Young voters helped propel Biden to victory. Now they’re pushing for a more progressive Democratic Party

FAN Editor

Members of the Georgia Tech Women’s basketball team hold voting signs outside of McCamish Pavillion which serves as a polling place on Election Day in Atlanta, Ga., on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden was not Sam Weinberg’s first or even second choice for the White House. Like many young progressives, the 19-year-old Illinois native had supported Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren during the Democratic primaries.

But in April, when Biden became the last man standing in the Democratic primary, Weinberg decided to back the centrist candidate.

Fearing his peers might not follow suit, he created “Settle for Biden,” an Instagram account using what he describes as “sardonic millennial and Gen Z humor” to convince young people to, well, settle for Biden.

With catchphrases such as “Because a C+ is better than an F,” the campaign focused on mobilizing young people to vote President Donald Trump out of office. After more than 290,000 followers and millions of likes, comments and shares on the account, Settle for Biden has become an advocacy group and its name has proven to be an effective rallying cry for young voters.

Other progressive groups have also been organizing young people for political action, including the climate-focused Sunrise Movement, anti-gun violence group March for Our Lives, immigrant advocacy group United We Dream and other movements.

Their efforts may have had an impact on Biden’s victory. Turnout among voting-eligible Americans ages 18-29 increased significantly from 2016 to 2020 and a majority of them supported Biden, according to preliminary analysis from Tufts University.

Now, youth organizers are pushing the Democratic Party to embrace a more progressive platform.

“Progressive voters are the future of this country, progressive policies are the future of politics, and we are going to keep fighting to make sure that Biden’s administration is as progressive as possible,” Weinberg said.

Young voters’ electoral impact

Voters ages 18-29, particularly young people of color, supported Biden at a greater rate than any other age group, NBC News exit polls show. Between 73% and 87% of Latino, Asian and Black youth supported Biden, compared with 51% of White youth, according to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University.

In key swing states such as Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where NBC News has projected a Biden win, preliminary data shows young people’s support helped push Biden over the margin of victory. Biden made gains in Michigan and Pennsylvania counties with large college student populations.

Young Black voters played a crucial role in flipping Georgia, a traditionally Republican stronghold, where Biden currently holds a narrow lead. Voters ages 18-29 made up 21% of the state’s voter share — 5% higher than the youth voter share nationwide. About 90% of young Black voters supported Biden, compared with 34% of White youth and 57% of all youth voters in Georgia. 

“We won this election for Joe Biden,” said Nikayla Jefferson, a 24-year-old organizer for the Sunrise Movement. “We’re not going to let that go. He definitely owes his administration to us.”

The Biden campaign did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

A divided party

In April, a coalition of progressive youth groups including the Sunrise Movement, the March for Our Lives Action Fund, United We Dream Action and Justice Democrats penned a letter to Biden asking him to earn the support of young people. The coalition urged Biden to support policies such as “Medicare for All,” canceling student debt, a wealth tax and the Green New Deal commitment to clean energy.

“We need you to champion the bold ideas that have galvanized our generation and given us hope in the political process,” the letter read.

On Wednesday, the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats released a list of recommendations for Biden’s Cabinet, including Warren as Treasury secretary and Sanders as labor secretary.

The move comes as tension grows between the Democratic Party’s moderate and liberal factions. As Democrats’ House majority is projected to shrink following the 2020 election, centrist Democrats have blamed progressive policies for costing the party seats, including “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal.

Meanwhile, progressive Democrats have criticized moderate Democrats for catering more to center-right voters than those who consistently vote blue. Prominent figures such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are urging the party to “embrace the base.”

“It’s important to not ignore who supports you the most,” said Mary-Pat Hector, a 22-year-old youth voting advocate based in Atlanta. “Young people are now officially a huge part of their base, so it’s important to talk to them.”

Hector points to Black female leaders who have rallied youth voters in Georgia for years, including Tamieka Atkins, Helen Butler, Nse Ufot, Deborah Scott and 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

“We really need to be thinking about how to be in conversation with young people, not just in the two to three months before an election like we’re cramming for a test,” said Abby Kiesa, deputy director of CIRCLE.

“If we don’t have politicians in there that seem like they care about young people, then we’re not going to want to get involved,” said 20-year-old Emily Zanieski, co-leader of Students for Ossoff, a youth-led initiative to elect Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff.

‘We are the future of the party’

For many young people, Biden’s campaign promise of a return to “normalcy” is not enough.

“This sense of uncertainty about the future is something we’ve been feeling for a long time, and that comes down to issues such as health care, education affordability and climate change,” said Royce Mann, 19, legislative director for March for Our Lives’ Georgia chapter.

“The party needs to start listening to its progressive wing and start understanding that a progressive platform aligns with folks who I don’t think a centrist could ever reach,” said Isabella Guinigundo, an 18-year-old organizer with Ohio Progressive Asian Women’s Leadership. “Progressive policies are good policies for anyone interested in good paying jobs and a future that is for all of us.”

The Democratic Party’s first test? Biden’s Cabinet appointees.

In addition to the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, Settle for Biden has also released a slate of recommendations for top government posts. With the fate of the Senate still unknown, youth organizers are urging Biden to use his executive powers in key areas such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and the economy.

“The work starts now. We have to hold these people accountable to support the policies that we want to see happen in the future,” said Marcia Lacopo, 21, a North Carolina-based organizer with progressive youth voting initiative NextGen America.

After propelling Biden to the White House, young progressives expect the president-elect to deliver on the mandate they’ve given him.

“We are the future of the party,” Sunrise Movement’s Jefferson said. “We’ve made it very clear that the party is changing and either they come with us or we kick them out of office.”

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