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Joe Biden wants to bring young voters to his campaign. What do they want?

Joe Biden
Joe Biden is hoping to win support from the young progressive voters who helped fuel Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
(Mandel Ngan / Getty Images)
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Joe Biden has some work to do if he wants to win over young voters.

The former vice president is reaching out to the younger voters who overwhelmingly backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ now-fading bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. But as Biden tries to bring the progressive senator’s supporters to his own campaign, he’ll have to address the disillusionment and distrust with which some of them view him.

Biden recently thanked Sanders and his base for the “passion and tenacity” they brought to the campaign. After winning three more states’ primary contests on March 17, Biden looked into a camera from his home in Wilmington, Del., and spoke directly to those Americans.

“To the young voters who have been inspired by Sen. Sanders: I hear you. I know what’s at stake. I know what we have to do.”

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But many voters between 18 and 29, a group that Sanders decisively won in most states that have held primary contests so far, say that Biden will need to do more than just extend a welcome.

Some remain skeptical of positions he’s taken over his decades-long political career, such as his role in the controversial 1994 anti-crime bill and his past support for the Hyde Amendment, which barred federal funding for abortions.

Many want to see Biden endorse progressive policies like the Green New Deal and “Medicare for all,” ideas Sanders championed. This month, Biden expanded his higher education plan to offer free tuition at public colleges and universities for students from households with incomes less than $125,000 a year, a notable concession to the left.

But some voters are unsure whether Biden can advocate for a generation facing increasing income inequality and dire consequences from climate change.

Here’s what some of them want to hear from Biden:

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Raisa Ojeda, 19, Long Beach
Raisa Ojeda.
Raisa Ojeda
(Hannah Singer)

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UCLA freshman Raisa Ojeda despises President Trump — but the Long Beach resident isn’t sure Biden would be a much better leader.

The avid Sanders supporter, 19, wants to see Biden endorse policy proposals like the Green New Deal and cut ties with people in the fossil fuel industry. She also wants him to do more to address his role in shepherding the 1994 anti-crime bill into law and how the wave of mass incarceration that followed affected communities of color. And she would like to see him adopt Sanders’ “Medicare for all” proposal so no American is left without health insurance.

Ojeda does not trust Biden, she said, but if he becomes the nominee, she will vote for him against Trump.

“Young voters like me who mostly root for Bernie Sanders will be picking the lesser of two evils in the general election,” she said.

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Jane Keranen, 21, Iowa City
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Jane Keranen
(Melissa Gomez/Los Angeles Times)

USC senior Jane Keranen joined other Iowans last month in Palm Springs to take part in a remote caucus for their state’s first-in-the-nation contest of the 2020 primary election.

Young voters such as Keranen propelled Sanders to a virtual tie for first place in the Iowa caucuses, and the senator finished first in the following two primary contests. But now that he’s falling behind Biden in the delegate count, Keranen is disappointed that the Democratic Party will likely nominate the centrist former vice president. Getting Trump out of office is important, she said, but the priority should be advocating for progressive ideas like universal healthcare.

She is not sure there are any policy compromises Biden could adopt to make her support him in the general election. At this point in the race, she said, the moderate’s appeals ring hollow.

“Politicians say what they need to say when the time arises,” she said. “We need to be looking at track record and history.”

Keranen said she finds it hard to support Biden knowing he pushed for the 1994 anti-crime bill, and that he doesn’t support erasing all student debt in the U.S., or universal healthcare, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

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To her, his consistent message that “people want results, not a revolution” means he does not understand voters like her who want “an upheaval of the system.”

“While I wish I could say, ‘Vote blue no matter who,’ I also have a lot of qualms with voting for Joe Biden,” she said. “It’s a very strange fork in the road to be at.”

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Eliza Moreno, 23, Culver City
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Eliza Moreno
(Melissa Gomez / Los Angeles Times)

Eliza Moreno wants the eventual Democratic nominee to engage with the Latino community.

The 23-year-old Culver City resident’s priorities are getting Trump out of the White House and supporting a candidate who will uplift the Latino community. Moreno, who works in communication and policy, said she saw that in Sanders, whose campaign energized young Latino voters, and in Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Biden could do more by talking to Latinos about issues they care about, like affordable housing and healthcare, and by hiring young people of color so voters feel represented in the campaign, Moreno said.

The policy issues are personal, she said. Healthcare is a top concern of Latinos in California, with many lacking access to medical insurance. And gentrification often affects people of color, so she would like to see Biden’s policy proposals include the people often left behind.

“That’s where a candidate gains a lot of credibility for me,” she said, by “backing themselves with policies that directly impact young and Latino voters.”

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Olivia Lovelace, 20, Houston

Olivia Lovelace, a Dartmouth College junior sent home to Houston to finish her semester online, says the pandemic should be an opportunity for Biden to advocate for universal healthcare.

She also senses that the fear of weathering a public health crisis under Trump could lead voters to support the former vice president. For her, a write-in vote would feel wasteful, she said, and Biden’s views are closer to her own than are Trump’s.

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“I’m not excited to go vote for him, but I will do it if I have to,” the 20-year-old said.

Lovelace, who backed Sanders in the New Hampshire primary, said the Vermont senator excites voters because he’s advocated for civil rights for years. She viewed Biden’s record as spotty and his message far less appealing because it leaves little room for political revolution, she said.

“I don’t know if there’s anything he could say that would feel honest and authentic, at this point,” she said.

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Joe Beutel, 25, Boston
Joe Beutel
Joe Beutel
(Sophie Arnold)

Biden is far from a perfect candidate, according to Joe Beutel, 25.

The former vice president was slow to change his position on the Hyde Amendment, a long-standing congressional ban on using federal healthcare money to pay for abortions, which hardly inspires confidence that he is enthusiastic about supporting abortion rights, Beutel said. And the Boston University graduate student would like the Biden campaign to reverse its portrayal of progressive candidates as extreme.

But if Biden gets the nomination over Sanders, Beutel’s candidate of choice, he’ll back him.

“I know Sanders supporters my age who pretty much are ‘Bernie or bust,’ but I don’t agree with them,” he said.

Biden is better than Trump on the issue of climate change, Beutel said. And Biden’s willingness to adopt a student debt plan that echoes one proposed by the progressive Sen. Warren shows room for compromise, he added.

“I can’t personally go for the option of throwing out the small things that we do get for having a Democrat, even a moderate Democrat, in office,” he said. “I’m planning to vote for the Democratic nominee no matter who it is at this point.”

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Madison Williams, 26, Los Angeles
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Madison Williams
(Melissa Gomez/Los Angeles Times)

Madison Williams, 26, cast her vote for Warren in California’s March 3 primary. When the Massachusetts senator dropped out of the race, Williams moved to the Sanders camp.

Now she’s discouraged again, with the likelihood of a Sanders nomination fast diminishing. Biden doesn’t represent the progressive ideas the country needs, the Los Angeles resident said.

“We just need to take some risks,” she said. “We need change. And Joe Biden is not change.”

She wants to see Biden adopt the more progressive policies, such as universal healthcare, that align with what she and many other young voters want. But she said she plans to vote for whichever Democrat faces Trump in November, and she believes many other young voters will do the same.

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Sean Bedolla, 23, Los Angeles

Sean Bedolla, 23, doesn’t feel like Biden has done enough to reach young voters.

“It’s hard as a young person, a young adult and student, to really feel like he’s concerned about us,” the Santa Monica College student said.

Biden, in a 2018 interview, spoke about the trials his generation faced and how they advocated for change. He told Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison that young people talking about how tough things are should get involved with politics. “Give me a break,” he said. “I have no empathy for it.”

To Bedolla, who is part of his college’s Students for Bernie group, the comment felt dismissive. The assumption that millennials don’t participate doesn’t take into account the economic barriers that didn’t exist for previous generations, he said.

Biden’s attempts to recruit young Sanders supporters feel like false promises, Bedolla said. If the former vice president adopted some of the issues most important to Bedolla, such as tuition-free higher education and “Medicare for all,” the student said he could consider backing his candidacy. But Biden would have to make a convincing case that he actually stood behind those policies and wasn’t just trying to win young Americans’ votes.

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But there is one thing Biden could do that would gain Bedolla’s wholehearted support: “If he somehow was able to put his ego aside and have Bernie [be] a part of his administration, he would totally have my vote, without a doubt.”

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Saba Maheen, 23, Atlanta

Dartmouth College senior Saba Maheen would be more enthusiastic about voting for Biden if he would support universal healthcare and erasing student debt.

“If we need radical change, then we need radical politicians,” the Sanders supporter said.

But Maheen, 23, plans to vote for whichever Democrat faces Trump in November, even if it is the former vice president.

There is one decision Biden could make that would encourage less-grudging support from Maheen.

The candidate has said he is in the process of narrowing the list of women he will choose from for a running mate, and Maheen is hoping he chooses Stacey Abrams, the former leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. Maheen is from Atlanta, where Abrams spent much of her life, and followed the politician’s unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2018.

“I would be totally for it,” she said of Abrams as the vice presidential nominee, “and that would lessen the blow of having Biden.”

Biden and Sanders face off Sunday at the March Democratic debate, where they’ll have more time to talk about policy. Here’s where they stand on five issues.


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Melissa Gomez is a reporter covering the 2020 presidential campaign. She joined the Los Angeles Times in 2018 after graduating from the University of Florida. She is a proud native Floridian.