Biden’s Biggest Battle: Winning Over Bernie Sanders Fans and Other Young Voters

Millennials will be the largest voting bloc in November's presidential election. And although few young Jewish voters are expected to vote for Donald Trump, the concern for Joe Biden is that they may not turn out for him, either

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Supporters gathering around Joe Biden at a rally in Conway, South Carolina, February 27, 2020.
Supporters gathering around Joe Biden at a rally in Conway, South Carolina, February 27, 2020.Credit: Jim Watson/AFP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – The speech that former Vice President Joe Biden gave Friday morning, shortly after the release of new unemployment numbers showing a catastrophic U.S. economy, wasn’t particularly unique.

Biden, speaking from his home in Delaware, attacked President Donald Trump for putting the interests of Wall Street ahead of those of average Americans, and promised to build an economy focused on the middle class if elected president in November.

What was unique was the platform the speech was delivered on. Instead of a regular appearance on cable news, Biden partnered with NowThis News, a progressive media company that focuses on young audiences via social media.

The intention was clear: Biden wanted voters under 35 to hear his messaging on the economy, even if it meant less exposure to older voters who get most of their news from television.

NowThis has 16 million followers on Facebook, while NowThisPolitics has 8.7 million.

Biden has enjoyed a surprising lead in recent polls among voters over 65, a group that preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 by seven percentage points. As Haaretz reported last week, the former vice president’s strong standing among this cohort could make a big difference in the 2020 election.

Bernie Sanders supporters at a campaign rally in Virginia Beach, Virginia, February 29, 2020.Credit: Steve Helber/AP

But the Biden campaign is concerned about those under-35s, a group that typically tilts Democratic.

And there is indeed reason to worry. In the Democratic primaries that Biden won decisively (even if they haven’t officially ended), the youth vote was his one clear Achilles’ heel. Biden won with big margins among African Americans, seniors, voters in the Midwest and other key constituencies that the Democrats will need in November. But voters under 35 tended to pick his main rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders.

And on Monday, Trump's reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee said they had jointly raised $61.7 million in April, a shade ahead of the showing by Biden and the Democrats, Reuters reported.

“Biden is definitely in a good place with older voters – you see it in many polls, including ones that we’ve conducted recently,” veteran pollster Stan Greenberg tells Haaretz. He adds, however, that his own polling shows Biden with some gaps to close with younger voters. Or, in Greenberg’s words, “millennials who support Bernie Sanders.”

Younger voters in the United States, he says, are more liberal and left-leaning than older generations, so the question isn’t whether they’ll prefer Biden over Trump, it’s “how many of them will vote, and how many will vote for third-party candidates.”

In 2016, Greenberg notes, the Green Party’s tally in crucial swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin was larger than Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton.

Joe Biden speaking at a Democratic debate in Washington, March 15, 2020.Credit: Kevin Lamarque/ Reuters

“These were left-wing voters, mostly millennials or younger, who helped Trump win the Midwest by voting for a third-party candidate,” Greenberg says. “Biden is aware of this risk. That’s why he’s going to do more things like the appearance on NowThis on Friday. He realizes he needs to win over some of these voters.”

'The entire election'

In one of Greenberg’s latest polls of battleground states, he saw the challenge to Biden – and his room to grow.

“We had 87 percent of the respondents who supported Sanders in the Democratic primaries telling us they plan to vote for Democrats in the House of Representatives election, but only 79 percent of the Bernie supporters saying they plan to vote for Biden in the presidential election,” Greenberg says. “That 8 percent gap – that could be the entire election.”

Greenberg estimates that as many as 15 percent of Sanders’ supporters didn’t vote for Clinton in 2016, and that the vast majority of them were younger voters. “Millennials are going to be 35 percent of the electorate in this year’s election,” he says. “This will make them the largest voting bloc among the different age groups, surpassing the Baby Boomers. So it’s important for Biden to strengthen their support for him between now and November.”

Trump, he says, can’t do much to improve his standing with younger voters – “They really don’t like him” – but will focus on tarnishing Biden’s image and trying to dissuade left-leaning millennials from voting for the former vice president. “You need to take into account Trump’s Netanyahu-like willingness to do anything in order to stay in power,” Greenberg concludes.

Bernie Sanders supporters at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 26, 2016. Credit: Jeff J. Mitchell/AFP

One recent example was the Trump campaign’s attempts to use the allegations against Biden by Tara Reade, a woman who worked in his Senate office in the early 1990s and says Biden sexually harassed her. Biden denies the allegation. Trump has faced similar or worse allegations from more than 20 women (he denies it all), but his campaign is trying to make young, left-leaning voters aware of the Reade allegations in order to distance them from Biden.

“The Trump campaign was very good at finding ways to keep Democratic-leaning voters home in 2016, and they’re definitely going to try to do the same thing again this time,” warns a former member of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign who asked not to be named.

“They will look for every opportunity to hurt Biden’s image with the Democratic base, and go all in. Their goal isn’t to get these people to switch sides and vote for Trump; the goal is to make them give up on the election, not vote at all or vote for the Green Party. That’s how Trump gets a second term.”

Biden the establishment man

The trends visible among the general public – younger voters more liberal than older ones, and some of them souring on the Democrats for not being left-wing enough – are also true in most of the American Jewish community, says Prof. Dov Waxman, author of the 2016 book “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel.”

Waxman tells Haaretz that “younger Jews, putting aside maybe some of the Orthodox, are overwhelmingly more liberal than older American Jews, and some polls show they are also relatively more liberal than other Americans in their age group. They are a highly educated population with a strong sensitivity to issues of social justice. The challenges that an older, centrist Democrat like Biden will have with young voters in general are also probably going to appear with younger Jewish voters.”

Bernie Sanders speaking at a rally in Boston, February 29, 2020. Credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Waxman says that “ever since 2016, you can clearly see the excitement on college campuses for Sanders – and for Jewish students particularly there has been a connection there. The interesting thing is that older Jews clearly preferred Biden in this year’s primaries and Clinton in 2016, and were not swayed by the idea of Sanders becoming the first Jewish president. For many of them, the fact that he advocated for a tough line toward Israel was a big problem. For many young American Jews, it was part of his appeal.”

The divide among Jewish Democrats, Waxman says, is ideological – “moderates versus progressives” – but also a generational one. “Biden is the candidate of the establishment, and many of these younger Jews don’t like establishments. Not the ‘Democratic establishment’ and not what we call the ‘Jewish establishment,’ the old organizations with all the titles. But there is one thing they like even less: Donald Trump. That’s why I think by November most of them will be with Biden, simply because of the alternative.”

Israel, Waxman says, isn’t a top priority for most of these voters. “They are interested primarily in domestic policies, and when it comes to foreign policy, on stopping the next Iraq War. In general, most American Jews, of all age groups, don’t vote for candidates mostly because of their positions on Israel.”

Perfect the enemy of good

Young Jewish Americans who are also political activists regarding Israel offer a similar analysis. Adina Wollner leads the San Francisco branch of the Israel Policy Forum’s Atid initiative, which brings together young professionals who support a two-state solution and oppose annexation. She works in cybersecurity and says most of her friends will decide how to vote based on domestic priorities.

“I’m very committed to Israel advocacy, and I also served for two years in the IDF,” she says. “But when it comes to voting here in the U.S., I think there are many issues we have to consider. When I talk to my friends about politics, it’s things like climate change, the economy, gun control, that we usually keep coming back to.”

Wollner says she knows people who are “disappointed and unhappy” with the result of the Democratic primaries, and she hopes they will vote in the general election even though Biden wasn’t their preferred candidate.

“One interesting thing I’m seeing recently is an attempt to persuade people to vote by focusing on down-ballot races – explaining the importance of local elections and the impact they can have – so that even if people aren’t very excited about the choice at the presidential level, they will still come to vote for the down-ballot choices – especially because in these races, you will many times have younger and more diverse candidates,” she says.

Wollner adds that for many younger Americans, one reason for not getting involved in politics and elections is the economy. “Our generation is now facing the second recession within 12 years,” she says. “People are trying to secure their own future and take care of their families. That makes it more difficult when you’re trying to get people involved and active.”

Jonathan Kamel, who leads Atid’s brand in Chicago, speaks of similar conversations with friends. “I’ve heard from friends who are not excited about Biden, that he wasn’t their first choice. But I think and hope that people will realize by November that if you want to influence policy, you can’t wait for the perfect candidate. You need to look at every election and ask yourself what’s the better option.”

As he puts it, “My grandparents are my main inspiration when it comes to political involvement. They were Holocaust survivors who became American citizens and never missed an election in their life, because they appreciated the importance of participating and voting – even if you’re not crazy over the different candidates. I think that’s a very Jewish approach, and our generation should adopt it as well.”

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