The first time Lucy VanDyke voted for president, she reluctantly supported Joseph R. Biden Jr. But she says she won’t be doing that again.
Like many young voters, Ms. VanDyke, a 23-year-old independent from Grand Rapids, Mich., is unhappy with Mr. Biden’s stewardship of the economy, his support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, and she has concerns about his age. Should President Biden face Donald J. Trump again, Ms. VanDyke says she would support a third-party candidate.
“I don’t want a Biden-Trump rematch,” said Ms. VanDyke, a mental health research assistant. “I know people can say, ‘Your voice doesn’t matter if you vote independent.’ But the more that people vote independent, even if that candidate doesn’t win, it shows that people are unhappy.”
Lucy VanDyke, 23, said she would support a third-party candidate should President Biden face Donald J. Trump again.Credit…Alfield Reeves for The New York Times
That discontent with the party front-runners appears to be shared by many young voters, according to recent polling, and it poses a considerable threat to Mr. Biden’s re-election effort. A December poll from The New York Times and Siena College found Mr. Trump leading Mr. Biden among voters 18 to 29, which could indicate a stunning erosion of support for the president with a core part of his coalition. In 2020, young people showed up to vote in record numbers and backed Mr. Biden by more than 20 percentage points.
Losing support to Mr. Trump or third-party candidates isn’t Democrats’ only concern with young voters. Experts say the party needs to worry about a distaste for a Biden-Trump rematch depressing turnout.
The Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School found last month that young people appear less inclined to vote than they did at the same point of the 2020 cycle, decreasing from 57 percent who “definitely” planned to vote in 2019 to 49 percent last month.
The institute’s director of polling, John Della Volpe, said the results suggested young voters had less faith “in government’s ability to solve big problems,” which could dent participation. The Harvard poll found that a plurality of young people trusted neither Mr. Biden nor Mr. Trump on key issues, including the Israel-Gaza conflict, climate change and gun violence.
Combating an “overall despair” with the political system, Mr. Della Volpe said, would require better messaging on how the Biden administration had made a difference for young voters on issues like student loan cancellation and environmental protections. “To really motivate young people, it’s about impacting their attitude, showing them that the system can work and has worked,” he said.
Convincing young people the system is working, however, is a daunting task. In interviews with nearly two dozen young voters, all under the age of 30, some described the country’s political climate as “scary,” “disheartening,” “not in a good place” and “pretty depressing.”
The majority expressed worries about their economic futures, citing difficulties in affording homes and paying off student loans. Some were concerned about rising polarization. For left-leaning voters, abortion access, gun violence and climate change remain pressing concerns that the Biden administration has had mixed results in addressing.
“I just feel like he hasn’t done anything,” said Maurisa Golden, 26, a student and small-business owner in South Carolina. “He’s managed to make a really big moment for young voters feel like nothing.”
Ms. Golden said that growing up, she had viewed Mr. Biden and former President Barack Obama as “superheroes” because of their pitches to Black voters and was excited to support him in 2020. But to earn her vote again, she wants the president to better address abortion rights, forgive more student loan debt and support policing reforms.
Brynn Teeling, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who attended a town hall in Iowa for Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign, said she was “extremely frustrated” with the prospect of a Biden-Trump rematch, citing Mr. Biden’s age and Mr. Trump’s divisiveness.
A Democrat from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Ms. Teeling, 20, said she came away impressed with the former U.N. ambassador — though she didn’t agree with her stance on L.G.B.T.Q. rights — and saw her as a “better choice for our country than what we currently have.”
“The biggest thing that my generation is begging for is for someone to be honest, and that is something we’re lacking from both sides,” she said.
Supporters of Mr. Biden argue that once the election draws closer, young people will return home to supporting Democrats — as they historically have done. The Biden campaign is betting that doing a better job communicating to young voters the administration’s record in areas like the economy, environmental protections, and student loan forgiveness will help bridge the gap.
The campaign is investing in digital media, building on White House efforts to get podcasters and social media influencers — like Daniel Mac, the TikToker who asks wealthy people what they do for a living — to talk about the president’s achievements.
Rob Flaherty, the digital director for Mr. Biden’s campaign, said it planned to make clear how a Democratic loss could affect younger voters on key issues. “Young people are against the agenda that the Republicans are pushing — abortion bans, book bans, all the sort of crazy extremism that’s coming out of Donald Trump and beyond.”
Victor Shi, a senior at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has been called the president’s “Gen Z hype man” for talking up the administration on social media, praised Vice President Kamala Harris’s recent nationwide college tour, saying he wants the campaign to “make young voters feel like they’re included in the process and that they’re seen and heard.”
“It’s not enough just to attack Donald Trump or just to be the opposition party against Republicans,” Mr. Shi said. “This time around, young voters really want something to vote for, compared to 2020.”
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, is making his own pitch. In November, he published an essay in Newsweek with the headline “I Will Make America Great Again for Young People,” in which he attacked Mr. Biden’s handling of the economy and crime and outlined vague promises to address those issues.
Many Democratic and independent voters, however, said despite their reservations about Mr. Biden, they would not support Mr. Trump because of his role in overturning Roe v. Wade by appointing three conservative justices, and the echoes of authoritarian rhetoric in his recent remarks. Some are instead considering third party candidates — or may sit out the election altogether.
Arianna Garcia, a student at Georgia Southern University who will cast her first presidential ballot next year, said she was concerned about calls from her peers to boycott the 2024 election over Mr. Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza, which appears to have alienated many young, left-leaning voters. (Nearly three-quarters of young people disapproved of Mr. Biden’s handling of the conflict, a Times/Siena poll found.)
“They wouldn’t be my top choices,” Ms. Garcia, 20, said of Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, before adding: “I’m worried about a Republican getting in office and stripping people of their rights and making the world even more polarizing than it is.”
Dylan Lloyd, 27, who served in the U.S. military and lives in Pennsylvania, said he planned to support Mr. Trump because of his approach to the economy, but that the potential rematch felt like picking “between the lesser of two evils, like you’re forced to be on one extreme or another.” He said it could present “a very volatile situation, pitting a lot of people against each other unnecessarily.”
Kasey Reese, a law student in Wisconsin, said that while he felt Mr. Biden has been a “pretty stable” president, he worries how a Biden-Trump rematch could affect that climate. He said he used to support the Republican Party but broke with it over what he saw as “anti-democratic leanings” and supported Mr. Biden in 2020.
“It seems like the heat in politics has become so radicalized that a lot of people are becoming apathetic or angry. It feels pretty chaotic,” said Mr. Reese, 29, who said he was interested in Ms. Haley. “Right now, I feel as though the state of our republic and democracy is a legitimate question.”
And several voters attributed some of their disaffection to broader turmoil in the federal government. Philip Faustman, a 28-year-old Michigan voter, said he was disappointed in Democrats’ cuts on elements of the Build Back Better plan and the Supreme Court barring student broad loan forgiveness.
Mr. Faustman said he was considering supporting Marianne Williamson in the Democratic primary because he feels Mr. Biden lacks “the drive to get things done” on issues he cares about, including L.G.B.T.Q. rights and health care reform.
“A lot of people that I speak to are very apathetic about politics, and they used to be really excited,” he said. “The more that we provide people two different options that they don’t want, the more people are just going to get pushed away.”