Biden’s victory in the primary launched a period of mourning and freaking out among young people, Wessel said. A dozen years ago, Barack Obama seemed like liberal Millennials’ cool college friend—slightly older, much smarter, potentially willing to get you weed. Millennials had a crush on Obama. He was our new bicycle. And Joe Biden—well, he was also there!
All of this left Wessel with a problem, given that his job is to get Democrats into office, regardless of whether they are cool. In May, NextGen announced it planned to spend $45 million to help Biden beat Trump.
To see what messages might resonate with young voters, Wessel and his colleagues turned to Global Strategy Group, a polling firm they often work with. In April, the firm began conducting focus groups through Zoom with young Democrats. Andrew Baumann, a senior vice president with Global Strategy Group, would moderate the discussion among a handful of voters, with Wessel and his colleagues messaging him on the side, suggesting ideas to test out.
At first, these focus groups only underscored Biden’s enthusiasm problem. In the words of one Hispanic Gen Z participant, “I honestly don’t know enough about Biden to really form an opinion.”
Some of the messages Baumann tried on the group didn’t perform very well. For instance, participants didn’t like being told that Trump is so bad, they simply must vote for Biden, even if they don’t particularly want to. “They needed positive reasons to do it,” Baumann told me. The “You must stop Trump” strategy didn’t work.
The message that did work would spring from Wessel’s mind, but he doesn’t remember exactly how it came to him. Wessel had been talking with Gretchen Barton, a researcher at Olson Zaltman, a firm that studies what makes consumers and voters tick. Barton told him about a study she did of young voters. These voters, she found, “had a rebellious hope in the face of overwhelming odds.” When asked to describe what voting felt like, one participant imagined Katniss Everdeen, from the Hunger Games franchise. “I feel like we’re living in this kind of dystopia where elites are using us as pawns for their own benefit, and people at the bottom are suffering,” the participant told Barton and her colleagues. “I identify with Katniss trying to give the people in my community a little more dignity and love and trying to make the world a better place. I feel like voting is an expression of this.”
Wessel thought back to the image of Katniss—a heroic underdog trying to defeat evil. He thought about how Millennials have been kicked in the butt by 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, the Great Recession, and the pandemic and the current economic collapse. He thought about how, though many of the young people he knew liked Sanders better than Biden, others preferred Andrew Yang, or Warren, or Beto O’Rourke. “It was pretty all over the place,” he said. There wasn’t just one person they expected to swoop in and save them.