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Young voters may be disenchanted with Biden, but they still oppose Trump, poll finds

President Biden talks to reporters before stepping into a limousine
In contrast to some other surveys, the Harvard Youth Poll shows President Biden continuing to hold a solid lead over Donald Trump among young Americans.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)
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Surging turnout among young voters has delivered repeated Democratic victories for five years.

Big majorities among young people propelled Democratic House candidates into the majority in 2018, gave President Biden his winning edge in 2020 and powered Democratic gains in closely contested states in 2022.

Now, as many Democrats fear their winning streak among young voters is about to end, a major new survey of young Americans provides a detailed picture of their views. Though the findings still offer multiple cautions for they party, they are less dire for Democrats than other recent polls.

Turnout seems likely to drop from the 2020 high point, but it’s Republicans and independents, not Democrats, who are most likely to express doubts about voting, according to the latest biannual poll of young people conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Those disenchanted independent voters include large shares of Black and Latino young people, especially men, the poll found.

And while many young Americans are disenchanted with Biden, there’s no sign of movement toward former President Trump. Instead, independent candidates, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., attract unusually high levels of support.

4 million new potential voters each year

Young voters are a group in constant flux. Each year, about 4 million Americans turn 18 and become eligible to vote.

Americans who came of voting age during Trump’s tenure were powerfully driven by a desire to vote against him, contributing heavily to those big Democratic surges in 2018 and 2020.

But those who have come of age more recently have “had a very different experience,” said pollster John Della Volpe, who has overseen the Harvard Youth Poll since its inception more than two decades ago.

Young men, in particular, have a “dimmer view of government,” he said.

Some of that disappointment stems from a “lack of awareness” by voters of the administration’s genuine policy achievements, says Della Volpe, who polled for Biden’s campaign in 2020. Some stems from disenchantment with the inevitable compromises of governing. Some results from broader social change.

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As young men have moved right, young women have moved left, in large part in reaction to the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision ending the nationwide guarantee of abortion rights. The result is a significant gender gap among young Americans, after many years in which that wasn’t a factor.

Lower turnout

Most surveys of the general population only include a couple of hundred respondents younger than 30, so their results have very large margins of error. The Harvard survey, by contrast, focuses solely on Americans, ages 18-29 — students and nonstudents alike. This fall’s installment surveyed 2,098 young people, interviewed in both English and Spanish from Oct. 26 to Nov. 3, with a margin of error of just under 3 percentage points. The large sample size and the poll’s long track record make it an important barometer.

The survey finds clear signals pointing to lower turnout: Just under half of young Americans said they were “definitely” planning to vote in 2024; the share saying so has dropped eight points from this point four years ago.

Among young Democrats, two-thirds said they were definitely voting — a number that hasn’t changed significantly from four years ago. Among Republicans, however, the poll found a sharp drop, down to 56% from 66% four years ago.

The fact that the dropoff is bigger among Republicans than Democrats is an advantage for Biden. But there’s also a big drop among independents — to 31% from 41% four years ago.

Those independents include a lot of young Black and Latino Americans. Among both groups, the share who identify as independents is “up by double digits,” Della Volpe said. Among Black young people, 38% said they were definitely voting, down 12 points. Among Latino young people the drop was even larger — 16 points.

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Biden still leads

In contrast to some other surveys, the Harvard poll shows Biden continuing to hold a solid lead over Trump among young Americans.

Among likely voters, Biden led 57%-33%. That’s very similar to the 61%-35% by which Biden won 18-29-year-old voters in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center’s study of voting that year, which is generally the most accurate source.

But support for the two candidates shifts in contrasting ways as the voter universe gets bigger: Among all registered voters, Biden’s lead drops to 48%-33%, the poll found. Among all 18-29-year-olds, including those who aren’t registered, the margin shrinks to 41%-30%. That’s contrary to a deeply ingrained belief among many Democrats that higher turnout always benefits their party.

But independents draw support

Trump isn’t Biden’s only concern. The poll found a large share of young voters leaning toward Kennedy.

Asked about a potential five-way race involving Biden, Trump, Kennedy, Cornel West and Sen. Joe Manchin, who hasn’t decided on running, the poll found 15% of likely 18-29-year-old voters backing one of the independents and another 15% who said they didn’t know what they’d do.

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Kennedy, who is mounting a well-funded campaign, likely will be on the ballot in several battleground states. The poll shows him getting support from 1 in 10 young voters, mostly at Biden’s expense.

Third-party candidates typically fade during a campaign, and Kennedy’s penchant for conspiracy theories and fringe beliefs may turn off many people as they learn more about him. For now, however, the poll indicates that he poses a significant risk to Biden among young voters.

West and Manchin have much less support, the poll showed.

Democrats count on abortion politics

Support for legal abortion has grown since the poll last asked about it in 2016. The share of young Americans who believe abortion should be legal “in all cases” now stands at 44%, up from 36%. Most of the shift came from young women, 48% of whom say abortion should be legal in all cases.

If their state had an abortion ballot initiative, 64% of young people who label themselves “pro-choice” said they would definitely vote. Just 34% who label themselves as “pro-life” said they would. That’s consistent with recent votes around the country in which abortion rights have carried the day, even in conservative states.

In addition, almost 7 in 10 young women and a majority of young men said that access to reproductive healthcare was important in choosing which state to live in. Among women, 53% said that access was “very important.”

Those attitudes are based in part on familiarity: More than one-third of young women said they have a friend or family member who has had an abortion — a number that doesn’t vary significantly by race, ethnicity or education, the poll found.

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Abortion politics helped drive Democratic victories in highly contested states like Michigan in 2022 and a state Supreme Court election in Wisconsin this spring. Democratic strategists hope the issue will once again motivate turnout among young voters next year. Given Biden’s many problems, that may be the best shot they have.

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