Biden strains to reach young Michigan voters: ‘He’s too old’

  • President Joe Biden dominated Michigan’s youth vote in 2020 but is struggling to repeat the feat in 2024
  • Biden is already the oldest president in U.S. history. Donald Trump would be the second oldest if he returned to the White House
  • Polling shows young voters are concerned about Biden’s mental acuity and fitness to serve a second term

EAST LANSING — The oldest president in United States history is struggling to motivate young voters in Michigan ahead of the state’s Feb. 27 primary, a potentially dull affair that could foreshadow problems for Joe Biden this fall. 

With a likely general election rematch looming between 81-year-old Joe Biden and 77-year-old Donald Trump — who would become the second-oldest president ever – many young voters appear frustrated by their choices. 

Biden is “deteriorating, he’s too old” and is “clearly not cut out for the most stressful and most powerful job in the world,” said Ryan Sheahan, a 20-year-old junior at Ferris State University who is studying third-party alternatives.

“Trump, I think, has done a lot of illegal things, especially in his last few months in office,” Sheahan said of the former president who tried to overturn his 2020 loss. “He is not the right man for the job, and he does not unite the country.”

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Other young voters who spoke with Bridge Michigan said they were frustrated by Biden’s response to the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, or by pocketbook issues like inflation, which remains a concern despite an improving economy. 

Age matters, but the rising cost of everything from gas to tuition does too, said Jordyn Dean, a 22-year-old graduate student at Western Michigan University. She told Bridge she would support Biden over Trump in a general election but isn’t sure if she’ll vote for him in the primary. 

“School has gone up. Everything’s gone up,” she said. 

She plans to back Joe Biden in the general election, but the cost of “everything’s gone up,” said Jordyn Dean, a 22-year-old graduate student at Western Michigan University. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

With or without young voters, Biden is expected to coast in Tuesday’s primary. He’s not facing any real competition: Author Marianne Williamson dropped out this month, and U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota last weekend abruptly canceled a planned Michigan stop after laying off most of his staff. 

But experts are predicting low turnout in the primary, and recent polling suggests Biden could struggle in a general election rematch against Trump, especially among young people who tend to vote Democratic and decisively backed Biden four years ago en route to his 154,188-vote Michigan win. 

An early January survey of 600 likely Michigan voters by Glengariff Group Inc. showed only 15.6% of voters aged 18 to 29 had a favorable view of Biden, which pollster Richard Czuba called a “stunning rebuke” of the sitting president.

The most common reason voters gave: Biden is too old.

While Trump would also be an unusually old president if he wins in November, an open-ended survey question showed voters are more concerned about Biden’s competency, and that’s a “huge problem” for him, Czuba told Bridge.

“Joe Biden’s No. 1 challenge right now is to win back young Democrats, particularly Democrats under 40,” he said. “Young voters are essential to the Democratic coalition.”

‘I know what the hell I’m doing’

Biden’s mental acuity was thrust into the spotlight this month when Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Hur decided not to file criminal charges against Bidenfor mishandling classified documents following his tenure as vice president.

In a report explaining that decision, Hur predicted it would be difficult to prosecute Biden because jurors could view him as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

Hur alleged Biden’s “memory was significantly limited” in his 2023 interview with investigators and in a separate 2017 interview with a memoir writer. Among other things, Hur said Biden had trouble remembering when his son Beau Biden died from cancer, a claim the president strenuously denied. 

“I know what the hell I’m doing,” Biden said in a fiery White House press conference he called to refute Hur’s report. “My memory — take a look at what I’ve done since I’ve become president,” he told reporters. “None of you thought I could pass any of the things I got passed. How’d that happen?”

Biden’s campaign has been working to woo young voters ahead of Michigan’s Feb. 27 primary. 

U.S. Rep. Sara Jacobs of California discussed the president’s track record with University of Michigan students last week, and U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, another California Democrat, is expected back on campus Thursday. 

Biden’s “policies are making young voters better off,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Bridge earlier this month at a campaign event in Lansing.

While Trump is focused on the past and getting “revenge” against political enemies, Biden is looking to the future, he said, citing the president’s support for abortion rights and his work to begin “the most significant action… in the history of the world on climate change,” among other things. 

Biden has also fought to cancel student loan debt for millions of Americans, noted spokesperson Alyssa Bradley, who told Bridge that the campaign “is committed to listening to what matters most to young voters.”

Still, Biden’s age will “definitely present some challenges” when it comes to motivating young voters,  said Liam Richichi, 21, vice president of the College Democrats at Michigan State University. 

“People my age like to see change — something new, something fresh,” Richichi told Bridge. Seeing older politicians in Washington D.C. “making decisions for us … is a little disheartening,” he said. 

vote here signEarly voting began Feb. 17 in Michigan. Nearly three days in, a total of 15 people had voted on the campus of Michigan State University, according to East Lansing Clerk Marie Wicks. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

Will ‘uncommitted’ reach campus?

Biden was already 77 years old when he beat Trump in 2020 and fared particularly well with young voters in Michigan. Exit polls show 61% percent of 18- to-29-year-olds backed him in a contest he won with 51% of the vote. 

Michigan’s young voter turnout jumped 12 percentage points between 2016 and 2020, according to estimates from the Tufts University in Massachusetts, where researchers said the 18-29 demographic played a “decisive” role in Biden’s win. 

At Michigan State, Richichi said he and other College Democrats aren’t planning much for the primary but in the general election will work to “ignite” student passion by focusing on issues like abortion rights and gun control. 

That’s a unique challenge in Michigan because Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and a new Democratic-led Legislature have already worked to address “a lot of the issues that have been on the minds of people my age,” Richichi said. 

So it will be important for Democrats to remind young voters about the importance of federal policy, including Trump’s opposition to gun control regulations and the potential for a national abortion ban, he said. 

“Whatever you’re seeing the last four years is going to be even worse if we were under a Trump administration again in 2025,” Richichi said. “It’s kind of reminding them of the fact that progress is not instant. It doesn’t happen in one day.”

Young voters were one part of a coalition that delivered Michigan for Biden in 2020, a race that was largely decided by his strong performance in previously moderate suburbs where educated voters fled from Trump en masse. 

This year, Biden faces new headwinds in metro Detroit, where Arab American leaders and allies are urging Democratic voters to cast “uncommitted” ballots in protest against the administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

The war has emerged as a top issue for some young voters, too.

The Biden administration “does not have the final say in Gaza, but I feel like they could be doing more to make sure that civilians are not getting killed,” 20-year-old Liam Benton, a pre-med sophomore at the University of Michigan, said last week at a campus rally urging school trustees to “divest” from Israel. 

While he plans to vote in the Feb. 27 presidential primary and general election, Benton told Bridge he isn’t sure yet who he’ll back in either contest. 

“I can’t lie,” he said, “I’m not a huge fan of either side at the moment.”

Northwestern University student reporter Jocelyn Mintz contributed



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