Poll: Biden support drops dramatically among young men

David Lauter, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden maintains a healthy lead over former President Trump among young Americans, but his margin has shrunk from four years ago, primarily because of a big drop in support from young men.

At this point in the 2020 campaign, Biden led Trump among young men by 26 points; now he leads by 6, according to the Harvard Youth Poll, a twice-a-year survey that provides one of the most definitive looks at the shifting views of U.S. residents younger than 30.

By contrast, the poll finds almost no change in Biden’s lead among young women — currently 33 points.

That difference reflects a widening gender gap among young Americans, one of the most striking findings of the poll. The survey was conducted a few weeks ago and released Thursday by the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

It comes at what may be an inflection point in the current campaign — Biden has erased the small lead that Trump has held for much of the last six months. Polling averages now show the race as essentially a dead heat.

Why this poll matters

The Harvard Youth Poll offers unique insights into young Americans, who have played a key role in politics at least since President Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

Its findings take on added significance this year because other surveys have offered widely disparate readings on how younger Americans view the presidential race and major issues.

Those polls have raised a lot of questions about where the youth vote is headed this year; the Harvard survey offers a big step toward solid answers.

Most of the data about the political views of young Americans come from surveys of the overall U.S. population. Those findings come wrapped in considerable doubt: Most polls of the general population interview only a small number of young people, and polling sub-samples often include odd quirks.

The Harvard poll, by contrast, focuses only on 18- to 29-year-olds — 2,010 of them in the current survey. And because polling director John Della Volpe has conducted the surveys for nearly a generation, this is the 47th survey the Institute of Politics has released, the poll has rich data on trends. All that gives its findings particular weight.

In 2020, Biden won by 24 points among voters 18-29, according to a detailed post-election study by the Pew Research Center. To win reelection, he almost certainly needs to come close to that again this year.

Some surveys have shown Biden hitting that mark, but others indicate a much closer race among young Americans. A few even have had Trump ahead, which would represent a huge shift from the pattern of the last 20 years.

The importance of turnout

The Harvard poll shows Biden leading Trump 56%-37% among young people likely to vote. That’s down a bit from the 60%-30% lead the poll found among likely young voters at this point four years ago. It’s also down from Biden’s 2020 winning margin.

But the decline is fairly small and a far cry from the collapse of youth support that some other polls have indicated.

That doesn’t mean young people are content with the status quo — far from it: The poll finds only 9% of young Americans saying that the country is headed in the right direction.

That’s a record low, said Anil Cacodcar, the student leader of the spring survey.

Young people are “deeply concerned about the direction of the country” and about “their economic well being,” Della Volpe said Thursday. Despite that, the choice between Biden and Trump “isn’t necessarily close.”

The bad news for Democrats is that when the Harvard poll looked at all young adults, regardless of their likelihood of voting, the picture changes strikingly: Biden leads, but only 45%-37%.

In other words, a really large turnout — one that would bring out people who currently don’t expect to vote — could hurt Biden’s chances.

That’s a big change: A generation of Democratic activists have grown up with the idea that big turnout is always their friend.

In the Trump era, that’s not true.


Factors that could shift the vote

Biden’s lead among likely voters shrinks when third-party and independent candidates are added to the mix.

In a five-way test with Biden, Trump, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West and Jill Stein, the incumbent leads among young voters with 43%. Trump takes 30%, and 8% go for Kennedy, who is running as an independent; 4% for Stein, the Green Party candidate and 2% for West, the philosopher and political activist who also is an independent. The remaining voters are undecided.

Will Kennedy, Stein and West qualify for the ballot in the states that matter? No one knows; ballot access deadlines don’t hit for months. And support for third-party candidates typically drops as Election Day nears. But Democrats clearly worry that those candidates could take votes away from Biden. They’ve launched a major effort to persuade voters that a ballot for anyone other than the president is effectively a vote for Trump.

Trump’s legal problems could also have an effect on the vote. The poll found that Biden’s lead among young people would increase by around 9 points if Trump were convicted in any of the four criminal cases he faces. The first of the trials is now underway in New York, where the last of 12 jurors were selected Thursday.

An unaccustomed gender gap

Until recently, young men and young women mostly agreed on politics.

Now, however, a significant gender gap has emerged, the Harvard poll shows.

Young men and women both moved away from the Democrats in the first few years of Biden’s tenure. But in 2023, women’s identification as Democrats shot back up and now sits slightly higher than 2020.

The poll can’t say why that happened, but the turnaround came after the Supreme Court’s decision in June 2022 to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the decision that for nearly half a century had guaranteed abortion rights in the U.S.

Young men, by contrast, have continued to move away from the Democrats.

Four years ago, young men who identified as Democrats outnumbered young Republicans by 22 points. Now, the two parties are nearly at parity among young men — just a three-point Democratic edge.

The greater conservatism of young men, especially those 18-24, appears to reflect their economic concerns, said Kritika Nagappa, another of the Harvard students involved in the poll.

Young men still take liberal positions on some major issues, such as health care, she noted.

But the poll found a shift on another major issue: climate change. In 2020, 60% of young men said that the “government should do more to curb climate change, even at the expense of economic growth.” Among today’s cohort of young men, 47% take that view.

Among women, there has been no significant shift.

Young people tuning in

Last year, the Harvard poll found that many young people had tuned out politics. That’s changed.

There’s been a “huge uptick” in the level of engagement that young people show now that the presidential race has gelled, said Jordan Schwartz, a third of the student leaders of the poll.

On questions such as whether it matters who is the president or whether politics is relevant to their lives, young people show a level of interest that is roughly similar to what the poll found four years ago.

“Young people are going to vote when they see their votes making a tangible difference,” said Cacodcar.

In a close election, as this one seems likely to be, that difference could be about as tangible as it gets.

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