Biden needs young voters. Can his climate policy rally them?

By Scott Waldman | 01/18/2024 06:38 AM EST

To win a second term, the president must reach what one expert called the “untapped potential” of young Americans who don’t know about his climate policies.

President Joe Biden smiles at a group of young supporters.

President Joe Biden smiles at a group of young supporters last year at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting in Philadelphia. Matt Rourke/AP

President Joe Biden has to compete against two foes in November’s election: former President Donald Trump and the living room couch.

Young people helped deliver victories for Democrats in the last two election cycles, motivated by issues like climate change, abortion rights and gun control. But Biden risks losing some of those voters — not to Trump, his likely opponent, but to disaffection.

Come Nov. 5, many young people might just stay home, pollsters and other experts told E&E News.


“I don’t think there’s a risk that any substantial number of them would go over and vote for Donald Trump, but I do think there’s a real risk that they won’t be energized and that they’ll stay home,” said Tom Bonier, a longtime Democratic political strategist and senior adviser to TargetSmart polling firm.

Young voters have turned out in record numbers in recent years, becoming key not only to Biden’s 2020 win, but also to Democratic victories in the 2022 midterm elections and 2023 off-year elections.

But there are already warning signs that 2024 could be different.

A recent poll from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that 49 percent of people 29 and younger say they “definitely” plan to vote in the presidential election — down from 57 percent at this point in the 2020 election cycle.

One piece of good news for Democrats is that young Republicans and independents account for the largest share of that drop. Still, Biden in particular may need to rally young voters to win a second term.

In the 2020 election, young voter turnout was a record 50 percent nationally, a sharp 11-percentage-point increase from 2016, according to Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. That turnout topped 50 percent in many of the key swing states that delivered the election to Biden, including Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada.

“When you consider the role that young voters played in Biden’s victory three years ago, it’s going to be really important for him and his coalition to be able to energize young voters and get them out to vote,” Bonier said.

Motivated climate voters

People aged 29 and younger who expect to vote in this year’s election rank the economy, gun control and climate change as their top issues, the Tufts survey found.

The climate voters are the most motivated. Seventy-two percent of those who ranked climate policy as their top issue said they were likely to vote, according to the survey. That same group was 37 percent more likely to say they would vote Democratic.

But there are still many climate-minded voters who would need to be convinced that they should vote for Biden.

The Tufts survey found a significant number of young people are worried about climate change and believe political leaders have done nothing to address it, said Sara Suzuki, a senior researcher at Tufts. The vast majority have heard nothing from any campaign. Overall, only about 1 in 5 young people surveyed had heard from any campaign.

“There’s really a gap and untapped potential among young people who really have this concern but don’t know what is being done,” she said.

Biden has overseen the most aggressive climate policy of any president in modern history.

The Inflation Reduction Act — which he signed into law in 2022 — injected billions of dollars into electric vehicles, batteries, wind turbines and other clean energy technology. In the last year, EV sales broke records, tens of thousands of U.S. clean energy manufacturing jobs were created and the first offshore wind turbines came online.

This year, the administration will roll out major new climate rules and regulations that will limit planet-warming emissions from power plants and vehicles, implement new fees on methane emissions, and impose more stringent requirements on the fossil fuel industry to calculate its greenhouse gas pollution. Under Biden, EPA has also sharply increased its estimate for the societal cost of greenhouse gas emissions, which can help federal agencies justify stricter climate rules.

And yet, many Americans are unaware of Biden’s efforts, let alone his landmark climate law. A majority of Americans, or 58 percent, have only heard a “little” about the Inflation Reduction Act, a Yale University survey released last month showed.

At the same time, the administration’s fossil fuel policies have angered some of the young progressives that Biden will need in November.

That’s because Biden has also overseen record levels of oil and gas production. The U.S. is now producing a daily average of about 13.2 million barrels of crude oil, up from a peak of 13 million under Trump and more than the next two top-producing countries, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Some fossil fuel projects advanced by the administration, especially Alaska’s Willow project and Mountain Valley pipeline in West Virginia, are also targets of viral TikTok videos, alienating at least some segments of young voters.

Biden leans in

Despite those challenges, the Biden campaign is preparing to use climate policy as one of the sharpest contrasts with Trump. Vice President Kamala Harris will be a key part of that outreach, White House officials say.

Biden and Harris will spend the year “laying out the dire stakes of this election so they can secure reelection and continue to advance the essential work of creating clean energy jobs and leading the world toward a more sustainable future,” said Biden campaign spokesperson Seth Schuster.

Harris will continue last year’s strategy of talking about climate policy with college audiences and social media influencers, while also attending groundbreakings for clean energy projects around the country. She is also expected to focus her speeches on climate — even during unrelated events. During a visit last week to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, for example, Harris talked about the importance of improving air quality for local front-line communities.

“I think you’ll see on the youth engagement part a continued effort for the vice president to go to where young people are, use platforms young people use and speak in a way that is resonant to young folks,” said Ike Irby, special assistant to the president and deputy domestic policy adviser to the vice president.

The White House and its allies are now running a nationwide education campaign on Biden’s climate policies and the work that still needs to be done in a second term. That includes an $80 million effort from Climate Power, a communications organization that is partnering with super political action committee Future Forward to rally voters in the key swing states expected to decide the election.

Voters of Tomorrow, an organization focused on mobilizing and engaging Gen Z voters, is also joining the effort, conducting outreach on college campuses and reaching out to people who will be voting in their first presidential election.

Many young people want Biden to do more on climate, but also recognize that they “have a seat at the table” with him, whereas Trump has ignored their concerns, said Jack Lobel, the group’s spokesperson and a 19-year-old sophomore at Columbia University.

There is still time to highlight the massive difference between the two candidates, he said, and shrink the pool of young voters who don’t know what Biden has already accomplished on climate policy.

“When we see this disconnect between Joe Biden and his policies, that presents opportunities for us,” he said. “It’s not a bad sign, it’s just a sign we have a lot of work to do.”