The Voters Who Don’t Really Know Donald Trump

The oldest president in American history has a problem with the nation’s youngest voters.

Support from voters under 30 has powered every Democratic presidential victory for the past half century; Joe Biden carried the demographic by 24 points in 2020, his biggest margin of any age group. But according to several recent surveys, the president’s support among young voters has plummeted. Polls covering six swing states released last week by The New York Times, Siena College, and The Philadelphia Inquirer found Biden losing to Donald Trump (though within the margin of error) among voters under 30. The two men were effectively tied in this month’s national poll from Fox News.

These results have prompted a mix of panic and disbelief among many Democrats, who see little chance of a Biden victory if he can’t win back one of the party’s core constituencies. Yet analysts who study the youth vote say the president’s standing with this key group isn’t nearly as bad as Democrats tend to think, and they attribute many of the struggles he is having to an underappreciated finding: Most first-time voters know surprisingly little about Trump. The most targeted data suggest that Biden maintains a double-digit lead over Trump among voters ages 18 to 29. It’s smaller than it was four years ago, but experts say Biden has a good opportunity to run it up.

Surveys that specifically poll voters under 30—as opposed to those in which young people are merely a subset of respondents—show Biden leading Trump by double digits. In the Harvard Youth Poll, a biennial survey considered the gold standard for measuring young voters, Biden led Trump by 13 points among registered voters. That advantage was virtually identical to the margin found in surveys (one national and one across several battleground states) commissioned this spring by Voters of Tomorrow and NextGen America, a pair of Democrat-aligned groups who are targeting the youth vote, according to summaries they shared with me. Pollsters place more trust in these findings because they sample a larger number of young people—and therefore have a smaller margin of error—than the surveys that have shown less favorable results for Biden.

[Read: The real youth-vote shift to watch]

Still, those margins aren’t close to what they were in 2020. Biden is polling worst with 18-to-22-year-olds, most of whom were children when Trump was president. In polls and focus groups, this cohort demonstrated little awareness of the major controversies of Trump’s term. “They didn’t fully know who Donald Trump was,” Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, NextGen America’s president, told me. “Some of them were 10 years old when he was first elected. And if they had good parents, they were probably shielded from the images of crying babies being ripped from their mothers at the border, or from the sight of Heather Heyer being run over by white supremacists in Charlottesville.”

In polling conducted by Blueprint, a Democratic data firm, fewer than half of registered voters under 30 said they had heard some of Trump’s most incendiary quotes, such as when he said there were “very fine people on both sides” demonstrating in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, or when he told members of the Proud Boys, the far-right militia group, to “stand back and stand by” during a 2020 debate. Just 42 percent of respondents were aware that, during his 2016 campaign, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

The youngest voters know Trump more as a ribald commentator than as a political leader. Santiago Mayer, the 22–year-old founder of the Gen Z group Voters of Tomorrow, which has endorsed Biden, told me that his 18-year-old brother and his friends see Trump as more funny than threatening. “They don’t know much about Donald Trump’s agenda, and Donald Trump is an entertaining character,” Mayer said. “They are gravitating toward him not because of their political beliefs but out of sheer curiosity.”

A related problem for Biden is that young voters don’t know much about what he’s done, either. The president has kept a lower profile than his two predecessors, and young people as a group aren’t as civically engaged as older Americans. As a result, pollsters have found that young voters are less aware of Biden’s accomplishments, even on issues that they say are important to them. Many of them don’t know, for example, that he signed the largest climate bill in history (the Inflation Reduction Act) or the most significant change to gun laws in decades (the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act), or that he has forgiven about $160 billion in student debt. “The more they pay attention, the more they approve of and are likely to vote for Biden,” John Della Volpe, the director of polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, told me. “The biggest challenge for Biden,” he said, “is that an overwhelming number of young people do not appreciate the degree to which he’s delivered on promises he made in 2020. I hear that in every single city.”

Other factors are driving the disconnect between Biden and young voters as well. When Blueprint asked young voters what concerned them most about a potential second Biden term, their top worry was that he’d be too old for the job. Next on the list, however, was inflation. People in early adulthood are also less economically stable than their older peers and more sensitive to costs. So although campus protests over Israel’s military campaign in Gaza have dominated headlines, polls show that inflation is a much bigger drag on Biden’s support among young voters, and a more significant issue for them than for older people. “Young voters just think that Biden doesn’t have his eye on the ball economically when it comes to inflation,” Evan Roth Smith, Blueprint’s lead pollster, told me. “It is surprising but not inexplicable that voters under 30 associate lower price points with Donald Trump. But they do, because it’s just a hard fact that prices were lower and the rate of inflation was lower when Donald Trump was president.”

[Read: Biden’s weakness with young voters isn’t about Gaza]

“I think people would forgive age if they felt that Biden could bring prices down,” Smith added.

Still, Biden has advantages over Trump that could help him win back young voters by November. Voters under 30 have retreated from both parties and are more likely to register as independents than in the past. But they remain more progressive than the electorate as a whole, and in recent polls they align much closer with Biden on the issues than with Trump. In 2022, Tzintzún Ramirez said, young voters expressed antipathy toward the Democratic Party in polling but ended up backing Democratic candidates in the midterms. She and other analysts see a similar dynamic at play now, where young voters are telling pollsters they’re undecided or registering support for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and other third-party candidates as a protest against both Biden and Trump. Surveys show this to be especially true for young men and voters of color, many of whom have soured on Biden. But support for third-party alternatives typically drops as the election nears. Young voters also tend to make their choice later in the campaign.

Perhaps the best data point for Biden is that he’s hardly worse off among young voters than President Barack Obama was at this point in his 2012 reelection bid. Like Biden, Obama won big among voters under 30 during his first presidential victory but struggled to communicate his record to them. Della Volpe told me that in Harvard’s polling, Obama had the same 13-point advantage over Mitt Romney among registered voters in the spring of 2012 that Biden has over Trump now. He would nearly double that margin by the fall, thanks in large part to an aggressive ad campaign that portrayed the former Massachusetts governor and businessman as an out-of-touch and greedy financier.

Donald Trump would seem to need no introduction to voters—except, that is, to those who were too young or tuned out to fully remember his presidency. Giving them a well-funded history lesson could be Biden’s best hope for a second term.