May 3, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Campus protests and the myth of ‘the youth vote’

Is Biden risking it all? 

Courtesy of MSNBC, via screenshot.
Courtesy of MSNBC, via screenshot.

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Will college protests negatively affect “the youth vote”? I suspect that’s the question in the back of the minds of many liberals and Democrats trying to understand what’s happening. Is the president, by sticking with his policies toward Israel, which has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians, risking defeat to Donald Trump?

The answer to that question is rooted in another question. Is “the youth vote” determinative? Do voters under 30 years of age determine the outcomes of presidential elections? The answer is clearly no. 

This is not to say that Joe Biden wouldn’t feel some kind of pain. Presidential elections are typically tight. They are won and lost at the margins in a handful of states. When they vote, most young people trend Democratic (even if they don’t identify as Democrats). If they don’t show up in November, it will almost certainly hurt the incumbent more than his challenger. No serious person should doubt that.

The answer to that question is rooted in another question. Is “the youth vote” determinative? Do voters under 30 years of age determine the outcomes of presidential elections? The answer is clearly no. 

But young people don’t determine outcomes. There just aren’t enough of them. Their percentage of the electorate is in the teens, according to the US Elections Project. As a percentage of the electorate, in this century, the youth vote was highest in 2008, the year of Barack Obama’s election. But that percentage has fallen and flattened since.

Race is more determinative than age. It’s frankly more determinative than any other demographic feature. The only reason Trump is a contender is because a majority of white people, who are still the majority of voters in this country, would like to see him restored to power. Young people may be young, but many of them are white. It would be a mistake to assume “young voter” means “Democratic voter.”

(Obama’s success with young people, and perhaps also Bernie Sanders’ modest success, seems to be the basis for a misconception about Biden, which is that young people are his base of power. They are not. Black people and people of color are his base. Some of them are indeed young, but again, their youth isn’t the determining factor. Race is.)

Young people are, well, young, and because of the uncertainties and instabilities of youth, they haven’t yet turned voting into a habit. That makes them unreliable in terms of campaigning. People over 50, who are the majority of both parties, have made voting habitual. That’s why politicians pay attention to them. Even Barack Obama, the greatest beneficiary of the youngs, spend more resources courting the olds

And young people aren’t monolithic. It’s in their interest for organizers of campus protests to present themselves as representative of the hearts and minds of young Americans. But they are elite students for the most part, most of them attending elite institutions of higher education, who have, on account of their elevated status, a clear path toward whatever future they envision for themselves. If they are stand-ins for “the youth vote,” they’re a slice of a slice of a slice of it.

All this may be surprising, given the focus on young voters. But that focus reflects the American mythology of youth – or the widely held belief that young people’s priorities will be the country’s priorities in time. Many people told that story during and after the civil rights and antiwar protests of the 1960s. By 1980, America elected Ronald Reagan. Many told that very same story after the election of the country’s first Black president. Eight years later, America elected Donald Trump.

Again, none of this is to say that voters under the age of 30 don’t vote or that because they don’t, what they think doesn’t matter. What they think matters. Every one of their votes counts. Americans, specifically a majority of white Americans, are perilously close to surrendering everyone’s freedoms. We don’t have the luxury of dismissing anyone.     

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My point is “the youth vote” isn’t what our myths would have us believe it to be, which is a voting bloc that’s somehow more important, more determinative and more special than it is. It’s just another voting bloc – an important one, to be sure (remember those margins of victory or defeat), but not more important than, or even as important as, other voting blocs. Generally, we’d all be better off dropping the idea. 

We’d all be better off dropping the idea for a specific reason. 

If “the youth vote” is just another voting bloc, then we can look at what’s happening on these college campuses with fresh eyes. It’s hard to listen to what protesters are saying, and it’s hard to listen to what their critics are saying, when there’s fear in the back of your mind that just listening to them might lead to Donald Trump returning to power.

What’s happening is complicated enough. There’s no need to make it more complicated with mistaken beliefs about “the youth vote.”

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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