Democrats have a problem with young voters. They hope the battle over abortion will solve it. Will that work?

President Biden walks down the steps of Air Force One
President Biden walks down the steps of Air Force One as he arrives at Stansted Airport in England on July 9 en route to a NATO summit in Lithuania.
(Kin Cheung / Associated Press)
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Fifteen years and a political lifetime ago, the comedian Sarah Silverman produced a memorable video telling young Democrats to head down to Florida to persuade their grandparents to vote for Barack Obama.

In 2024, worried Democrats might want to try the reverse — get Grandma to urge her Gen Z offspring out to vote.

President Biden is consolidating his support among Democratic voters in older generations, but prominent party strategists have started sounding alarms about a serious lag among young voters.

Biden’s age, 80, plays a role, but it’s far from the only factor.

Close observers of the youth vote cite a sense of alienation from the political process that has taken hold with many in Gen Z along with doubts about Biden’s achievements on issues such as climate change.

There’s also the fact that many of the youngest potential voters — those turning 18 this year or next — were not even teenagers when former President Trump first took office and have fewer memories of his tenure.

Disengagement from news and politics

Increasing numbers of Americans are actively avoiding news, reporting that news consumption depresses them. News avoidance is especially common among people younger than 35 in the U.S. as well as Britain, according to studies done by the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford in England.

A voter who is 25 today entered elementary school during the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq, became a teenager as the Great Recession took hold, lived through news of repeated school shootings and turned 18 in time for Trump’s election in 2016. Perhaps it’s no surprise that many young Americans feel the political system doesn’t work.


A new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll documents that feeling in California: Asked about satisfaction with the way democracy works in California, registered voters younger than 50 were only half as likely as those over 65 to say they were very or extremely satisfied.

Among those younger than 30, only 1 in 5 were very or extremely satisfied, according to the poll, which was sponsored by the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund.

Among the population as a whole, liberals and Democrats, who form a large majority in California, were far more likely than conservatives and Republicans to feel satisfied with the way democracy works in the state, the Berkeley poll found. Democrats and liberals were also far more likely to express confidence in the integrity of the electoral system in the state.

Among young voters, the combination of disengagement with news and doubts about the system can depress voter turnout.

But as always with politics, there’s a counter factor. In the case of young voters, that’s the power of abortion rights, which was once again demonstrated Tuesday when Ohio voted on an abortion-related referendum.

Republicans in the Ohio Legislature gambled that by calling a special election in mid-August, when voter turnout would normally be low, they could pass a measure aimed at making it harder to put abortion protections into the state Constitution.


The move backfired spectacularly. Voters rejected the measure by 57%-43%, with turnout that matched some midterm elections.

Other abortion-related votes since the Supreme Court decision last summer that overturned Roe vs. Wade have generated large turnout among young voters; early indications suggest that was true in Ohio, as well.

Democrats hope the issue will help them in 2024. There’s good reason to think it will in some key states, including Arizona, where abortion rights groups are aiming to put a measure on the ballot. The issue could also once again be important in Ohio, where Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, one of his party’s most endangered incumbents, plans to draw a sharp contrast with his Republican opponents who back nationwide abortion limits.

A recent CNN poll found that an increasing share of voters consider abortion a litmus test for candidates, with intensity greater on the abortion rights side. That’s especially true among women younger than 45, 62% of whom strongly disapprove of the Supreme Court ruling.

But the midterm elections showed that the abortion issue isn’t a magic bullet. A majority of voters, even in most conservative states, oppose highly restrictive abortion laws, repeated polls have shown. But Republican governors in Florida, Texas, Ohio and Georgia all won reelection last year after approving such measures.

That record suggests the abortion issue, alone, won’t guarantee the youth turnout Biden will need in every battleground state.


No one expects a large share of young voters to cast ballots for Trump if he wins the Republican nomination. The former president remains widely unpopular among younger Americans. The most recent YouGov poll for the Economist, for example, found that among Americans ages 18-29, only one-third had even a somewhat favorable view of Trump, while almost half, 48%, viewed him “very unfavorably.”

But as pollster John Della Volpe has reminded Democrats, voters have “additional options” if they find a Biden-Trump rematch uninspiring.

Della Volpe has long experience with young voters as director of the semi-annual Youth Poll conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He also polled for Biden’s campaign in 2020.

His firm, SocialSphere, recently released data showing that one in eight Gen Z (18-26) and millennial (27-42) voters said there was at least a “good chance” they would vote for Cornel West, the Green Party candidate, in 2024. A No Labels campaign by Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia drew 9% of Gen Z voters and 16% of millennials, the poll found.

Support for third parties tends to fade in the stretch, but another option is simply staying home.

In the run-up to last fall’s midterm elections, Della Volpe confidently — and correctly — predicted young voters would turn out heavily in key states.

Now, however, “I’m anxious,” he says. “I’m anxious about youth turnout meeting or exceeding the high bar they’ve set in the last three election cycles” — 2018, 2020 and 2022.


In 2020, Biden took 60% of the youth vote, the benchmark that Della Volpe argues Democrats need to hit to win.

In 2022, young voters were key to races for the Senate and governorships that Democrats won in highly contested states including Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

But lower turnout, especially among young voters who lean left, was a chief reason Democrats lost House races elsewhere in the country, especially in New York and California.

The turnout difference wasn’t huge — Trump voters were about four points more likely to show up in the midterm elections than Biden voters were, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found in its analysis of who voted in 2022.

But “given sharp political divisions in the United States, small changes in voter turnout from election to election have big consequences,” Pew noted in its report on the midterm voting. In this case, it accounted for the shift in majority control of the House from Democrats to Republicans.

Some dropoff was inevitable: Turnout for midterm elections is always smaller than for a presidential contest, and young voters typically vote less frequently than their elders, as the Berkeley IGS poll documented.


The concern for Democrats is that youth disengagement from news and politics could prevent turnout from fully rebounding.

Pessimism about the political system combined with news avoidance makes it very difficult for elected officials to persuade voters that progress has even happened. But it’s a candidate’s job to deal with the political environment that exists. In 2020, Biden could win just by not being Trump. In 2024, he’ll likely have to go beyond that and persuade young voters they have something to cheer for.

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