Joe Biden supporters at the Liberty and Justice Celebration in Des Moines, Iowa. Photos: Evan Jenkins

Meet the Young Joe Biden Stans

What do these Millennial and Gen Z voters see in the 76-year-old centrist?

Alladin Dafalla is pretty certain he’s all in on Joe Biden. Sure, Dafalla admits the former vice president lacks the Big Ideas Energy of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders or the charisma of Pete Buttigieg. But Biden’s got something else, something far more valuable to Dafalla: 50 years of public service experience and a platform that screams practicality.

That’s why the 20-year-old made the two-hour drive from Cedar Falls, where he attends the University of Northern Iowa, to Des Moines, to see Biden speak at the Liberty and Justice Celebration — one of the primary’s marquee fundraising dinners, held this year at the Wells Fargo Arena. The celebration is best known for springboarding Barack Obama’s presidential bid in 2007; the 2020 Democratic hopefuls are hoping their organizing power and soapbox skills will be on full display here. But first, each candidate has a full day of pre-event campaign rallies for their supporters to attend.

“He’s truly a real person. He’s not just some politician.”

Standing in an ornate ballroom inside a convention center that sits across the street from the Wells Fargo Arena, Dafalla’s enthusiasm for Biden is evident in the way he excitedly bounces from one foot to the other as he talks about the former veep. He is a political science major and this is the state party’s biggest night, after all. But when he explains his support for Biden, Dafalla seems to speak more with his head than his heart. “I think he is the one with the realistic [platform],” he says. “I’ll support anyone, but my first choice is Biden.”

A young Biden supporter such as Dafalla is very much the exception among voters in the 18 to 35 demographic. When it comes to the youth vote, polls have Biden trailing behind Warren and Sanders. In Iowa, only 2% of respondents under the age of 45 say they are planning to caucus for him come February, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll.

Alladin Dafalla made the two-hour drive from Cedar Falls, where he attends the University of Northern Iowa, to hear Biden speak.

Obama’s VP became “Uncle Joe” to an entire generation of voters who spent their formative years with him as the second most powerful man in the United States. He enjoyed a bromance with Obama, became meme fodder, and was generally seen as the cool old dude who really loves ice cream and always wore his signature aviators. He came out in support of same-sex marriage before the administration formally did, and helped push the Affordable Care Act over the finish line — just two examples of policy stances that were lauded by young Democrats. The internet decided he was hot in his youth, and often found his trademark gaffes endearing.

But, in a crowded field of presidential hopefuls eager to beat Trump, Biden has not been able to transform that Obama-adjacent energy into support for his fragile status as the primary front-runner. What’s worse, his long record in the Senate and the Obama White House has alienated many young voters who now stand to his left.

Biden’s youth problem is evident at the rally inside the ballroom on this rainy, cold November afternoon. Other than the small army of young campaign volunteers decked in “We’re Ridin’ With Biden” T-shirts — all of whom say they are not allowed to talk with the press — older supporters vastly outnumber anyone under the age of 35. The atmosphere in the room is muted; a local band plays several bland Taylor Swift covers. Dafalla and his friends grab food from the rally’s buffet and settle in to wait for Biden’s speech.

Dafalla migrated with his family from Sudan to the United States when he was 13. He rejects the wave of racism and xenophobia that has been unleashed by the Trump administration, some of which he has experienced firsthand. He gets uncharacteristically guarded when I ask him to elaborate and declines to say more. “It’s time to find that right candidate that can move us past that,” he says instead, a sentiment that pretty clearly echoes Biden’s promise to “restore the soul of our nation.” Dafalla thinks the former vice president gives Democrats their best shot at defeating Trump and at passing any legislation in a heavily polarized Washington. “Warren and Sanders are pitching those big ideas that are extremely progressive, but are never going to get achieved,” he says. “I think it’s an unrealistic goal to have free four-year public college education.” Better, he reasons, to make like the last Democratic president and fight for incremental change.

Favorability polls are an inexact measuring tool, but they show Biden is still pretty well-liked, more so than other candidates.

A glance around the ballroom shows how few young people believe Biden is The One. But in the street outside, you can find crowds of young supporters for Warren and Buttigieg, happy to spend the afternoon cheering for their preferred candidates. There are energized chants, competing signs, and even a few people from opposite camps running around in those T. rex inflatable costumes. (You know the ones.) Even Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, one of the least-known candidates, has some young people stumping for him out there — so too does Beto O’Rourke, trailing so badly in polls that he ends his campaign hours before the fundraiser. The Biden campaign will eventually say that it had 1,200 ticketed supporters at the dinner, though not everyone shows up to the pre-dinner ballroom rally.

Among those there is Safie Jackson, a 19-year-old from Ames, a city about 35 miles north. Jackson says her family recruited her as a Biden supporter. “I want a president who will make me feel like my voice matters,” she says, “and just make the community feel as equal as it can be.” That person, for Jackson, is Joe Biden. She seems to be comforted by the fact that she grew up seeing him in the White House.

One line of argument from the Biden camp is that he is the only one who can stop the nation from going down in flames in the face of the havoc wreaked by Trump. It’s a case designed to appeal to voters who are laser-focused in kicking Trump out of office, but it doesn’t directly address young people who have their entire lives ahead of them — along with fears of deepening inequality, rising costs, the prospect of a lower quality of life, and a planet on its way to becoming uninhabitable.

Safie Jackson, a 19-year-old from Ames, says “I want a president who will make me feel like my voice matters.”

But for many young people, pragmatism can’t come at the expense of progress. Maybe for that reason, while young Biden supporters exist, they’re damn hard to find.

Addie Cosgrove is one of the volunteers making the rounds at the rally. The 19-year-old Drake University student and campaign intern says she nearly lost her mind the first time she met Biden at the Democratic Polk County Steak Fry in September.

“Oh my gosh, I cried. I felt like a lost puppy following him,” she says, her excitement palpable as she recalls her first meeting with Biden. He signed her copy of Promise Me, Dad, his 2017 memoir. She has since framed the book. Cosgrove also got to take over his Instagram account that day, which she remains excited about. (The Biden campaign connected Cosgrove to GEN.)

Cosgrove’s reasons for supporting Biden go beyond policy (though she is quick to praise his record on gun control and LGBTQ+ rights). Her father died of cancer when she was a child; she feels a sense of kinship with the former vice president, whose life has been marked by tragedy. He lost his wife Neilia Hunter and their infant daughter Naomi in a car accident 47 years ago, and his oldest son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015. He’s also dealt with his youngest son Hunter’s addiction. “It speaks to me on a personal level that Joe Biden has put his whole career in service to the people even though he has gone through so many things,” Cosgrove says. “He’s truly a real person. He’s not just some politician.”

Young voters ages 18 to 29 helped Barack Obama secure the nomination in 2008, and propelled Bernie Sanders’ candidacy forward in 2016.

Favorability polls are an inexact measuring tool, but they show Biden is still pretty well-liked, more so than other candidates. That sense of authenticity, if coupled with a strong platform, could be the way to win the hearts of this critical voting bloc. Young voters turned out in record-breaking numbers in the 2018 midterm election, and overwhelmingly supported Democrats. Those ages 18 to 29 also helped Obama secure the nomination in 2008, and propelled Sanders’ candidacy forward in 2016 even though he ultimately lost to Hillary Clinton.

Polls continue to show strong support for candidates like Sanders and Warren from younger voters. But at least 12% were still undecided in a November survey from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. “Right now what we’re seeing mostly on campuses is young folks fired up more about issues than candidates,” says Heather Greven, national press secretary at NextGen America, a progressive advocacy nonprofit focused on mobilizing young voters in 11 battleground states. “Young people tend to think politics is broken.”

“I think it’s important to have an enthusiastic candidate that can connect with the youth — and that’s something that Biden really lacks.”

The top five issues for young voters, in no particular order, are the cost of college, affordable health care, climate change, racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights, according to internal NextGen statistics reviewed by GEN. Greven says that if campaigns are successful in addressing those concerns in their platforms and meeting young people where they are, such as having a strong presence on college campuses, they can rally undecided voters.

Grayson Goyer, a 20-year-old University of Arkansas student and former Biden intern, came to Iowa for the event. “He has the best chance of beating Trump,” he says. “I also like his policies. He is kind of a more middle-of-the-road decision; it’s not too far to the left.” Goyer says that Biden’s climate policy is the most appealing to him, particularly because it’s not a “big umbrella” of issues, in a clear reference to the Green New Deal. “Biden seems to be more focused and there’s still a lot of capital being put into that plan.”

Addie Cosgrove and Grayson Goyer. The top five issues for young voters, in no particular order, are the cost of college, affordable health care, climate change, racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights.

Meanwhile, his peers are attracted to candidates like Warren and Sanders because they’re thirsty for outside-the-box proposals. “There is a stark difference between what millennials and Gen Z folks are thinking versus what the status quo is. [They] believe that things can be done, instead of things can’t be done. They want big and bold ideas,” says Camille Rivera, partner at the New York-based progressive political consultancy group New Deal Strategies. “They want a real connection to what they’re seeing are the issues that are plaguing this country.”

Elijah Marburg is firmly in the camp that Trump is a threat to democracy.

Still, there are young people who think defeating Trump takes priority over whatever pie-in-the-sky ideas other candidates are offering. They tap into the tension that has been consuming the Democratic party slowly since its shocking loss in 2016: the push-and-pull between moderates and progressives, between those who think Trump is the problem versus those who believe he is a symptom of a broken system.

Elijah Marburg, an 18-year-old Drake University student, is firmly in the camp that Trump is a threat to democracy and his challenger must be someone who makes him a one-term president. “The draw to Biden was his electability. Pennsylvania might be the most important state in this upcoming election, and from what I understand, they absolutely adore him,” says Marburg. “The most important thing for this election is who can win. Never mind his character and everything he accomplished during the Obama administration. It is that and that he really would win.”

Now, if only Biden can keep his young supporters believing in that. (His campaign did not return GEN’s request for comment.)

The next day, I decide to drive to the University of Northern Iowa campus in Cedar Falls. I want to follow up with Dafalla on how he felt after yesterday’s events — after all the cheering, all the speeches.

“Yesterday was underwhelming,” he confesses as we sit down to talk at a near-empty student union hall on campus. “I think it’s important to have an enthusiastic candidate that can connect with the youth — and that’s something that Biden really lacks.”

Dafalla is frustrated that Biden seemed focused most on attacking Trump. “The very character of America is on the ballot next November. The very character of the country,” Biden said at the Liberty and Justice dinner last night. “And Donald Trump is a genuine threat. A man lacking in the character we need.” Dafalla was also turned off by the chant supporters kept repeating: Whenever Biden mentioned how he would inevitably beat Trump, they would shout “like a drum.” Dafalla says, “It sounded very Trumpy to me. Similar to ‘Lock her up!’ or ‘Build that wall!’”

Dafalla waited for Biden to talk about the policies he would implement after getting Trump out of office, but the moment never really came. “There were what, 13,000 Democrats there last night? If you go around asking everyone, they could write a two-page paper on how much Trump sucks,” he argues.

Disappointment aside, Dafalla has no plans to jump ship. Not yet, at any rate. “I’ll vote based on platform, rather than how exciting a candidate is.”

Award-winning journalist covering politics, gender, race, activism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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