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The Expectation Gap: Poll Finds Differences in What Younger and Older Americans Expect from President Biden

Progressive deals were not enough to meet expectations of many Gen Z and Millennial voters, but that may not keep them from voting.

MIAMI, Florida - Despite recent deals on climate investment, tax reforms, and gun safety laws, about one in three young adults say President Biden has not met their expectations on a series of key qualities, according to new polling conducted by YouGov America, on behalf of LX News.

Fewer than one in five adults under 30 said the president had exceeded their expectations on qualities such as “keeping promises” and “fights for what’s right,” providing some insight as to why Gen Z and young millennial voters — typically more progressive than older generations — give the president lower grades on his performance than older Americans.

The survey, taken in early August after the Senate announced the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, found older progressives were more satisfied with the president’s accomplishments than younger progressives.

However, new NBC News polling, which indicates more young adult enthusiasm for the midterm elections than ever before, suggests frustrations and unmet expectations may not keep Gen Z and millennials from voting this fall. 

Forty-three percent of adults under 35 said in the NBC survey they were very interested in this year’s midterms, compared to just 31% earlier this year, prior to the passage of several large legislative packages and the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. This summer’s figure is even higher than the 39% the NBC News poll reported in 2018, when young voters set midterm turnout records.

“Young people are tired of waiting,” said Kristin McGuire, Executive Director for Young Invincibles, a progressive voter education and advocacy organization focused on youth engagement. “Gen Z, millennials, we are tired of being placed on the back burner. And we understand that our government has a duty to protect us and to provide services to us. And we are of the mind that we would like to hold them accountable.”

The YouGov poll found President Biden has fallen short of the expectations of many older voters too. But while several other left-leaning subsets, such as Biden voters and Black voters, were much more satisfied than the average voter with the president’s progress so far, young voters were generally not.

“We don't have to settle,” McGuire said, referencing ongoing priorities such as climate reforms, housing costs, and student debt that are important to young Americans. “While the steps and the advancements that have been made are great, what we want are actions that we can see that can impact our lives today.”

Will climate reforms meet expectations?

The newly-signed Inflation Reduction Act, touted as the “most significant climate legislation in U.S. History” by the White House, has excited many climate activists who have spent years lobbying for reforms, even if it wasn’t everything some progressives had called for.

And while not all young voters are progressive, climate change consistently rates at — or near — the top of concerns for young adults in America.

Yet the new NBC polling found no bounce whatsoever for Biden’s job approval among adults under 35, while his approval among adults 35-49 jumped 12 points from earlier in the year. 

Just 36% of registered voters between 18-34 approve of the president’s job performance, down 20 points from last summer. 

This year, President Biden also scored legislative victories on a bipartisan gun safety bill, tax reforms, dozens of judicial appointments, and bipartisan bills to fund both technology and local infrastructure. Of 90 Biden campaign promises tracked by Politifact, 21 rate as “kept,” with only one rated as “broken.” The rest were rated “stalled,” “compromised,” or “in the works.”

But any shift on Biden approvals among young voters is also “in the works,” according to Abby Kiesa, a researcher who tracks young voters at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.

“Policy outcomes like the Inflation Reduction Act may move the needle somewhat, and it can be part of (how) policymakers and campaigns make their case to youth,” she said. “But it’s probably not going to cause a huge shift alone without deliberate communication to young people, both to inform and persuade them, but also to offer support on how to register and vote.”

Kiesa warns against vilifying young adults for their political frustrations or indifference to voting.

“In a way, that’s natural,” Kiesa said. “Young people are newer to politics and still figuring out what works and what's important. But are we helping them know?

“Youth often have few people talking directly to them about politics, helping them make those connections with the issues they care about.”

CIRCLE research found about half of the adults between the ages of 18-29 were never contacted by the Democratic or Republican parties in 2020.

Do Biden’s approval numbers matter?

The YouGov poll also found young adults put far less emphasis on traditional presidential qualities such as dignity, energy, persuasion, and willingness to compromise than their older counterparts.

“Youth care much more about the issue positions of candidates, and about progress/action on issues, than about a candidate's ‘personal qualities,’” Kiesa said, pointing to another YouGov poll that found only 22% of adults under 30 indicated their opinion of President Biden mattered “a lot” for their vote for Congress in the midterms — the lowest of any generation.

The NBC survey, which indicated youth turnout could break more records in 2022, also revealed 52% of voters under the age of 35 still preferred Democrats to keep control of Congress, versus only 38% who wanted Republicans to take control. Across all age groups, the two parties were statistically tied.

“Especially with issues like abortion rising to the forefront,” Kiesa continued, “young people may be thinking about local and state-level policy impact.”

“Young people on the ground in Florida are fired up,” said Rebecca Pelham, executive director of Engage Miami, a nonprofit focused on voter engagement and advocacy at the local level. “What candidates are saying about…our top issues, like gun violence, abortion rights, climate action — that's what's going to be motivating our vote.”

Engage Miami has spent the final days leading up to Florida’s Tuesday primary reaching out to young adults to get them registered to vote and educated about which candidates support their priorities. Pelham says she’s bullish on Gen Z and millennial turnout come November.

“We see attacks on LGBTQ youth, voter suppression, the targeting of Black and brown communities,” she said. “I think young people understand our votes do matter, [so] we need to take it to the ballot box.”

Turning engaged young adults into voters

To McGuire, low turnout rates for young Americans has less to do with a lack of interest and more to do with a lack of information. She says the government spends very little on young voter engagement and education, leaving it up to nonprofits to teach teenagers about democracy.

This 'apathetic young voter' is more of a trope that we like to lean on than what is actually happening,” she said. “What's happening is that many times young people just don't understand how their vote correlates to policy.”

While the NBC News poll found 43% of registered voters under the age of 35 were very interested in this fall’s midterms, the figure was closer to 70% for registered voters over the age of 35.

“We need to communicate directly with young people and stop treating young adults like they are some mystical group of people,” McGuire continued. “They are, in fact, voting-age adults who have needs, and they also have expectations of our leadership.

“I believe that's the duty of all of us: to continue to teach and inspire the next generation on what civic engagement really means.”

Noah Pransky is LX News’ National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for LX News, with a special focus on Gen Z and Millennial voters. His investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at noah.pransky@nbcuni.com or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.