Here’s How Biden Can Win Over Young Progressives

Leaders from several young progressive groups have made their policy priorities clear, and are getting help from young Democratic stars like AOC.

Demonstrators from groups including Extinction Rebellion and Sunrise Movement demand broad action at a youth-led climate strike near City Hall in December 2019 in New York City. Hundreds attended the strike, part of a series of school walk-outs dubbed "Fridays For Future" inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)
Demonstrators from groups including Extinction Rebellion and Sunrise Movement demand broad action at a youth-led climate strike near City Hall in December 2019 in New York City. Hundreds attended the strike, part of a series of school walk-outs dubbed "Fridays For Future" inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

The leaders of eight progressive youth groups have sent Joe Biden a letter outlining how he can win their full support by November, now that Sen. Bernie Sanders — the favored candidate among young voters — is out of the race.

Biden is now the presumptive Democratic nominee, but he didn’t get there by winning young votes. He won with a coalition of voters 45 and older, as well as with huge margins among Black voters. His significant lag behind Sanders with the youth vote highlighted a vulnerable spot for him in the upcoming election. 

The organizations represent a broad range of issues that are important to young voters: addressing the climate crisis (the Sunrise Movement), gun violence (March For Our Lives), immigration reform (United We Dream), student debt (Student Action), and more. 

Young people are “poised to play a critical role deciding the next President,” they write, adding “it is clear that [Biden was] unable to win the votes of the vast majority of voters under 45” during the primary. Sanders beat Biden with young voters by large margins in several primaries; in the key state of Michigan for example, which Biden won overall by 17 points, Sanders won by a whopping 61 points among 18-24 year-olds, 56 points among 25-29 year olds, and 19 points among 30-39 year-olds. When you get to 40 and above, that’s where Biden had his overwhelming wins by huge margins. 

This huge age gap in support between Biden and Sanders repeated itself across the 28 states that have held primaries so far; however, overall turnout by voters 45 and older was still much larger than that of younger voters, and Biden was able to secure 1,228 national delegates compared to Sanders’ 918.

But young voters are still key to Biden’s campaign to win in November. “He needs their support to defeat Trump in the general election and avoid the fate of Hillary Clinton,” writes NBC News political reporter Sahil Kapur. Clinton “saw drop-offs from 2012 among voters under 30 in key states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which decided the outcome” of the 2016 election. So getting young voters to be enthusiastic about him is important, and a “major challenge” for Biden, he writes. In the few days since Sanders dropped out, several of his student supporter groups at colleges and universities across the nation have said they will not endorse Biden. On Monday, however, the Vermont senator himself came out with his own endorsement, urging Democratic party unity to defeat Trump.

With these eight groups as representatives, young progressives are making their policy demands clear. Describing themselves as “issues-first voters,” they note that “fewer [young people] identify with a political party than any other generation” — so they’re focused on policy solutions, not party politics. The specific demands they make in the letter include the following: supporting the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, reducing gun violence deaths with particular benchmarks, expanding DACA and protecting people from deportation, canceling the existing $1.7 trillion in student debt, and more. They also ask for the creation of a Task Force on Young Americans at the White House. (Read the full letter here.)

The policies they’re asking Biden to commit to are not just ones from the Sanders campaign, though many do come from there; the young leaders also reference several plans that they support from other presidential candidates who have dropped out, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, Jay Inslee, and Tom Steyer. (Steyer’s progressive advocacy organization, NextGen America, is one of the signatories to the letter — and they note that the hedge fund billionaire, along with Warren and Sanders, supports “an annual tax on the extreme wealth of the wealthiest 180,000 households in America who are in the top 0.1 percent.” They want Biden, whose tax plans have been described as “much more moderate,” to do the same.)

The point that the young leaders are trying to make, backed up by very specific policy demands, is summed up in this line: “Exclusively anti-Trump messaging won’t be enough to lead any candidate to victory. We need you to champion the bold ideas that have galvanized our generation and given us hope in the political process.”

That idea of “hope” as a key feature of a presidential campaign — which is certainly familiar to Biden, the vice president of the “hope and change” ticket — is echoed in a new interview with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in The New York Times. The 30-year-old congresswoman and famous Sanders surrogate is the most visible young, elected progressive in the nation; her successful primary run against establishment Democrat Joe Crowley was backed by the Justice Democrats, another signatory to the letter.

“People need to feel hope in a Democratic administration. And that’s what this is about,” AOC recently told the Times’ Astead Wesley. “If we’re not talking about paths to citizenship for undocumented people, and if we’re just talking about policy changes of 5 or 10 percent — especially when you look at something like climate change — it’s not about moving to the left. It’s about who is able to find hope in your administration. And creating plans that give people hope and possibility.”

AOC, who has said several times already that she will support the Democratic nominee, including if it’s Biden, was asked if there’s “a difference between voting for him and campaigning for him.” First answering that “beating Donald Trump is a matter of life or death for our communities,” the New York rep continued, “I think it’s a difference between making an argument for harm reduction, and making the argument for, there’s actually going to be progress made for us.” If Biden can have a successful dialogue and negotiation with young progressives, they won’t just be voting for him: the organizations plan on spending “more than $100 million communicating with more than 10 million young members, supporters, and potential voters.”

“We are uniquely suited to help mobilize our communities, but we need help ensuring our efforts will be backed-up by a campaign that speaks to our generation,” the leaders write. “Our generation is the future of this country. If you aim to motivate, mobilize, and welcome us in, we will work tirelessly to align this nation with its highest ideals.”

It won’t necessarily be easy. AOC noted that “the whole process of coming together should be uncomfortable for everyone involved — that’s how you know it’s working. And if Biden is only doing things he’s comfortable with, then it’s not enough.”

Biden, who focused on gun reform during the Obama administration, will likely support March For Our Lives’ proposal to appoint a National Director of Gun Violence Prevention in the White House. The group, started by survivors of the 2018 Parkland school shooting, ask that the next White House “coordinate across agencies and incorporate a survivor-centered approach.” 

“Calling for solutions that match the scale, scope, and urgency of the problems we are facing is not radical. If nothing else, this moment of crisis should show that it is the pragmatic thing to do. We want results and we’re leading some of the movements that will help deliver them,” the letter concludes. Biden has so far not issued a direct response to the letter, but has already made some overtures to young voters; after Sanders dropped out, the former vice president acknowledged in a statement praising the Sanders campaign and said Sanders had been especially "inspiring and energizing" for young voters. A few weeks before that, after winning in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona, Biden said the following in a broadcast: “Let me say, especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Senator Sanders: I hear you. I know what is at stake. And I know what we have to do.”