The Surprising Issue That Could Help Biden With Young Voters

Joe Biden’s latest action on immigration has a whiff of desperation. It’s no secret that Biden is struggling with some core Democratic constituencies, and in taking executive action to restrict asylum seekers, the Biden campaign may be targeting wayward Republicans, centrists, and older voters, who tend to prioritize immigration.

It’s not clear how effective these efforts will be, but addressing the immigration issue may help with another group of voters the campaign is struggling to reach: young voters.

Even if you are not convinced by polls showing the race effectively tied between Biden and Trump, there’s little doubt that Biden is worse off today than he was in 2020. In a new survey we conducted at the Survey Center on American Life, that includes a robust sample of more than 600 young voters, we’ve found that Biden has only a modest lead among young voters, well below his 2020 vote share.

The Biden-Harris campaign has sought to shore up support among young voters by emphasizing climate change, student loan forgiveness, and abortion rights. But what if the campaign took on the issue of immigration more directly in an effort to appeal to young voters?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Polls consistently show that older voters tend to prioritize the issue of immigration more than younger voters, but in truth, it’s an issue that remains important to many young people today. Harvard’s 2024 Youth Poll finds immigration ranking solidly in the middle of the pack, roughly as important as education and reproductive rights. Young adults are also much more likely to have a close personal connection to someone who is an immigrant. The Harvard poll also found: “A solid majority (60%) of young Americans have had classmates who have been immigrants, 46% have friends who are immigrants, 41% have had immigrant coworkers, and 40% have had immigrant neighbors.” As a result, the issue of deportation is more salient among young people today than in recent years. A February 2022 Pew study found that young Hispanics are far more concerned about having a close friend or family member deported than those who are older.

Read More: Welcome to the Immigration Election

One upside of campaigning on this issue is that, as more young people learn about patterns of immigration in the U.S., they become more supportive of increasing immigration levels. In an interesting experiment in 2022, YouGov asked respondents whether immigration to the U.S. should be increased, decreased, or kept as it is. Then it asked another group this same question, but furnished them with information about how many immigrants are currently coming to the U.S. The statement YouGov provided read: “On average, about 1 million people each year obtain lawful permanent status to live in the U.S.” After reading the statement, young adults grew more supportive of legal immigration, rising from 32% to 46 percent%. For seniors, it had the opposite effect—decreasing support for legal immigration—although the impact was more modest dropping from 22% to 17%.

Another reason for the Biden campaign to talk about immigration is that it allows him to highlight Trump’s many controversial remarks about immigrants—comments that most young voters find objectionable. The Democratic-aligned polling firm Blueprint found that many young voters are unfamiliar with Trump’s inflammatory statements about immigrants, but when presented with them, most found them offensive. Only 37% of young voters said they were aware that Trump had said Haitian immigrants to the U.S. “all have AIDS,” or that Nigerian immigrants should “go back to their huts,” but 59% report they were bothered by these comments. Some of Trump’s most intemperate rhetoric has been on the issue of immigration. Highlighting Trump’s divisive and racist rhetoric, like his claim that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” might convince young voters to step off the sidelines.

An age-old campaign tactic is to turn your opponent’s strength into a weakness. Trump has had a massive advantage over Biden in who is most trusted to handle the issue of immigration—the primary advantage being his willingness to be aggressive on immigration. But his advantage is not necessarily rooted in popular support for his policy agenda. Trump’s family separation policy was immensely unpopular, generating an avalanche of negative news coverage. His efforts to revoke the legal status of young people brought to the U.S. as children, so-called “dreamers,” was another policy that failed to win much support. A 2022 Pew poll found that even most (54%) Republicans supported providing legal status to dreamers.

While illegal immigration is a growing concern among voters, few believe Biden is willing or capable of handling it. But Biden has a case to make that Trump is more interested in maintaining chaos at the border than he is in solving it. Trump was instrumental in rallying GOP senators to block a bipartisan border security bill that he argued was not “perfect.”

The Biden campaign seems intent on going all-in on abortion in 2024. At this stage in the campaign, more than one-quarter of democratic campaign television ads mention abortion. That may reassure young women, but it may not sway young men who care far less about reproductive health issues. In fact, the Harvard poll finds that young men care much more about immigration than abortion. Finding an issue to engage apathetic young men will be critically important for the Biden campaign. A new poll by the Survey Center on American Life shows Biden and Trump effectively tied among young male voters, even as Biden maintains a 20-point edge with young women.

Even if young voters are not paying especially close attention to immigration six months before the election, pluralism is a defining value of this generation. Young adults firmly believe that racial and ethnic diversity is an asset for the United States. A 2023 poll found that more than two-thirds (68%) of young adults agree with the notion that the U.S. is made up of many cultures and values that change as new people arrive.

Immigration a fundamental American value, and one only one candidate can effectively embrace it. Biden would be foolish not to.

Contact us at