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Semafor LogoJoseph Zeballos-Roig
Joseph Zeballos-Roig
politicsNorth America

Biden is at risk of young voters tuning out student debt relief

Joseph is a Domestic Politics and Policy Reporter for Semafor, joining us from Business Insider. Sign up for the daily Principals newsletter to get our insider’s guide to American power.

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Title iconThe News
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks about student debt relief at Delaware State University in Dover, Delaware, U.S., October 21, 2022.
REUTERS/Leah Millis

President Joe Biden has been selling his student debt plan with extra vigor lately, hoping to drive up sign-ups on the White House’s new website and remind a notoriously unreliable midterm voting bloc that he saved them upwards of $20,000 dollars.

But the plan’s future is also up in the air, both the policy and politics.

The White House beat back a string of conservative legal challenges over the past month, but a lawsuit from six Republican-led states ended up temporarily barring the administration from canceling any loans. A federal court decision on its fate could come as soon as the end of this week.

Meanwhile, it’s still unclear how it will factor into the midterms, with polling suggesting that young voters have other topics on their mind.

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It’s possible Biden gets tuned out by young voters who are more worried about inflation than getting student debt relief.

“As a young person who experienced COVID, who experienced economic turmoil in the last year with inflation, there are some other concerns that rise to the top as more immediately pressing to the day-to-day lives of voters and non-voters alike,” said Grace Adcox, a polling analyst for Data for Progress, a liberal-leaning polling group.

The organization conducted a survey late last month indicating student debt relief ranked near the bottom of concerns among a group of young voters aged 18 to 29. In addition, young Americans in the survey gave Republicans higher marks on who they would trust more on the economy.

A separate poll from The New York Times and Siena College indicated that the economy, cost of living and abortion far outpacing other concerns within the young voting bloc. Another national poll from the Institute of Politics at Harvard University released Thursday found encouraging news for Democrats on youth turnout, but that only 9% of likely voters aged 18-29 listed student debt as an important issue determining their vote, the lowest of any topic offered, and well below inflation at 45%.

Political observers have noted paid campaign ads on student debt have been relatively rare on both sides, suggesting the parties’ internal polling is similar.

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There are signs that may be changing, however: GOP super PACs are running attack ads hammering Democrats in competitive races in Wisconsin and North Carolina, casting the policy as a bailout for higher-earning Americans at the expense of people who didn’t go to college.

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

Some Democratic strategists believe student debt relief can form a key piece of a re-tooled Democratic message on the economy.

“I think it's where you have to draw contrast,” Democratic pollster Joel Benenson told Semafor.

Though Democrats are largely de-emphasizing Biden’s relief plan in battleground states, at least one candidate is putting the issue near the center of their campaign. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. pushed Biden to keep his student debt relief pledge and has taken out digital ads geared toward young voters and spotlighted the program in TV ads as well.

There may be landmines for the GOP as well if they score a major legal victory and thwart the program ahead of the midterms, which could create new headlines about conservative judges snatching benefits directly away from voters. If even a small percentage of would-be recipients voted decisively on the issue, it could make a dent that polling might not capture.

“It makes the issue more salient for younger voters because now they do see it likely as ‘well, gosh, we better go out there and vote because these Republicans are actually trying to take this away,’” Democratic strategist Tom Bonier told Semafor.

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