What Young Voters Talk About: Abortion Access, Democracy, Money : The NPR Politics Podcast Biden gave a speech Wednesday night on the health of democracy — it's one of many things on the minds of young voters this election cycle, alongside abortion access and the economy. But our polling suggests that Democrats are struggling to mobilize people under 40 to cast a ballot.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political reporter Elena Moore, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

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What Young Voters Talk About: Abortion Access, Democracy, Money

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KYLIE: (Non-English language spoken). This is Kylie (ph) on Jeju Island in South Korea, where I just submitted my ballot for the 2022 midterms. This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

1:04 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, the 3 of November.

KYLIE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but hopefully my ballot will be safely on its way to the U.S. OK, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KEITH: Congratulations on voting. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

ELENA MOORE, BYLINE: I'm Elena Moore. I cover politics.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: President Biden is sounding alarms about internal threats to American democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Make no mistake, democracy is on the ballot for all of us.

KEITH: Last night, in a somber speech, he encouraged Americans not to vote for the hundreds of election deniers on the ballot all over the country. He described the attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband and talked about further threats of political violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BIDEN: This intimidation, this violence against Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisan officials just doing their jobs are the consequence of lies told for power and profit, lies of conspiracy and malice, lies repeated over and over to generate a cycle of anger, hate, vitriol and even violence.

KEITH: Domenico, what did you make of the president's speech? And more importantly, this seems like a closing message, so who is he trying to speak to with this message?

MONTANARO: Well, I think he's made a lot of closing messages. And to be honest, there's a lot of different...

KEITH: Fair point, fair point.

MONTANARO: ...Different planks of what he's getting at. You know, and Biden's not wrong that there is a threat to democracy, that there are a lot of people who are running on this election-denial platform, pushing former President Trump's lies. And a lot of them are running in places where - for positions where they would actually control election administration.

You know, now, that said, is this going to appeal to, you know, persuadable voters who have inflation on their mind? Probably not, but it's really hard for Democrats to make some kind of positive case about inflation right now because they're in charge. And while a lot of the charges that are coming at them are misleading and it's a complicated global, you know, economic situation, you know, it's very easy for Republicans to just say it's Democrats fault. But this is a foundational argument that Biden has been making. It was a big reason for why he ran and think that he just felt that this was really important at this time to make this case and elevate it.

KEITH: So as you say, he is unlikely, and polling would indicate - tests of this message would indicate that he's unlikely to reach Republicans and independent voters with a message about threats to democracy. So is this something that Democrats care about - or who is this for?

MONTANARO: Well, I do think that he's trying to kind of have an argument with people who, you know - with Republicans or independents who might be open to this message, but what we have seen in our polling, for example - it came out yesterday - that preserving democracy was No. 2 in our survey for the list of concerns that people have and what are their motivating issues. It was tops with Democrats, though. And so clearly, this is, in part, you know, to remind people who maybe have been maybe lukewarm on his presidency, who voted for him to oust President Trump, for example - former President Trump, that - to remind them of the stakes and why they should vote. And that's important because in a midterm election - midterm elections are base elections, and we've seen independent voters, for example, be lower down the list on enthusiasm and likelihood to vote. So getting your base out - super important.

KEITH: All right. I want to turn to young voters, who have proven critical in past elections when Democrats have done well. Domenico, what does our PBS NewsHour/Marist poll tell us about engagement among young voters this cycle?

MONTANARO: Well, it does show that young voters, when we're talking about in our polling, Gen Z through millennials, so people who are 18 to 39, essentially everybody under 40, that they're the least likely to say that they're very interested in this election, which makes them among the least likely to vote. Now, that is true in almost every election, though, that younger voters are less likely to vote. They usually lag behind the oldest generation, for example, by about 45% on average. We see that in our polling, as well, here.

But the problem, I think, Democrats are having is that older voters, baby boomers, for example - something like 87% of them say that they're very interested. So that 35-point gap is a really big gap. But when you have sort of the level of water rise that high on interest for some of these Republican-centered groups, Democrats are needing to do a lot of pickup, you know, on trying to get their voters up to - to not maybe the same level, but to similar levels from past elections to help them at least across the finish line in key places.

KEITH: Elena, I want to turn to you because you have been our reporter on the Gen Z beat - that is young people, young voters, ages 18 to 25 at this point. That's who can vote. And they're really important to Democrats.

ELENA MOORE: Yeah. I mean, it's no secret, like Domenico said, that up and down the ballot and to the White House, Democrats are really, really, really hoping that young voters come out and support them again like they did in 2020, like they did in 2018. And you can see that if you look at the White House's latest, you know, five or six huge policy initiatives that they've rolled out in the last half year. I mean, the biggest one that comes to mind and the one I've really been focusing on is Biden's executive action on student debt forgiveness that would forgive up to $20,000 of federal student loans depending on your income, depending on the loan. And, you know, this is something that young voters really pushed for in the 2020 election. A lot of activists really campaigned on Biden to make a promise. And he made some sort of general promise. And now he's making a, you know, first step in that, some would say.

But, you know, talking to strategists really focused on motivating these young voters, issues like student debt forgiveness or addressing climate or curbing gun violence - they're important, and they're part of their message, but it's not necessarily the issue that is resonating with voters and making them get out to vote in these midterm elections. And so I wanted to, you know, hear that from voters themselves. And...

KEITH: Right. No, don't just talk to strategists. You wanted to talk to real, live voters under the age of 30.

ELENA MOORE: I got on the train, and I went up to the Philadelphia suburbs. And I met a bunch of voters. All of the voters I spoke to were Generation Z - basically, anybody born between the years 1997 and 2012. So that oldest group of Gen Zers (ph) is who is able to vote right now.

And one of the people I met when I was in the Philadelphia suburbs was Shannon Thomas (ph). Shannon Thomas is 25 years old, and she votes Democrat. And she has student loans. You know, it's an issue of hers. And she says that Biden's plan would really, you know, help her life. But she's also a labor and delivery nurse. And it was pretty clear when I talked to her what she was voting on.

SHANNON THOMAS: The climate in the country really scares me, to be honest. I worry about my patients, and I worry about my job and what the future of my job looks like if we don't get protection for women's right to choose in this state.

ELENA MOORE: I asked her, though, about student loans because, you know, that's one of the reasons I was there. And she basically agreed with me when I said, are they just different stakes? Like, abortion access is just on a different level? And she completely seconded that. And her girlfriend, Erin Moore (ph), who's also 25 and is a teacher in Philadelphia, kind of echoed her sentiment.

ERIN MOORE: I went into school as an undergrad expecting to never pay off my student loan debt. So this is just extra for me. But the women's right to choose directly affects me and my family and people I care about.

ELENA MOORE: And Erin said that because she is a teacher in Philadelphia, and as, you know, we know, teachers don't make as much money as some other professions. And basically, she told me, like, she chose this job knowing that she would have debt her whole life. And that's not really why she's voting. It's just a part of her life compared to something like abortion access, which she never thought would be taken away.

KEITH: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, more about the youngest voters voting this midterm cycle.

And we're back. And let's just go back to where we started, which is President Biden's focus on threats to democracy. Is that something, Elena, that resonates with young voters that you've spoken to?

ELENA MOORE: It is definitely a huge issue for the organizers engaged in this work, I would say. Part of many of these groups' missions is, you know, almost verbatim - safeguard democracy. As for voters, I didn't hear it as much on this Pennsylvania trip I went on, but I did hear it. And it's definitely, I think, a present issue that's on some voters' minds. But it was not spoken about as often as safeguarding abortion access.

I did talk to one person in Philadelphia when I was walking around the UPenn campus, Ryan Gosch (ph), who is 19 years old and originally from Minneapolis, Minn. And it was really the first thing he brought up to me when I asked why he was voting.

RYAN GOSCH: The whole democracy and, like, all the January 6 stuff is very at the front of my mind. I mean, coming from, like, Minnesota, a lot of election deniers there. And, like, in Pennsylvania, I'm worried about kind of if they hold power, especially Doug Mastriano. So that's why I moved my registration here.

ELENA MOORE: There's lots of reasons, maybe, that someone would want to vote in Pennsylvania over Minnesota if you're politically-minded and you vote Democrat, but I thought it was interesting that that was his catalyst, or at least what he told me.

KEITH: Domenico, we talked a little bit about the sort of divide between the youngest voters and voters who are older in terms of engagement. And one thing that stood out to me in my recent reporting - I was in North Carolina talking to voters outside of polling places, and I met three moms who brought their newly adult children to vote early. It was like, I'm going; you're coming with me. How much of this divide do you think is about the habit of voting?

MONTANARO: Well, I think it's pretty clear. I mean, if you just look at the voting data, you know, through the years, it's not like 18- to 29-year-olds stay 18 to 29, right? And it's...

KEITH: We all get old eventually.

ELENA MOORE: Wait, really?

MONTANARO: Don't we know.

KEITH: Yeah. Sorry, Elena.

MONTANARO: Don't I know, I should say, anyway (laughter). But, you know, I - it has always been the case that 18- to 29-year-olds, that bloc of voters - whether it's that bloc of voters in 1974 or that bloc of voters in 2022 - you know, that they're the least likely to go out and vote. There are a whole host of reasons that you could get into on why. You could probably write a thesis. There probably have been theses written on that. But the fact is it makes it a lot harder for Democrats in particular, who need those younger voters to come out and vote, to be able to go out and, you know, try to get them to vote. To get them to vote is going to cost a lot of money. It does cost a lot of money and a lot of engagement, a lot more engagement and a lot more money than it would take, for example, with older voters who have that habit of voting.

ELENA MOORE: And I think this is something that young organizers are, in some ways, aware of - that they, you know, have a pretty daunting history on their end of the inroads they want to make and the progress they want to make on getting more young people engaged. And that's why there are all these organizations like Voters of Tomorrow and Gen-Z for Change and Alliance for Youth Action and the Sunrise Movement. There's a plethora of organizations now that are run by Gen Z and, you know, younger millennial organizers who are literally focused on changing this narrative.

MONTANARO: And it is clearly harder in midterms to appeal to younger voters to get them out to vote because - you just look back at 2012, 2016, 2020, and you had about half of young voters who showed up to vote who were eligible to vote - 2016, an aberration about 39%, which, you know, the Hillary Clinton campaign was upset about the fact that they weren't able to get younger voters out to be fired up to vote for her. But in 2010, 2014, 2018, it was only about a quarter of eligible younger voters 18 to 29 who turned out to vote. And that gap makes it difficult for Democrats, especially in a year like this, when enthusiasm is up mostly across the board.

ELENA MOORE: And I think that organizers would say that some of the onus of this is on the candidates. One of the organizers I spoke to, Santiago Mayer, who is the founder and leader of the group Voters of Tomorrow, which is an organization that's geared at boosting, you know, youth turnout and youth voter participation. And we've talked before, and he's been - you know, so he's very excited about the midterms. He feels optimistic. But there was some frustration in his voice, too, when we spoke about this.

SANTIAGO MAYER: I wish that more campaigns would have realized the power of young people earlier. Over the past few weeks, I've had several campaigns kind of called me in a panic and be like, it's one week to go. How do we reach out to young voters? I'm like, obviously, these sort of conversations should have happened, like, months ago.

ELENA MOORE: And Mayer told me basically that there needs to be, in his opinion, a balance of - there are organizations - you know, Gen Z organizers are on all social media platforms. They're based all around the country, all around the world. But there's a mix of that and old-school campaigning where you need candidates and, you know, campaign apparatuses to have their own versions of that and have their own parts of their campaign specifically geared at energizing these young people.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, younger voters were fired up to vote for somebody like President Obama - from President Obama, you know, who was seen as an inspiring candidate, had vision, hope, boldness. And they really didn't feel that way with Hillary Clinton in 2016. They didn't feel that way necessarily with Biden in 2020. But a lot of more progressive and younger voters sort of held their nose, voted for Biden to oust Trump. And I think it's going to be a huge test this Tuesday to see when all the votes are tallied eventually, you know, whether Democrats can turn out key base voters like younger voters with Trump not on the ballot.

KEITH: We are going to leave it there for today. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

ELENA MOORE: I'm Elena Moore. I cover politics.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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