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Young Voters Are Fed Up With Their (Much) Older Leaders

Alexandra Chadwick went to the polls in 2020 with the singular goal of ousting Donald J. Trump. A 22-year-old first time voter, she saw Joseph R. Biden Jr. as more of a safeguard than an inspiring political figure, someone who could stave off threats to abortion access, gun control and climate policy.

Two years later, as the Supreme Court has eroded federal protections on all three, Ms. Chadwick now sees President Biden and other Democratic leaders as lacking both the imagination and willpower to fight back. She points to a generational gap — one she once overlooked but now seems cavernous.

“How are you going to accurately lead your country if your mind is still stuck 50, 60 or 70 years ago?” Ms. Chadwick, a customer service representative in Rialto, Calif., said of the many septuagenarian leaders at the helm of her party. “It’s not the same, and people aren’t the same, and your old ideas aren’t going to work as well anymore.”

A survey from The New York Times and Siena College found that just 1 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds strongly approve of the way Mr. Biden is handling his job. And 94 percent of Democrats under 30 said they wanted another candidate to run two years from now. Of all age groups, young voters were most likely to say they wouldn’t vote for either Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump in a hypothetical 2024 rematch.

The numbers are a clear warning for Democrats as they struggle to ward off a drubbing in the November midterm elections. Young people, long among the least reliable part of the party’s coalition, marched for gun control, rallied against Mr. Trump and helped fuel a Democratic wave in the 2018 midterm elections. They still side with Democrats on issues that are only rising in prominence.

But four years on, many feel disengaged and deflated, with only 32 percent saying they are “almost certain” to vote in November, according to the poll. Nearly half said they did not think their vote made a difference.

Interviews with these young voters reveal generational tensions driving their frustration. As they have come of age facing racial strife, political conflict, high inflation and a pandemic, they have looked for help from politicians who are more than three times their age.

Those older leaders often talk about upholding institutions and restoring norms, while young voters say they are more interested in results. Many expressed a desire for more sweeping changes like a viable third party and a new crop of younger leaders. They’re eager for innovative action on the problems they stand to inherit, they said, rather than returning to what worked in the past.

“Each member of Congress, every single one of them, has, I’m sure, lived through fairly traumatic times in their lives and also chaos in the country,” said John Della Volpe, who studies young people’s opinions as the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. “But every member of Congress has also seen America at its best. And that is when we’ve all come together. That is something that Gen Z has not had.”

At 79, Mr. Biden is the oldest president in U.S. history and just one of several Democratic Party leaders pushing toward or into their 80s. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, is 82. The House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, is 83. The 71-year-old Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is the baby of the bunch. Mr. Trump is 76.

In a rematch of the 2020 election, Mr. Biden would lead 38 percent to 30 percent among young voters, but 22 percent of voters between 18 and 29 said they would not vote if those candidates were their choices, by far the largest share of any age bracket.

Those voters include Ellis McCarthy, 24, who works a few part-time jobs around Bellevue, Ky. McCarthy says she’s yearning for a government that is “all brand-new.”

Ms. McCarthy’s father, an electrician and union member who teaches at a local trade school, met Mr. Biden last summer when the president visited the training facility. The two men talked about his union and his job — two things he loved. Not long after, her father fell ill, was hospitalized and after his recovery, was left soured by the health care system and what the family saw as Mr. Biden’s failure to fix it.

“It feels like whether it’s Biden, whether it’s Trump, no one is stepping in to be a voice for people like me,” she said. “Laborers are left out to dry.”

Denange Sanchez, a 20-year-old student at Eastern Florida State College, from Palm Bay, Fla., sees Mr. Biden as “wishy-washy” on his promises.

Ms. Sanchez’s mother owns a house-cleaning service and does most of the cleaning herself, with Denange pitching in where she can. Her whole family — including her mother, who has a heart condition and a pacemaker — has wrestled with bouts of Covid, with no insurance. Even while sick, her mother was up at all hours making home remedies, Ms. Sanchez said.

“Everyone said we were going to squash this virus. Biden made all those promises. And now nobody is taking the pandemic seriously anymore, but it’s still all around us. It’s so frustrating,” she said. Ms. Sanchez, who is studying medicine, also counted college debt forgiveness on her list of Mr. Biden’s unfulfilled promises.

Democratic politicians and pollsters are well aware of the problem they face with young voters, but they insist there is time to engage them on issues they prioritize. The Supreme Court’s recent decisions eliminating a constitutional right to abortion, limiting states’ abilities to control the carrying of firearms, and cutting back the federal government’s regulatory powers over climate-warming emissions are only now beginning to take root in voters’ consciousness, said Jefrey Pollock, a pollster for House Democrats.

“We’re not talking about a theory anymore; we’re talking about a Supreme Court that is turning the country back by 50 years or more,” he said. “If we can’t deliver that message then shame on us.”

While middle-aged voters consistently identified the economy as a top interest, it is just one of many for younger voters, roughly tied with abortion, the state of American democracy and gun policies.

That presents a quandary to Democratic candidates in tough districts, many of whom say they should focus their election message almost solely on the economy — but perhaps at the expense of energizing younger voters.

Tate Sutter, 21, feels that disconnect. A native of Auburn, Calif., studying at Middlebury College in Vermont, Mr. Sutter recounted watching Fourth of July fireworks and cringing as another fire season begins and aggressive federal action to combat global warming is stalled in Congress. Sure enough, he said, he could see a brush fire kicking up in the hills to the south.

“Climate plays a big role for me in my politics,” he said, expressing dismay that Democrats don’t talk more about it. “It’s very frustrating.”

Mr. Sutter said he understood the limits of Mr. Biden’s powers with an evenly divided Senate. But he also said he understands the power of the presidency, and did not see Mr. Biden wielding it effectively.

“With age comes a lot of experience and wisdom and just know-how. But perception-wise he appears out of touch with people my generation,” he said.

After years of feeling that politicians don’t talk to people like him, Juan Flores, 23, says he’s turned his attention to local ballot initiatives on issues like housing or homelessness, which he sees as more likely to have an impact on his life. Mr. Flores went to school for data analytics but drives a delivery truck for Amazon in San Jose, Calif. There, home prices average well over $1 million, making it difficult if not impossible for residents to live on a single income.

“I feel like a lot of politicians, they already come from a good upbringing,” he said. “A majority of them don’t really fully understand the scope of what the majority of the American people are going through.”

The Times/Siena College poll found 46 percent of young voters favored Democratic control of Congress, while 28 percent wanted Republicans to take charge. More than one in four young voters, 26 percent, don’t know or refused to say which party they want to control Congress.

Ivan Chavez, 25, from Bernalillo, N.M., said he identified as an independent in part because neither party had made compelling arguments to people his age. He worries about mass shootings, a mental health crisis among young people and climate change.

He would like third-party candidates to get more attention. He plans to vote in November, but is unsure whom he’ll support.

“I think that Democrats are afraid of the Republicans right now, Republicans are afraid of the Democrats,” he said. “They don’t know which way to go.”

Young Republican voters were the least likely to say they want Mr. Trump be the party’s nominee in 2024, but Kyle Holcomb, a recent college graduate from Florida, said he would vote for him if it came to it.

“Literally, if anyone else other than Biden was running I would be more comfortable,” he said. “I just like the idea of having someone in power who can project their vision and goals effectively.”

Young Democrats said they were looking for the same out of their leaders: vision, dynamism, and maybe a little youth, but not too much. Several young voters brought up Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 32-year-old Democrat of New York. Ms. Chadwick praised her youth and willingness to speak out — often against her older colleagues in Congress — and summed up her appeal in one word: “relatability.”

Michael C. Bender and Alyce McFadden contributed reporting.

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