Politics

The Midterms Are About: Is There Anything to Make the Youths Vote?

Time to get on TikTok, I guess.

An illustration of a marijuana leaf.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

There’s been no heavier albatross on Joe Biden’s approval than the youth electorate.

Young voters didn’t prefer him in the 2020 Democratic primary, but the mostly liberal cohort did pull through during the general election, putting Biden over the top in essential states. Yet throughout his presidency, polls have shown him trailing among young Americans, sometimes faring worse with them than even Donald Trump. Biden’s recovered some ground in recent months, but the overall picture for youth midterms turnout is grim—and that’s a significant part of why the national map favors the GOP. What gives?

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According to polling from Harvard, one factor depressing midterms enthusiasm is perception of “ineffectiveness” from the ruling party. An October survey of young folks from Teen Vogue and Change Research backs this up: Respondents said they would support laws like the Democratic Congress’ climate and gun-safety bills—if only they had heard of them. Alas, only a quarter to half of the young voters Teen Vogue surveyed knew anything about the Dems’ major pieces of legislation, much less the candidates in their states and districts.

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If Democrats aren’t connecting with the youth, it could be because many are not meeting the kids where they gather: on TikTok, where 26 percent of American adults under 30 now get their news, and where politically minded teenagers have found success in fundraising and organizing. Some candidates—John Fetterman, Tim Ryan, Katie Porter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—have expended personal effort to curate their TikTok presence, though most of their colleagues aren’t there just yet.

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That’s not to say a last-minute video blitz would be the solution. Dems’ youth appeal is still hindered by the IRL economy. In an age of staggering income inequality across generations, youngsters don’t feel great about the future and tend to focus on making ends meet, leaving little time to hit the electoral polls for issues they do care about, like climate change. And even if they are primed to cast ballots, they’ll have a hard time doing so in key states like Texas and Georgia, which have laws to suppress turnout. As one 29-year-old Wisconsinite recently told NPR, “the people that find it hardest to vote are young people and minority voters.” A nonpartisan Tufts University organization found that the states that stand to be most affected by youth midterms turnout, like Colorado, have “facilitative election laws like automatic, same-day, and/or pre-registration.”

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In spite of all these barriers, there are two issues that have broken through in a big way: abortion rights and student debt forgiveness. One data firm found earlier this month that after the end of Roe v. Wade, voter registration from women ages 18–24 surged in important states like Pennsylvania and Arizona. (Michigan, where such registrations similarly swelled, also has a proposition on the ballot to enshrine state abortion rights. According to a recent CNN poll, nearly 70 percent of voters under 45 support the measure.) Teen Vogue found that Biden’s student debt forgiveness helped increase youth favorability toward Democrats, while a separate September analysis projected that the policy’s tangible effects could even find crossover appeal with independent Biden skeptics and young Republicans.

So what can Biden and Democrats do now to give youth turnout the bump they need in battleground states? Maybe: Get on TikTok to take credit as domestic gas and energy prices drop, fight to get voters around anti-turnout shenanigans in swing states, and emphasize just how the party will work to secure abortion rights. Oh, and hope to God that the White House’s student loan website keeps working.

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