Young voters explain why they’re bailing on Biden — and whether they’d come back

Jayden Camarena, in Northern California, is contemplating blowing off the 2024 presidential election. Evan McKenzie, in battleground Wisconsin, is looking for any other candidate than the current front-runners. In Philadelphia, Pru Carmichael isn’t even convinced this race matters.

These young voters live in different cities, work different jobs and have varying political beliefs. But among the things they have in common: They voted for Joe Biden in 2020 — and now say the president can’t count on their support in 2024.

“I genuinely could not live with myself if I voted for someone who’s made the decisions that Biden has,” said McKenzie, a 23-year-old working at Starbucks and as a union organizer in Madison, Wisconsin. “I didn’t even feel great about” voting for Biden in 2020, he said.

The feeling helps illustrate why Biden’s ratings and support among young voters have dipped noticeably in recent polling. In November, NBC News’ latest national poll showed Biden locked in close competition with former President Donald Trump at the moment for voters ages 18-34, a sharp drop from the margins Biden enjoyed over Trump in the 2020 election, according to exit polling.

“We’ve been seeing this in our data and focus groups actually since May,” said Ashley Aylward, a senior researcher at the Democratic polling firm HIT Strategies. “And to me, it’s because the 2024 campaign season for Democrats hasn’t started yet.”

Polling a year out from an election is a snapshot in time, and Biden and his party have time to bring young voters back into the fold. But Aylward and others said it will take work.

“This is the alarm bell that we needed to make sure that not only the Biden campaign, but every other Democratic operative out there and all the campaigns down the ballot — state and local — actually invest in young people, because we know how much they can change the outcome,” Aylward said. 

NBC News spoke with voters who responded to the poll, as well as other voters 18-34 who supported Biden in 2020, but who now say he hasn’t earned their vote for next year, to get a clearer picture of why they are unhappy with Biden and what they want to see him do to earn their support back.

“It’s so complicated, because it almost feels like if I were to give my vote for Biden, I will be showing the Democratic Party that what they are putting out is enough, which is the bare minimum in my opinion,” said Camarena, a 24-year-old living outside the Bay Area. 

Voters cited a number of policy areas that disappointed them, including insufficient moves to address climate change and Biden’s inability to fully cancel student loan debt or codify Roe v. Wade, as the president deals with a closely divided Congress. However, Biden’s response to the Israel-Hamas war may be having the greatest effect on his relationship with this voter bloc. 

The NBC News national poll, conducted more than a month after the start of the Israel-Hamas war, shows 70% of voters under 35 disapproving of Biden’s handling of the war.

McKenzie cast his first presidential ballot three years ago for Biden, when the Democratic candidate carried Wisconsin narrowly, in part thanks to young voters like McKenzie. He said he urged his friends to vote for Biden then, telling them, “You’ve got to do this.”

He now says he won’t be having those conversations this election cycle. He’s angry at the president for his handling of the Israel-Hamas war, and the threat of losing the White House to the Republican Party has done little to win over his vote.

“I want to show the Democratic Party as a young person that you still need to earn our vote and if you don’t, the consequences will be your career,” McKenzie said. “A Republican getting elected isn’t the end. It is the beginning of a much larger fight.” 

Big promises unfulfilled

In 2020, Biden carried young voters by more than 20 points against Trump, but some of that support appears to have been tepid — and tied to enormous campaign promises from Biden that he has not been able to deliver as president of a closely divided nation.

“I mean, he made a lot of really big promises in his campaign and virtually none of them were followed through on,” said Austin Kapp, a 25-year-old living in Castle Rock, Colorado. “I mean, he could have codified Roe v. Wade, he could have stood up for the rights of people all over the country, he could have done a lot of things, but he didn’t.”

The crowd of thousands at the celebration march. Thousands
Thousands of New Yorkers take to the streets of Manhattan to celebrate the Biden-Harris ticket victory after winning the majority of the Electoral College votes on Nov. 7, 2020.Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images

While Biden and Democrats pushed to codify the protections of Roe at the federal level, congressional realities made legislative efforts impossible. A vote to codify Roe in May 2022 failed in the Senate, with Biden lashing out at Republicans afterward and urging voters to “elect more pro-choice senators this November, and return a pro-choice majority to the House.” Democrats kept the Senate but lost the House in November 2022.

Biden also backed a rules change to the Senate filibuster, which would have allowed legislation to pass by simple majority instead of a higher, 60-vote threshold, but the change was blocked in a bipartisan vote.

Biden wasn’t Kapp’s first choice as a candidate in the last election, and this year he plans to vote third party if the contest is a Biden-Trump rematch. He graduated from school just last spring carrying both private and federal student loans.

When asked how he felt about his loan repayments beginning soon, Kapp groaned: “Oh, yeah, that was another thing.”

“It’s kind of sad to see that the quote unquote lesser of two evils that we were all promised, is this,” Kapp said of Biden.

Camarena agrees. Though she is vehemently against Trump, she says she only supported Biden in 2020 reluctantly.

“It was more of a well, [Biden]’s better than Trump, you know?” she said.

Camarena’s feelings toward Biden now are worse. She works for CalFire and is passionate about addressing climate change. She says she was “turned off” when the Biden administration approved the controversial Willow oil drilling project in Alaska.

“It made me really angry,” she said. “He painted himself as, you know, trying to advance or improve climate change.” 

When she talks to other voters her age about Biden, she says, the sentiment is similar and discouraging. “It feels like the best option that we have isn’t good enough,” Camarena said with a sigh, adding, “It can feel really powerless.”

Worried voters cite higher prices

Sentiments like these among a constituency Democrats rely on to win elections mean campaigning in 2024 will be critical, maybe even more so than in previous elections, said Daniel Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute. 

“I think on some level, you can say that the Biden-Harris team have not been as aggressively pitching their accomplishments to voters and maybe that they don’t feel like they’re in campaign mode yet,” he said. “You certainly see this with the economy, which the sort of macroeconomic indicators have been positive for quite a while and keep surprising analysts that things seem to be doing much better than folks thought they would.”

While the economy is performing stronger than when Biden first took office, Olivia Thompson, a 26-year-old mother in Elko, Nevada, says she doesn’t feel those improvements. 

“Not even a little bit, and I’m living it firsthand,” Thompson said.  

Her family of five lives paycheck to paycheck. She says Biden earned her vote last election based on promises for a more prosperous future.

“I was more excited about the fact that he was saying that he was gonna fix the economy and get everything back on track and then everything just skyrocketed,” she complained. “All of like our grocery bills and gas — it just never went back down.”

Thompson plans to vote for a third-party candidate in November.

Some of the economic anxiety voters have may be because they’re not hitting the same economic milestones that their parents did, said Aylward, the Democratic opinion researcher.

“I think it would do Biden wonders if he came out with a really, really clear plan for that to help these young people’s anxiety,” she said. Millennials and Generation Z voters “are seeing just how far out of reach buying a home is or saving money and, of course, student loans are really the first barrier and piece to that.”

Several voters said they supported Biden on the expectation he would tackle the student debt crisis. The administration successfully erased $127 billion in student debt — more than any president in history, but after the Supreme Court ruled against his original plans to cancel up to $400 billion in student debt, that failure became the lasting headline.

“Whether you like it or not, Biden has done a number of things, but young people are just far less likely to give him credit, good or bad, on anything that he’s done,” Cox said.

McKenzie, who graduated in the spring, said he remains unimpressed by the accomplishments of the administration.

“I’m glad it’s the most ever” canceled student debt, he said. “It’s still not even close to what was promised,” he added. “And I think that that’s sort of what I’m going into this campaign feeling, like broken promises all around.”

Combating that sentiment will be crucial to winning back support.

Cox said he thinks the Biden campaign “is in deep trouble at this stage.” He said, “There’s still plenty of time, but the trajectory is not good for him.”

Camarena is one voter leaving the door open for her mind to be changed. 

“I think that there is a chance” of Biden winning back her support, she said, adding that she expects the president to call for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.

“If he would do that, that would make me reconsider. Though, she said, she would “still be a bit skeptical.”

Another voter said it’s already too late.

Carmichael, of Philadelphia, hoped the Biden administration would remind her of the Obama days. She says she is disappointed by both Biden and Trump and wants to spend her time focusing on local community care and voting in local elections.

“I don’t think the presidency has too much of an effect on what happens in my day-to-day life,” she said.

Carmichael won’t be supporting Biden in November. If the choices next fall are Biden and Trump, she says, she will likely leave those boxes empty.

“I gave him one shot and it was not worth it,” she said.