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Biden’s dilemma: It’s hard to sell a message when no one’s listening

President Biden smiles wearing sunglasses.
President Biden returns to the White House on Thursday after a speech unveiling an updated strategy to combating the coronavirus.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

The past few months have been rough on the nation’s governing party.

Voter frustrations, resurgent inflation, a stubborn pandemic and the loss last month of a closely watched election for governor in Virginia have put Democrats into a funk. They’ve responded as political parties often do — fighting among themselves about what’s gone wrong.

Two very different polls this week provide some fresh insights into that question.

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First, the Harvard Youth Poll, which the university’s Kennedy School Institute for Politics has conducted for two decades, showed that young people, much like the electorate as a whole, have grown less supportive of President Biden and his party.

Second, a poll on voter attitudes toward homelessness in Los Angeles, which the Los Angeles Times published this week, highlights the mounting frustration many voters feel — as well as their disappointment with the region’s political leadership, nearly all of them Democrats.

The two surveys cover different groups and different sets of issues, but a couple of common themes run through them which highlight the difficulties of governing in the current era.

Low information, high anxiety

In March, when Harvard last surveyed the nation’s 18- to 29-year-olds, Biden stood at a high point of popularity. Young people widely approved of his job performance, with 59% giving him a positive mark.

A bit more than seven months later, Biden’s job approval among 18- to 29-year-olds has sunk to 46%.

Democrats, Republicans and independents each have soured on the president by similar amounts.

One group stands out, however: Biden’s job approval among young Latinos has dropped by 21 percentage points, the poll found.

That’s consistent with other surveys that have shown Democrats losing ground with Latinos, along with voting data from Virginia that indicate a decline in the Democratic vote in heavily Latino precincts.

John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Institute of Politics, who has overseen the Youth Poll since its inception, notes that the pattern is a familiar one.

During President Obama‘s tenure, Della Volpe said, he was continually struck by the unchanging nature of the support the president received from young Black voters. The attitudes of white voters didn’t change much either.

“Latino attitudes were much more fluid, they bounced around a lot,” he said.

As a major study by Equis Research found earlier this year, Latino voters are less firmly partisan, on average, than either Black or white voters, making them more likely to shift in response to economic conditions and major events.

The poll can’t tell us why Biden has lost more ground with young Latinos than with Black or white young people. It can, however, rule out a couple of possibilities.

First, the problem is not that young people have grown more supportive of Republicans. Former President Trump, in particular, remains extremely unpopular among young people, with just 30% holding a favorable impression compared with 63% with an unfavorable one, essentially unchanged from the spring.

Nor does the poll support the belief — often expressed in the Washington political establishment — that Democrats have alienated swing voters by taking more progressive positions.

The Youth Poll over the past decade has charted a steady shift to the left among American young people as Generation Z has entered the electorate.

That hasn’t changed: On climate change, racial politics, the role of government in the economy and other issues, young people have continued to move left.

Nor are young people disengaging from politics. The share who say they are certain to vote in the next election remains at about one-third — extremely high compared with a decade ago, presaging what Della Volpe predicts will be another large turnout of young voters in next year’s midterm election.

But while young people remain politically engaged, the poll does show them disconnecting from news coverage.

Between the spring of 2019 — essentially the start of the presidential campaign — and now, for example, the share of young people who report going to Facebook for news has dropped roughly in half, Della Volpe said.

That’s not because young people were shifting to other — perhaps more reliable — news sources. The poll found similar, although smaller, declines in use of other social media sites for news. Similarly, Comscore, which tracks usage of news sites, has reported that nearly all have suffered significant declines in the aftermath of last year’s campaign, with most of the top sites down around 20% compared with last year.

“The media environment — how Americans are engaging — is changing more radically than we appreciate,” Della Volpe said.

Why?

“It’s stressful.”

The partisan warfare of the past decade has produced high levels of voter engagement and record voter turnout in the past two elections. It’s also left many American desperate for a break.

That may be particularly true of young people who, according to the Youth Poll, have been experiencing a sharp increase in mental health problems. This fall’s youth poll found that 51% of young Americans report having felt down, depressed or hopeless on at least several days in the past two weeks. One-quarter have had thoughts of self-harm.

Young people are tuning out news in part, Della Volpe thinks, “to protect their mental health.”

What does all that have to do with Biden’s problems?

Well, as virtually every press secretary of the past generation, in either party, has said, getting across a consistent message about what you’ve accomplished is far harder now in an era of hundreds of channels and sites competing for people’s attention. That task gets even tougher when fewer people are paying attention.

What does cut through are examples of things going wrong, whether that’s higher-than-expected inflation, a new variant of the coronavirus or an expected holiday gift suddenly on back-order because of shipping delays.

“Bad news sticks with you,” as Della Volpe said. And bad news drives down support for whichever party is in charge.

That’s where the results of the poll on homelessness dovetail with the Youth Poll.

Local governments in Southern California have poured billions of dollars in recent years into housing and services for the region’s homeless population. But the poll found that only 13% of voters said they knew “a lot” about what local governments have done on the issue, while 40% said they knew “very little” or nothing.

What voters do know is that they keep seeing tents in parks, people sleeping on the sidewalks and the homeless encampments that have become fixtures of so many L.A. neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, as the poll showed, that’s left them deeply frustrated.

That frustration hasn’t dramatically changed the political complexion of a mostly liberal city. But it does pose a clear challenge for the Democratic officials who hope to succeed Eric Garcetti as mayor.

Nationally as well as locally, Democratic officials, who believe in activist government, have the burden of persuading the public that they’re producing tangible results. It’s a difficult task, made harder by a fractured news environment and voters’ understandable desire to look away from the often-contentious world of politics.

But if Democrats are to revive their flagging fortunes, there may be no goal that’s more critical to achieve.

Attitudes toward homelessness

If you haven’t already checked out our extensive coverage of the new poll on homelessness in Los Angeles, which was conducted by Hart Research for the Los Angeles Business Council Institute, here’s your chance.

As Ben Oreskes and I wrote, the poll details the high level of frustration among voters in Los Angeles County about the region’s persistent homeless crisis. Many report that they feel unsafe in their neighborhoods because of homelessness, and large majorities want to see government officials act more quickly to find solutions.

At the same time, the prospect of being homeless hovers over a large share of Los Angeles’ population. Among Black voters, 49% have either been homeless, experienced housing insecurity or known someone who has just in the past year.

As Liam Dillon wrote, the poll also shows a majority of voters supporting California’s two new laws, SB 9 and SB 10, that make significant changes in single-family zoning in the hopes of spurring the production of more housing. The laws were the target of extensive negative campaigns by some homeowner groups in Los Angeles.

Finally, the poll shows voters supporting the idea of a legal right to shelter in California, but leery of additional taxes, which would likely be needed to pay for it.

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Abortion rights in peril

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority seems set to sharply limit, and maybe entirely eliminate, the constitutional protection for abortion.

As David Savage wrote, the court heard arguments on a Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. For the past half century, the court’s Roe vs. Wade decision has prevented states from banning abortions before the point of viability — about 24 weeks.

Six of the justices made clear in their comments that they favored allowing Mississippi to go ahead with its law. The only question seemed to be how much of Roe and the abortion cases that followed it the majority will throw out.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. seemed to hold out the idea of setting a new line at 15 weeks, but it wasn’t clear that any of the other conservative justices were interested in that. At least three seemed clearly set on rolling back any federal protection for abortion rights.

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The latest from Washington

Congress voted Thursday evening for a short-term spending measure to keep federal agencies open through mid-February. As Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, that clears one big item off the December must-do list, but some big ones remain, including the Democrats’ hopes of giving final approval to Biden’s big social-spending bill.

Biden announced a new set of policies designed to limit the spread of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus. As Chris Megerian wrote, the plan includes a new push to get people to take booster shots as well as a requirement that insurance companies pay the cost for home tests for COVID-19.

“We need to be ready,” Biden said Thursday in formally announcing the plan. Public health officials believe current vaccines still provide protection against the mutated version of the coronavirus, the president said.

Vice President Kamala Harris’ chief spokesperson and senior advisor, Symone Sanders, announced plans to leave her job at the end of the year. As Noah Bierman wrote, her departure comes as Harris continues to struggle with low poll ratings.

As Bierman also wrote, the rivalry — or presumed rivalry — between Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been a prime topic of conversation in Washington for months. On Thursday, perhaps in an effort to quiet the rumor-mongering, the two took a trip together to North Carolina.

The latest from California

Buttigieg, of course, gets a lot of attention as the first gay man to seriously contend for a major party’s presidential nomination. But as Mark Barabak writes, before there was Mayor Pete, there was Fred Karger, a Republican consultant and corporate campaign strategist who sought the GOP nomination in 2012. And Karger doesn’t want to be forgotten.

A group of Republicans filed suit seeking to block the state’s independent Citizens Redistricting Commission from continuing with its work. As John Myers wrote, the suit claims the commission has violated its charter by not being sufficiently transparent about its communications. The commission is scheduled to release maps of new legislative and congressional districts by Dec. 26.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.

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