But meeting Gen Z where they’re at is also about policy.
The former vice president has worked with the youth-led Sunrise Movement and brought in Sanders onto a joint policy task force, which earned significant goodwill. Biden’s latest climate platform calls for ideas like a $2 trillion investment in clean energy and rejoining the international Paris climate accord.
“We hear a lot of young people saying that, like they want to hear about the issues,” Sebastian said. “So we’re trying to make sure that when we’re doing relational organizing or doing social media content or digital outreach, that we’re incorporating policy as much as possible. Because it’s policy to be very proud of.”
Some progressive youth advocates brought up issues they feel the Biden campaign has left off the table, like Medicare for All and — with racial justice in the immediate spotlight — defunding the police. According to the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, 44 percent of Gen Z respondents support defunding the police, while only 29 percent of all registered voters do. More than half of Gen Z respondents say communities should reallocate funding from police departments to support other social programs.
“Engagement goes beyond just the voting,” said Dakota Hall, director of Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT), a Wisconsin nonprofit focused on youth of color. “Young people are looking like, ‘Yo, are you on our side, or are you not?’ Politicians are not stepping up to this moment. We’re seeing people like NBA players be like our civic leaders, even though that’s not their job.”
Nonetheless, the former vice president’s standing with Gen Z likely voters has improved over the months. The bulk of his strength is with women and people of color. A late August/early September Harvard Youth Poll found that Biden’s support among likely voters ages 18 to 29 is 60 percent, which is greater than Hillary Clinton’s in 2016 (49 percent) or Barack Obama’s in 2008, which reached 59 percent.
Advocates who have called for more campaign investment in reaching younger voters say they’ve seen some movement on that front, too. An Alliance for Youth Action/Civiqs poll of young Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents — also registered voters in battleground states — had concerning numbers for liberals: 40 percent of respondents said they saw no contact from the Biden campaign in July and August. But they did see an overwhelming number of Trump digital ads. The good news, Alliance director Sarah Audelo said, is that no-contact reports have since dropped to 32 percent — still too high a number for a demographic Biden should be targeting, but it’s progress, she added.
Some young progressive groups have built a coalition around Biden with the goal of beating Trump and pushing the Democrat left if he takes office. Emily Wellen, director of the nonprofit Minnesota Youth Collective, says “Settle for Biden” messaging is doing a lot of work with the people she talks to.
“You can’t tell Gen Z that Biden is something that he isn’t. That’s just like gaslighting,” she said. “But who do you want in the White House? Who can you organize?”
At least Biden is listening, said Joshua Harris-Till, the millennial president of Young Democrats of America. Harris-Till said that his organization wasn’t fully tapped as a resource in previous elections: Now, officers are on weekly calls with the campaign.
“Until you get to the point where the two-party system is dismantled, this is what we have to work with. You can be on the outside or you can be on the inside,” he said.
CLOSING THE ACCESS GAP
Organizing is as much about giving Gen Z access to voting as it is persuading them to vote.
The process before the coronavirus was already difficult, with ID laws, requirements for absentee ballots and the ability to register online varying by state. The New York Times reported that Republicans in several states began erecting roadblocks to the polls after the surge of young voters in the 2018 midterm elections.
Now, in a pandemic election, there are new rules and a new focus on vote-by-mail — unfamiliar to many young people who, frankly, don’t mail things really. The POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found that 58 percent of Gen Z respondents were “very confident” they could register to vote. That dropped to 34 percent for voting by mail and 38 percent for voting in person.