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Another lesson about context: Biden and young voters in 2020

Is the former vice president in trouble with young voters? Compared to whom?

ANALYSIS — Today, I thought I’d offer another lesson about why context is so important in political reporting and analysis — and how it can affect our view of the 2020 presidential contest.

On April 8, NBC News ran a piece online, “Progressive Youth Groups Issue a List of Demands for Joe Biden,” about a letter from “progressive groups made up of young activists” presenting “a set of aggressive demands spanning policy and personnel to earn their support in the general election.”

The article lists the groups and their demands — including likely nonstarters such as “Medicare for All,” taxing wealth and the Green New Deal — in a straightforward way. So far, so good.

All interest groups have an agenda, and most try to maximize their political clout by presenting themselves as crucial, even if it involves threats of nonsupport. An article about their “demands” certainly was warranted.

But then we hit the bump in the road: The progressive youth letter reflects a major challenge facing Biden ahead of the general election. Young voters aren’t enthusiastic about him, but he needs their support to defeat Trump in the general election and avoid the fate of Hillary Clinton, who saw drop-offs from 2012 among voters under 30 in key states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that decided the outcome.

Biden has work to do: A Quinnipiac poll released on April 8 found his overall favorable-to-unfavorable rating tied at 43 percent, but among voters under 35 his unfavorables exceeded his favorables by 19 points. Trump still fared worse with those voters, underwater by 24 points.

Somehow, in consecutive sentences, we have jumped from “progressive youth” to “young voters,” as if the two are synonymous. (They aren’t.)

Later, the article stresses the importance of “young people” by noting that “Democrats lack a winning coalition without them.”

Yes, young voters are “important,” but so are old voters, middle-aged voters, black voters, white voters, suburbanites, rural voters, evangelicals, etc.

If Democrats get no young voters or just a few young voters, they can’t win. But that’s not the issue.

In 2016, Clinton won 18- to 24-year-olds by 22 points (56 percent to 34 percent), according to the national exit poll, and she carried voters aged 25 to 29 by 16 points (54 percent to 38 percent).

So, it isn’t as if “establishment Democrats” don’t win younger voters — even if many of those voters would have preferred Bernie Sanders as their party’s nominee in 2016 and 2020.

The question is not whether Democrats “need” young voters or can “win” young voters. Instead we need to be asking: What will be their margin of victory among the young? And the young voter turnout? And how will Democrats do with other demographic groups?

The treatment of the Quinnipiac poll in the article was particularly amiss.

Remember, the article noted that “among voters under 35 (Biden’s) unfavorables exceeded his favorables by 19 points,” only slightly worse numbers that Trump’s 24-point deficit (33 percent favorable/57 percent unfavorable). The implication was that Biden was in terrible shape with younger voters and that could cost him the election.

But the article did not note that the Quinnipiac survey’s ballot test found Biden with a 49 percent to 41 percent lead over Trump among all voters, and a 12-point lead among 18- to 34-year-old voters.

Think about it. The premise of the piece is that Biden has problems with young voters — or is it young progressive activist voters? — and this puts his election in jeopardy. Yet the poll used to cite his lukewarm support among the young, and his overall vulnerability, shows Biden leading Trump by 8 points among all voters.

There are lots of possible explanations for Biden’s overall showing in the poll. Maybe he is performing better among seniors or college-educated white women or voters of color than Clinton did in 2016. If so, to win, Biden may not need more support from young voters than what Clinton received against Trump.

Or maybe, the Quinnipiac age cross-tabs don’t give an accurate picture of the race.

Given how 18- to 34-year-old voters have been performing recently, including in the 2018 midterms, does it seem likely that Biden will beat Trump by only 12 points among voters in that age group?

Remember, in 2016, Clinton beat Trump by 19 points among 18- to 29-year-old voters and by 10 points among those aged 30 to 44. Two years later, voters aged 18 to 44 went for Democratic congressional candidates by 26 points, 61 percent to 36 percent.

The timing of the NBC News article is also worth noting.

The piece came out very shortly after Sanders suspended his campaign. The Vermont senator’s most ideological supporters were upset, and many didn’t rush to embrace Biden. That’s not unusual in politics. It will take some Sanders voters weeks or months to come to terms with Bernie’s defeat and confront the choice they now face, Biden or Trump. For his part, Sanders endorsed Biden on Monday.

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Six weeks or six months from now, the general election may look very different to many of those Bernie activists. Some may stay home in November, complaining that Biden is no different from Clinton. But I’m willing to bet that many of Sanders’ supporters — at least as many as in 2016, but probably many more — will eventually decide that they cannot take four more years of Trump and Trump Supreme Court nominees.

So, what’s the real bottom line?

Young voters will be important in 2020 if they boost their turnout rates and deliver bigger margins to one candidate or the other.

But other demographic groups are equally important, including college-educated whites, who swung from the GOP in 2016 to the Democrats in 2018.

Will Biden get the support of all progressive activists? Of course not. Some will take a pass on Election Day, while others will find a third-party nominee to vote for. For some of Sanders’ most ideological supporters, Biden may simply be too pragmatic.

But Biden doesn’t need all “young progressive activists” to win election. He needs “enough” voters aged 18-29 or 18-34. What is enough?

That depends on turnout, how all groups perform and how a handful of key swing states behave.

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