The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can Democrats’ advantage with younger Americans survive Joe Biden?

President Biden listens during a prayer in the East Room of the White House on July 5, before awarding a Medal of Honor to four U.S. soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)

There’s a certain portion of the left that figures political dominance is only a decade or two away. That if the country simply survives over the short term, the robust support that younger voters have offered the Democratic Party will make up more and more of the electorate. That nature will do to older, more conservative voters what nature does to everyone.

They can be forgiven for holding this belief, of course. Young voters have been much more consistently Democratic than older voters have been Republican. The difference? Turnout. In 2020, voters under the age of 30 backed Joe Biden by 24 points but made up only 15 percent of the electorate. Those age 50 and over preferred President Donald Trump more narrowly, but made up 55 percent of voters.

This assumption that the future is Democratic, of course, depends on young voters continuing to vote Democratic as they age. There’s a popular assumption that voters get more conservative as they age, an assertion for which evidence is spotty. More concerning for Democrats, though, is what happens if younger voters’ dissatisfaction with President Biden — something by now well documented — spreads to the party more broadly.

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This question was raised in an interesting way after the release of a Monmouth University poll on Tuesday. A political observer noted that the poll showed Biden with a net minus-35 approval rating (those under the age of 35 were 35 points more likely to say they disapproved of his job performance as to say they approved) but Democrats nonetheless having a 25-point advantage with the same group on the generic congressional ballot. (That’s the term for questions asking poll respondents whether they were more likely to vote for the Democrat or the Republican on their House ballot, without naming candidates.)

Normally, we see congressional voting mirroring presidential approval, at least in the macrocosm. That’s why approval ratings are useful as an indicator of how elections will go. Among the youngest Americans, though, the connection is broken.

“That is the remarkable divergence that is opening in polling,” the Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein noted on Twitter. “ …[R]ecoil from modern GOP remains strong among many voters down on Biden.”

That’s probably true — as is frustration among younger Americans that Biden is too centrist, not too liberal.

Curious how this divergence by age compared with other groups over time, I reached out to YouGov, which conducts biweekly national polls that often include both job approval and generic ballot questions. YouGov was kind enough to provide me with its data. It suggests that Brownstein’s “divergence” is, in fact, more heavily a function of younger voters.

If we simply plot approval and the generic ballot, the pattern is a bit hard to pick out. The drop in Biden’s approval across age groups is clear; approval for Trump held more steady over the course of his term in office. The ranges for the congressional ballot question, however, more clearly mirror what was seen during Trump’s administration.

As it turns out, there is not a strong correlation between approval and the congressional ballot among younger voters in either the Trump or Biden periods. There is, however, among the oldest voters, a group that made up more than a quarter of the electorate in 2020 and more than 3 in 10 votes in 2018.

We can visualize that another way. If we plot all of the net approval ratings and congressional ballot margins among the oldest voters from YouGov’s polling, you can see that they tend to move along diagonal axes: As net approval for Trump went down, Democrats gained an advantage on the generic ballot. (The dots shifted to the left.) Then, as approval for Biden went down, the Republicans gained.

Now compare that with the youngest voters. Not only is the cloud of response broader for each president, showing a wider mixture of approval and generic-ballot responses, the trend over time under Biden doesn’t move at a diagonal at all. (I’ve made a GIF of each of the age groups that is visible at the end of this article.)

The hope for Republicans is that the brief dalliance among the youngest voters for preferring a Republican congressional candidate (those four dots to the right of the zero point on the horizontal axis) at least suggests some trend to the right. The blue blob is, in fact, farther to the right than the red one. But not a whole lot.

Let’s visualize this one more way. Here’s the net approval by age during each administration, with more frequent results shown as longer columns. Note the wide spread among young voters for Biden and compare it with the more compact difference in the two older groups.

And now the congressional ballot. While the difference among the youngest voters has shifted to the right under Biden — better for Republicans — the median result has moved from Democrats plus-24 to Democrats plus-18.

The median result among the oldest voters, meanwhile, has moved left since Trump — but that’s only because it was farther to the left last year, when Biden was more popular. Recent polls of that age group from YouGov have been more favorable to the GOP.

Look, it’s certainly not good for Democrats that younger voters don’t really like Biden. That’s particularly true if he runs again in 2024. But those voters seem to view him as distinct from the party broadly, reflecting a real (often generational) split within the party itself.

Part of this, too, is that Democrats currently hold power. They — or, often, just Biden — are expected to get things done, but in the eyes of many (probably most) Americans aren’t. Should Republicans regain the House in November, which seems likely, that expectation will probably shift. And who knows? Maybe younger voters will come out two years from now less to keep Biden in power than to keep Republicans out of it.

Here is the promised GIF. Note that the 45-to-64 age group is also muddy.