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Updated Dec 1, 2023, 6:04am EST
politics

Rappers and sporting events: Inside Donald Trump’s campaign for young voters

Ken Ruinard / USA TODAY Sports
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The News

Donald Trump’s campaign is well aware of the slew of polls showing that young voters are growing dissatisfied with President Joe Biden, and will try and capitalize on it.

Already, Trump has ramped up his visits to sporting events: He’s shown up at UFC fights, attended major college football games, and even spent time at a college fraternity, where he threw footballs out to a crowd of students. The former president, known for his obsession with TV ratings, has appeared on a number of non-traditional media platforms with younger followings. In July, he sat down with a popular UFC podcast, and he’s also done sitdown interviews with shows like the Full Send Podcast.

A senior Trump advisor said the campaign is also doing outreach and closely tracking how Trump is viewed by users on major social media platforms, while at the same time tailoring their messaging for young voters, too, by emphasizing the impact of things like rising interest rates and the cost of living. The hope is to marry Trump’s base of young conservative voters with a mix of disaffected Biden voters and more politically marginal voters that can be reached outside conventional media.

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They are looking at ways to leverage Trump’s inroads in pop culture, especially hip hop, as one route to nudge younger voters into giving him a closer look. His relationship with Ye, formerly Kanye West, became a liability after his antisemitic turn, but advisors point to other figures who have Gen Z appeal.

“President Trump has all sorts of celebrities and famous people that are promoting his presidency, are saying positive things about him — people that you might not expect for a Republican presidential candidate: You look at Kodak Black, you look at what Lil Wayne has said, you look at Lil Pump, you look at Sexyy Red. You look at Jorge Masvidal, you look at Jelly Roll. You look at all these various performers from all the way across the spectrum — in addition to athletes,” a senior Trump advisor pointed out.

The Trump campaign’s push coincides with a number of recent polls suggesting Biden is in hot water with this group of voters: An NBC News poll from earlier in November found Biden behind Trump among those aged 18-34; A set of New York Times polls published at the beginning of the month had Biden ahead by only one percentage point with the same voting range group; A Quinnipiac poll found him to be up by nine, far behind his 24-point margin in 2020 exit polls. There are exceptions — a YouGov poll this week found Biden leading Trump with under-30 voters by 27 — but the overall trend has been unmistakable.

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Trump’s policy message to win these voters over is still largely undefined. An op-ed by Trump in Newsweek aimed at young Americans largely stuck to the usual appeals to nostalgia over the pre-pandemic economy that he’s leaned on for years. But discussion of outreach is also starting early: The primary is still underway, but the leading candidates in each party are increasingly sparring on a day-to-day basis.

“In many ways, we’re starting the relationship fresh with many of these voters to let them know how we’re going to deliver for them and turn the country around after Joe Biden has done such a job to try to wreck it,” the advisor said.

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Shelby’s view

The youth vote seems to be a bigger focus for Republicans than it was in past elections. But the under-30 crowd’s dissatisfaction with Biden doesn’t necessarily mean they’re open to Trump — many are still liberal on key issues, which could put a ceiling on significant gains. Young progressives currently upset that Biden has not challenged Israel’s conduct in Gaza harder, for example, are unlikely to find Trump’s positions more attractive.

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“Do I think we will see a situation where Trump wins young voters? Probably not,” Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini told my colleague David Weigel. “Or even comes within, you know, a low single digit margin? A little bit more likely, but probably not.”

Winning voters to Trump’s side isn’t the only way to improve his vote margin, though. Ultimately, Trump’s biggest opportunity likely lies more with depressing young voter turnout than convincing large swaths of voters to switch sides, or finding enough new young voters to make up the difference. There are also several high-profile independent and third-party candidates who may be on the ballot and could serve as an outlet for protest votes.

“Clearly, that’s going to be the Republican’s advantage,” Alex Conant, who worked on Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign, told me. “Biden’s argument is gonna be, ‘You gotta go vote because otherwise Trump’s gonna win.’ Full stop, that’s his reelection message, and it worked in 2020. And I think to the extent that the Trump campaign could convince younger voters that it doesn’t really matter who wins, that’s clearly a win for the Republicans.”

The polls we are seeing lately fit that theory: Voters don’t seem particularly excited about the prospect of another four years of Biden. More and more, it seems the upcoming general election will be between two candidates that big chunks of the country wish would just not run again, and that’s especially true of voters five and even six decades younger than the two likeliest nominees.

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Room for Disagreement

There’s a lot of talk about young voters losing faith in Democrats, but they’ve still been showing up in plenty of actual elections — especially with issues like abortion on the line. Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, president of NextGen America, noted to Semafor that there was a period in 2022 when news commentary was just as cynical about young voters turning out; ultimately, “the exact opposite happened.”

“As the demographics have shifted, and also the political viewpoints of the generation have shifted, it has become overwhelmingly and increasingly progressive,” she said. “And I think we’re going to continue to see those trend lines.”

Some Democrats also argue concerns about 2024 are overblown given that the most engaged voters still seem to favor their candidates in the races that matter most. The party has performed relatively well in off-year and special elections this year, including huge campus turnout in a key Wisconsin court race.

“Under the Biden White House, the Biden-Harris administration is investing historic amounts in areas that we really care about: Climate action, infrastructure, K-12 schools, colleges – HBCUs specifically. So on a tangible level, Trump going to a UFC game? I don’t care. Trump saying that he’ll take away my health care? That’s something that’s going to motivate me to go to the polls,” Jack Lobel, national press secretary for Voters of Tomorrow, said.

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The View From Democrats

The Democratic National Committee is also ramping up its focus on young voters ahead of the 2024 election: A DNC official told Semafor that they’ve begun investing in youth vote outreach by bringing on Eve Levenson as youth coalitions director, and that the Biden campaign has already launched organizing pilot programs in key states like Wisconsin, which will in part target young voters. The DNC also plans to use and scale up various efforts implemented in the 2022 midterms, including working with influencers and content creators to help spread their message across social media platforms.

“This is not a group that we are taking for granted. We are not assuming that we can just sit on our hands and young voters will turn out,” the DNC official said. “We believe that when these young voters hear about Joe Biden’s agenda and everything that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have done for them, that they will turn out and support him.”

In a statement, Biden campaign rapid response director Ammar Moussa argued that policy debates would favor them when the general election heats up. “The Trump campaign is delusional if they think their platform of kicking kids off of their parents’ health care, denying climate change, and doing nothing to help ease student loan debt will win over young voters,” he said.

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Notable

  • Joe Biden is in trouble with young Latinos, who overwhelmingly back Palestine compared to their older counterparts, according to polling reported on by The Messenger. The latest survey tracks with other polls conducted recently, which have found Biden struggling with younger, more progressive voters over his firm support of Israel.
  • Biden’s weakness with young voters “should be taken seriously,” Nate Cohn recently argued, pointing to the fact that “dozens” of polls are showing the same thing. Cohn dissected his own New York Times poll, and noted that the findings were pretty straightforward: “The problem for Mr. Biden isn’t too few young Democrats. It’s that many young Democrats don’t like him.”
  • One barrier to courting Gen Z for both sides: TikTok. Politicians in both parties have largely avoided it, despite its massive cultural relevance, because of its connections to China. That could change as Democrats grow concerned they’re becoming disconnected from progressives, David Weigel wrote in Semafor.
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