President Biden is struggling to connect with younger voters. The sepia-toned stories he peppers into speeches may not be helping.
When Biden traveled to Israel last month, he spoke about his 1973 meeting with then Prime Minister Golda Meir.
Following the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade last year, he stressed his work in 1987 to keep conservative Judge Robert Bork off the nation’s high court. Pressed about climate change during a news conference in Vietnam, he pointed to his longstanding commitment to the issue, including his work on it with Sen. Dick Lugar (R., Ind.) in the 1980s.
As Biden marked his 81st birthday Monday and seeks re-election, those stories about people who have died and faded from public view risk appearing out of date to younger audiences. There are more than 60 years separating Biden from voters who will cast their first ballots in 2024, an acute age gap that presents a challenge for the oldest president in U.S. history.
“I think the fact that he continues to reference politicians that Gen Z may not relate to definitely puts him out of touch,” said Daniela Parra del Riego Valencia, 20, a sophomore at Emory University in Atlanta and president of the Young Democrats of Emory.
Youth voting increased significantly in 2020. Among voters ages 18 to 29, Biden beat former President Donald Trump by 24 percentage points.
But an NBC News poll released Sunday showed that in a hypothetical matchup between Biden and Trump, the likely Republican nominee, 46% of voters ages 18 to 34 supported Trump, and 42% Biden. The poll found that Biden’s approval rating fell to 31% among voters ages 18 to 34, and 70% of those younger voters disapproved of the president’s handling of the war in the Middle East.
Biden’s team counters that the president’s old-time references are part of a folksy style that is an authentic asset, and they say newer generations connect to his wisdom and experience. Younger voters may not even hear his formal speeches laden with historical anecdotes given they are more focused on social media, where the campaign is trying to reach them.
“Young people don’t have to feel like they see themselves in Biden,” said Cyrus Beschloss, founder of the youth polling company Generation Lab. “They just have to feel like they see authenticity.” Kevin Munoz, a Biden campaign spokesman, said they would “meet younger Americans where they are and earn their votes,” as the party did in 2020 and 2022.
Biden, who would be 86 years old at the end of a second term should he win, has long employed a greatest-hits track of stories, including admonitions from his late parents and grandparents, to offer lessons of tolerance, perseverance and the importance of dignity. The nostalgic tales can feel like a turn through the history books.
Biden occasionally talks of his dealings with segregationist senators like Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and James Eastland of Mississippi, noting they would “fight like hell” but still be able to have lunch together.
Biden tells audiences that, when his first wife and daughter were killed in an automobile crash in 1972, shortly after his first Senate victory, he was supported by a group of older, and now deceased, senators such as then-Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, Thomas Eagleton of Missouri and Fritz Hollings of South Carolina.
Other times, Biden signals older cultural touchpoints. During the same Vietnam news conference in September, he referred to a John Wayne Western film as a way of refuting skeptics of climate change.
Republicans have consistently sought to portray Biden as old and out of touch. Trump has mocked Biden’s age and abilities while the Republican National Committee, in an account on X, formerly known as Twitter, recently declared Biden was “not playing with a full deck.” Trump’s team is also hopeful that frustration with the economy gives them an opening with younger voters.
Santiago Mayer, executive director of Voters of Tomorrow, a Gen Z-led organization that has promoted Biden’s agenda, said that what the president has achieved for young voters is more important than his age.
More than three million borrowers have had $127 billion of their federal student loans flagged for cancellation, despite a Supreme Court ruling in June that blocked relief for millions more student-loan holders. The president has made billions in investments in clean energy and negotiated bipartisan gun-control legislation. The White House created an office this fall to fight gun violence and hosted an event with Rep. Maxwell Frost (D., Fla.), the first Generation Z member of Congress.
Biden’s side says the president is connecting with younger voters on social media and at the White House, where he’s hosted musicians like Olivia Rodrigo and BTS and courted YouTube stars and influencers.
One effort Biden’s campaign sees as a success is the internet meme “Dark Brandon,” a depiction of Biden’s red-laser-eyed alter ego, which they adopted as a way to reframe the Republican anti-Biden chant of “Let’s Go Brandon.” Dark Brandon-themed coffee mugs and accompanying videos of Biden drinking from one generated nearly $2 million through the end of September.
“He has done a better job recently by being quippy and funny and relatable on social media,” said Jade Gray, 20, a senior at the University of Michigan and co-president of the College Democrats at the university. “Stories from the past and anecdotes from decades ago, those probably aren’t going to work.”
Democratic Party insiders think the greater risk is that young people don’t vote, or defect to a third-party candidate, rather than make a shift to Trump, who at age 77 is hardly better positioned to connect with millennial and Gen Z voters and at odds with many of them on issues like climate change and abortion. These cohorts, born after 1980, have voiced frustration with the economy, including high prices and escalating rent, and many of their members have expressed skepticism with Biden’s firm support for Israel in the war against Hamas.
“I’d say there’s definitely a bit of disconnect,” said Alex Greenwald, 26, who works for a tech company and lives in Phoenix. “The tone of not relating to the struggles young people are going through. People living paycheck to paycheck.”
Greenwald said he expected to vote again for Biden, as he did in 2020, but said: “It feels like we have a lot of older people in politics and it feels like as long as the boomers keep voting we are still going to be stuck with them.”
The Democratic National Committee has hired a youth coalitions director and has joined with the Biden campaign on a pilot program that will focus on outreach to young and Black voters, building on efforts to turn out voters in the midterm elections.
Ashley Spillane, who ran Rock the Vote and founded Impactual, a social impact firm, said that Biden’s storytelling style can be an asset. “I think when the president is talking directly to young people about the issues, it is helpful to have some component of storytelling.
Storytelling is a critical component of engagement,” she said.
Parra del Riego Valencia, the Emory University student, said that Biden does talk about issues that students care about, like gun control, and she said she expects that ultimately young people will turn out because of priorities like that and climate change and abortion. “In a swing state here like Georgia, students are keenly aware of the value of their vote,” she said.