Biden’s age gap: As young voters pull away, baby boomers come to the rescue

Joe Biden Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Joe Biden Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

There’s been a lot of coverage about how Joe Biden is “losing” the youth vote. Depending on the poll you choose to analyze, the age breakdown may show Biden losing 18-29 year-olds by 1 point or more to Donald Trump, or winning them by over 20 points. In 2020, Biden won voters ages 18-29 by 24 points therefore, since he’s consistently polled below that as of late, the general consensus is that the president’s support from this age group has softened.

Perhaps the most important and accurate poll regarding the youth vote is the Harvard Youth Poll, conducted by John Della Volpe, a longtime youth polling expert. He focuses solely on the 18-29 year-old age group. His latest poll from April showed Biden leading Trump by 19 points among likely voters in this age group. This is much more believable than Trump winning these voters by any margin. Still, the poll does show less support than Biden had in 2020.

If it is true that Biden is losing youth support—and it certainly may be—it would definitely be a bit alarming. It’s hard to know for sure this far out from the election and with all the political issues of the day swirling around in the public’s consciousness, including the Israel/Gaza situation. But many Democrats would have to wonder how Donald Trump is attracting more youths than last time, given the Democrats are perceived as the more “youth-friendly” party. Democrats generally have large margins of youth support wrapped up due to their support for more youth-oriented issues like abortion rights, LGBTQ and racial minority tolerance and acceptance, and college student aid. How could they be losing support among this cohort of voters to one of the most intolerant demagogues to run for president in history?

It’s a great question, but perhaps the wrong one to ask. Maybe the best question to ask in what is likely to be the most consequential election in modern history is “How can we gain more support among older voters”?

The turnout and voting habits of young people get a lot of attention every election cycle. And it’s true that if Democrats can maintain their historical level of support and increase turnout significantly among this bloc of the electorate, they are practically ensured victory with all else being equal. But the fact is all things are often not equal, and older voters consistently remain the key to victory. Their turnout is typically significantly higher, and they vote more reliably. And Joe Biden won in 2020 largely due to older people’s votes.

For example, according to the Pew Research Center data, in 2016 Hillary Clinton won the 18-29 year-old vote by 30 points. Joe Biden won this age group by 24 points in 2020, a net loss of 6 points, equating to a total of about 1.5 million voters. But since the turnout for this voting bloc is weak, roughly 50%, and their population is low relative to other age groups, this total amount of voters is easily surpassed in other age groups by similar, or even smaller, point swings.

Among voters 65 years or older, Clinton lost by 9 points in 2016. Biden lost this age group in 2020 by only 4 points, a net 5-point gain. Since the population of this age group is larger and they turn out at a much higher rate, about 75%, the number of voters Biden gained here was significantly bigger, roughly 2 million total voters.

The key to Joe Biden’s victory, therefore, was not the younger portion of the electorate, but the older portion, the group of 65 years or older. 

Biden held steady with Clinton’s share of voters among 50-64 year-olds and actually gained a point among 30-49 year-olds. So his popular vote victory can be accounted for by the larger overall turnout, which increased the total population of voters, and this swing among older voters, plus the small increase in share among 30-49 year-olds. 

Remember that Clinton actually won the popular vote by 4 million votes, and Joe Biden won by 7 million, an increase in margin of 3 million. When you take into account these age demographic shifts along with the lack of significant third-party candidates in 2020 and the increase in the overall voting population, these numbers make sense.

While it’s worth lamenting the loss of 5 points of the youth vote, and figuring out how to win them back, it can be argued that it’s even more worthwhile to figure out how to increase your margins among older voters. A 5-point swing in the 18-29 year-old vote equates to roughly 1.2 million votes, based on 2020’s turnout. You can wash that away with a 1.5-point swing in your favor among voters aged 50 and up, or with a 1-point swing of those 30 years and older.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about Biden’s age and how it may be hurting his electoral prospects. But it could be argued that his age is helping him with older voters and therefore may continue to propel him to victory again in 2024. It does seem that those over 65 years old might start taking offense and being more motivated to vote for Biden the more people suggest that older people can’t perform the job of president well simply due to their age.

The crosstabs in many of these early polls are all over the place and tend to make little sense. But it is worth noting that the polls that show the most worrisome outcomes among younger voters tend to show significant improvement among older voters. In the poll I referenced earlier showing Biden losing to Trump by 1 point among 18-29 year-olds, Biden is ahead of Trump among the 65 years or older age group by 3 points. If this actually held in the election, this would be a 7-point swing, or about 2.7 million votes in a turnout similar to 2020s.

We could analyze these polls every which way and spend all day doing it to try to surmise a narrative for the upcoming election, but that is a fool’s errand at this stage in the election cycle. However, one thing you can certainly safely assume about the upcoming election is that older voters will vote at a much higher rate than younger voters. Therefore, small changes in that age group will induce larger election effects. That’s where the key to victory lies.