly weak with younger white Democrats.
Not surprisingly, Biden’s weakness among these voters has a huge effect on his overall viability. In the first three states, exit and entrance polls suggest between one-third and 45 percent of Democratic primary voters were under 45. In other words, this is a big group.
And it’s not like this weakness for the Biden campaign came out of nowhere. HuffPost did an extensive story on Biden’s struggles with young voters in December. At the time it was written, though, the primaries had not actually started, so Biden’s lack of appeal among younger voters was just theoretical. And back then, it looked as if Biden and Sanders’s support simply mirrored one another: Sanders seemed as weak with older voters as Biden was with younger ones. But so far in the actual voting, these problems have not been equivalent: Biden beat Sanders by 2 percentage points among voters over 45 in Nevada, according to entrance polls, while Sanders beat Biden by 48 points among voters under 45.
The natural question is … why? Why is Biden struggling so much to win the support of younger people — not only trailing Sanders, but Buttigieg and Warren too? Here are the four most obvious explanations:
1. Younger Democrats are more liberal and anti-institutional
In some ways, 2020 is just a repeat of 2016: The party establishment and older Democrats embraced more center-left figures — Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Michael Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Biden in 2020 — while younger voters got behind the more liberal Sanders. Clinton lost to Sanders among younger voters by around 50 points in New Hampshire in 2016 — an even larger margin than Biden’s deficit this year.
Indeed, the Democratic Party appears to be in the midst of a generational fight that started in 2016 and is continuing now. For example, the left-leaning but gray-haired commentators on MSNBC have been deeply frustrated by the rise of Sanders. Conversely, it’s hard to find much Biden support on Twitter, which tends to be used by younger people and more liberal Democrats. Buttigieg and Warren, while not as liberal or as anti-establishment as Sanders, are also to the left of Biden, which in part explains why the ex-vice president isn’t the clear second-favorite of younger Democrats either.
The big difference between 2016 and 2020 is that Clinton was dominant among voters over 45 in many states, so she could overcome being the establishment candidate who young people weren’t excited about. In contrast, Biden has not consolidated that older bloc.
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