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Why some young male voters are moving to Trump

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

We're a little less than six months out from Election Day, and it seems like every few minutes right now, there's a new poll probing who is supporting which candidate and why. And there's a lot of interest in what young voters are thinking about. One data point that's emerging is that a lot of these voters, members of Gen Z, younger millennials, they're pretty disengaged. NPR's Elena Moore spoke to some college students in Wisconsin who shared this sentiment, like Danielle Hoffman, a 23-year-old college senior.

DANIELLE HOFFMAN: Oh, I would like to hope one day that it's not going to feel like you begrudgingly have to vote for somebody. Like, I would really like to be like, oh, I can actually really get behind this person, instead of feeling like, you know, I got to, like, check a box.

KURTZLEBEN: In 2020, voters under 30 were key to President Joe Biden's election. He won that age group by more than 20 points. But that demographic seems to be less satisfied with Biden this time around.

JENNIFER SETH: Like, I think the kind of, like, person in the Democratic Party that I kind of identify more with is like, Bernie Sanders or, like, AOC, who are a lot more, like, socialist leaning.

KURTZLEBEN: I met 22-year-old Jennifer Seth in a bar in Ann Arbor, Mich., at a trivia night, where the organization NextGen America was registering new voters. And while the Biden administration has tried to appeal to young people like her with initiatives on climate change, student loan debt and gun control, Seth said Democrats haven't gone far enough.

SETH: As much as I care about climate, there are so many people suffering right now in this moment that I really feel like legislation that would increase access to things like health care, particularly reproductive health care and doing things like that and, like, taking action on protecting, like, LGBTQIA+, like trans rights.

KURTZLEBEN: The economy and especially inflation is another area where some young voters are dissatisfied. I met Nick Anderson at a Michigan rally for Donald Trump.

NICK ANDERSON: I mean, there is definitely a divide with us young people. A lot of them are Democratic. They choose the Democratic side because I guess they just like what they're hearing, but me personally, I'm more of, like, a business-type guy. The Republican Party does great with that, especially with Trump. So...

KURTZLEBEN: Both Democrats and Republicans are courting the youth vote, but it's by no means a unified vote. For example, there's a widening gender gap among young voters with women leaning more liberal and men leaning more conservative. Recent polls from Harvard's Institute of Politics and the Democratic firm Blueprint focus specifically on young voters trying to figure out which issues this demographic cares about most and how they'll potentially vote this fall. To help us break down what the polls really tell us, I talked to Christian Paz, senior politics reporter at Vox. Voters of all ages say they're concerned about the economy. So I started by asking Paz what specific economic concerns young voters have.

CHRISTIAN PAZ: The categories tend to be something like more jobs, you know, low unemployment, higher wages so that they can afford more things, lower interest rates if they want to buy a house, for example, or they have credit card debt, and then lower prices, and that has to do with inflation. And the thing that - especially the most recent poll that I wrote about, this Blueprint poll that looks at young voters specifically, overwhelmingly, the thing that they want the most focus on is lower prices. And that cuts across Democratic, independent, or Republican. It cuts across race, it cuts across education and it cuts across gender.

But that doesn't tend to be what these young voters think President Biden is prioritizing. They associate him with lower unemployment and more jobs and higher wages, where they associate Trump more with lowering prices. Almost, like, the single issue that Trump has an advantage over Biden on is on lowering prices, and that tends to be the one issue that they care the most about. So when you kind of add up those pieces, it gets you with a situation where young voters who are frustrated with the status quo would potentially be more open to Donald Trump.

KURTZLEBEN: I want to switch gears here because a lot of people listening might think of young voters and think of something that has generated a lot of headlines, which is the protests on college campuses against the war between Israel and Hamas. How much do you feel like that is driving their political choices?

PAZ: When you look at potential Biden supporters from 2020 in some of the battleground state polling from The New York Times/Siena College, for example, there is a segment of those voters who would say that they're not considering voting for Joe Biden because of the war in Gaza. But that percentage, you know, after talking to pollsters about this, it amounts to about 1% of the total support that Biden has.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

PAZ: That would be about 1% of a shift in his support because of the war. And so it is an important issue. Young voters care about this, but it's not the issue that they're going to be making up their minds over who to vote for.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, to the degree that young voters are turning away from Joe Biden, is that shift more against Biden, or is it toward other candidates? Is it a positive or a negative choice?

PAZ: Yeah. I've explored a few theories to this and talked to a few experts and, you know, talked to people about what is actually going on on the ground. And it's interesting because kind of the thing that cuts across all young voters is a general lower level of loyalty to the political parties, to political brands, you know, and veering toward independence, toward third parties, potentially, either because they're parking their vote there in the meantime because they haven't made up their mind, potentially because they don't want to vote for Trump and don't know where else to look - because the other thing that we see is young voters specifically are kind of conflicted about whether they want Joe Biden to move to the left, to move to the right, to stay in the center.

But almost all young voters agree that Trump needs to move a little bit more to the left or to the center. They consider him very conservative. And so that kind of information, plus, when you look at favorability ratings, young people in responding to Donald Trump, there's a higher share of them who say that they have a very unfavorable view of him, and that share is larger than the share that say that about Joe Biden.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, I want to drill down into the gender side of this because that really fascinates me, and I'm wondering, why might young men in particular be turning away from Biden? Because I was looking at that Harvard poll, and when you drill down, it seems - their motivations seem pretty complicated because it showed that a majority of young men still tend to have relatively liberal views. For example, they say they believe in universal health insurance. But then again, Trump tried to repeatedly end the Affordable Care Act while he was in office, and he vowed to do so if he is elected again. So what might be driving those young men? And is it necessarily issue positions?

PAZ: Yeah. That's a great point, and I'm glad that you bring up the issue positions because on the whole, one thing that, you know, we have to emphasize about younger people is that they're at a different stage of life than a lot of other voters in the electorate. They're figuring things out. You know, they're concerned about the economy, obviously, as we talked about. They're concerned about their future prospects. And so when you kind of factor all those things in, it makes sense a little bit why they would be a little bit, in some cases, contradictory in some of their issue positions, why they might be a little bit wary about identifying as a liberal or as a conservative and might be choosing a moderate identification.

And the same applies for young women as well. But the big dividing line that we see is that for young women, issues like abortion rights, reproductive rights, like health care tend to be a little bit more important than those tend to be for younger men. And those show up when we look at the data that asks young men and young women their top issues. Young men bring up inflation, government spending, the deficit. Women bring up jobs and the economy, health care and abortion. Those issues simply matter more and make them very, very cautious about supporting a Republican candidate in general or identifying as, you know, not a liberal in those cases. That kind of issue is not having the same effect among men, among younger men.

KURTZLEBEN: As you're talking about that, I'm wondering about how this intersects with other demographics, right? Because another thing we know is that young women are increasingly enrolling in college more than young men are. And we know that college education also tends to correlate to being more Democratic. Could that also be a part of this?

PAZ: That's absolutely another thing there because education is emerging as the new polarizing line in our politics, where college-educated voters are absolutely more likely to vote for Democrats than non-college-educated voters. Younger women are going to college at higher rates, than younger men are. Obviously, that experience affects their worldviews as well. And so you aggregate the education level. You aggregate gender. You aggregate race as well, and you get a combination of almost what somebody told me recently, that if we were to talk about the core of the Democratic base right now is, you know, emerging younger women of color tend to be that...

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

PAZ: ...Kind of, you know, strongest demographic that supports Democratic candidates.

KURTZLEBEN: I also want to ask you about the age of the candidates. Biden's age has been a big issue in this campaign - and also Donald Trump, not much younger than Joe Biden. To what degree is their age, the age of either of them, concerning young voters?

PAZ: It's interesting because this stumps me as well. When you ask voters about what they're worried about in a second Biden term, far and away, the top issue is that he's going to be too old to perform the job. That doesn't register when you ask them about their concerns for Donald Trump. That tends to be more kind of kitchen table issues like cutting taxes on the rich but not on other working or middle-class families, that he'll cut funding for Social Security and Medicare, that he'll use the office to enrich himself.

Those are kind of the concerns that they associate with a second Trump term, but the issues that they associate with a second Biden term tend to be much more about personality. And a lot of that tends to be right now because of people not necessarily viewing it as a choice between two candidates. They're absolutely viewing it as a referendum on Joe Biden right now.

And when you have that kind of referendum setup, it's easier to point out the most obvious concern and problem that you associate with the status quo, which is this general sense that things have not returned to normalcy, which was what Joe Biden's original pitch was. And so, especially among lower-information, lower-propensity voters, like younger voters, that tends to be kind of the immediate association that they have. They're not necessarily thinking about Donald Trump as much, but they are absolutely frustrated with what the way things are, and the person at the top, who they can pin that blame on is Joe Biden, and he's very old.

KURTZLEBEN: That was Christian Paz, senior politics reporter at Vox. Christian, thank you so much.

PAZ: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.