A solid youth vote edge could be in doubt for Democrats in 2024. Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times
Could President Biden and Donald J. Trump really be locked in a close race among young voters — a group Democrats typically carry by double digits — as the recent Times/Siena polls suggest?
To many of our readers and others, it’s a little hard to believe — so hard to believe that it seems to them the polls are flat-out wrong.
Of course, it’s always possible that the polls are wrong. I’ve thought our own polling might be wrong before, and I would be very apprehensive if it were just our poll out on a limb. But this isn’t about one Times/Siena poll: Virtually every poll shows a close race between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump among young voters.
When dozens of polls all say the same thing, it’s worth taking the polling seriously. It’s easy to remember that the polling can be wrong, but it can be easy to forget that the polling is usually in the ballpark. It’s a losing game to dismiss all polling simply because it doesn’t comport with expectations.
Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t sympathize with those who question whether the final election results will look like recent polls. Personally, I’m skeptical the final results will look quite like these polls. But even if you think the final results will be very different, it does not mean that the polls are “wrong” today.
In fact, the belief that Mr. Biden will ultimately win young voters handily next year does nothing to distinguish two very different explanations for what we see in the polling:
The polls are mostly wrong. They’re biased. For whatever reason, they fail to reach the Democratic-leaning young voters who propelled Mr. Biden to victory in 2020.
The polls are mostly right. They’re reaching the young voters who backed Mr. Biden. But for now, these voters don’t support him. Over the next year, things could change.
When it comes to the Times/Siena poll, we’ve put forward a lot of evidence consistent with the theory that the polling is mostly right, but that things might change.
By the measures at our disposal, the voters 18 to 29 in our survey “look” right. They say they backed Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump in the last presidential election by a wide margin, 57-35, right in line with our expectations. They “look” right by other measures of partisanship as well. In the states with party registration, for instance, the Times/Siena young voters were registered Democrats by a 13-point margin, 35 percent to 22 percent. That’s almost exactly in line with their actual 13-point registration advantage, 36 percent to 23 percent.
It’s important to emphasize that just because the polls “look” right doesn’t mean they are right. Our polls looked “right” by these kind of indicators in 2020. They were still wrong in important ways (though they were right about plenty as well, including racial and generational depolarization). But these data points nonetheless raise the burden on those who assert that the issue is partisan nonresponse bias, in which young Democrats simply aren’t answering their cellphones (99.8 percent of our young respondents were reached by cellphone).
We see no evidence of that. In our polling, the problem for Mr. Biden isn’t too few young Democrats. It’s that many young Democrats don’t like him. Mr. Biden has just a 76-20 lead among young voters either registered as Democrats or who have previously voted in a Democratic primary. It’s just a 69-24 lead among young nonwhite Democrats. The dissent exists among self-identified Democrats, Democratic-leaners, Biden ’20 voters, and so on.
This kind of intraparty dissent is rare but not without precedent in our polling. I’ve seen it in our congressional polls of highly educated suburbs full of Romney-Clinton voters. And I’ve seen it once before in a statewide presidential race: our final polls in 2016, when Mr. Trump suddenly surged to obtain 30 percent of white working-class registered Democrats. It was hard to believe, but it was fairly easy to explain and it raised the serious possibility of a Trump win.
Similarly, I think it’s fairly straightforward to explain Mr. Biden’s weakness among young voters today, much as it was easy to explain Mrs. Clinton’s among white working-class voters in 2016. Young voters are by far the likeliest to say he’s just too old to be an effective president. Many are upset about his handling of the Israel-Hamas war. And all of this is against the backdrop of Mr. Biden’s longstanding weakness among young voters, who weren’t enthusiastic about him in 2020, and Mr. Trump’s gains among nonwhite voters, who are disproportionately young.
But even if you don’t buy these explanations, that’s mostly just a reason to believe the numbers will shift over the next year, not a reason to dismiss the polling.
After all, these polls do not depict the usual, stable basis for vote choice that we’ve become accustomed to in our polarized country. This is not an election where almost all voters like their own party’s candidate while disliking the opposing party’s candidate and disagreeing with them on the issues. Instead, we have an unstable arrangement: Millions of voters dislike both candidates, entertain minor-party candidates and when pressed often say they would vote for someone from the other major political party whom they disagree with on many important issues. These are the textbook conditions for volatility, and it’s entirely reasonable to doubt whether the arrangement will last once the campaign gets underway.
We tried to illustrate the abstract possibility that “things can change” more concretely through an article in which we called back the Kamala-not-Joe voters — the young voters who back Vice President Kamala Harris over Mr. Trump but not Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump. It’s worth noting that these are the kinds of voters we would expect to find in the data if Mr. Biden really were performing this badly among an otherwise typical sample of young voters — much as the 2016 polling featured plenty of white working-class Trump voters who approved of Barack Obama and who said they voted for him in 2012.
There’s one other way the results might end up “normal,” even with today’s polling: a low youth turnout. Almost all of the polls nowadays are among registered voters, not likely voters, and most of Mr. Biden’s weakness is among disengaged voters on the periphery of the electorate. In the latest Times/Siena polling, Mr. Biden leads by 15 points among young voters who turned out in the midterms, while he trails by three points among young voters who didn’t turn out. If these irregular, disaffected voters simply choose not to vote, Mr. Biden will most likely have a healthy lead with young voters.
There are countless other reasons the polls today may not ultimately align with the final result. For one, Mr. Trump could be convicted of federal crimes in six months. But just because the polls aren’t necessarily “predictive” of the final outcome does not mean they’re wrong. It doesn’t mean they’re not worth taking seriously, either. For the campaigns, taking the numbers seriously today may wind up being exactly what changes the numbers tomorrow.