Ben Wessel was nervous. Joe Biden had just won the Democratic nomination, and the youth-focused super PAC Wessel runs, NextGen America, now had to figure out how to persuade the generation of TikTok and trigger warnings to turn out to vote for a 77-year-old man best known for record players and malarkey.
Much of NextGen’s staff supported Senators Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. Wessel, who is 31 and a D.C. native, liked Warren best too. “There are so many people on our staff who were like, I don’t know if he was in my top three,” Wessel told me recently.
And Wessel’s worries about Biden weren’t just personal. Although the former vice president still leads Donald Trump in the polls overall, Trump backers are more likely to “strongly support” Trump than Biden backers are to strongly support Biden. Biden supporters said they were not as “excited to vote” for him as Trump supporters were to vote for Trump, nor are they as “enthusiastic” about their candidate, according to polls done in recent months. This problem is especially pronounced among young people, whose votes Sanders, not Biden, won in every state on Super Tuesday. Today, Biden’s net favorability rating is negative among voters under 35, according to a recent CNN analysis. (In response to a request for comment about these figures, Biden campaign spokesperson Jamal Brown said, “Poll after poll shows Joe Biden leading the race, and our campaign will be working hard to win every vote.”)
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.
He came up with what NextGen now calls “the Democratic Avengers,” after the Marvel movie featuring an ensemble of superheroes. The idea is that by voting for Biden, you’re voting not just for him; you’re voting for all of the Democrats—many of them cool and hip!—that Biden will have in his orbit. Biden might borrow policies from Warren, for example, or have Sanders as an adviser. “If he is elected, it won’t just be Joe Biden,” this message reads. “Biden has pledged to build an administration filled with progressive leaders, experts, and activists from inside and outside of politics.”
This idea went over really well, according to Wessel and Baumann. In the focus groups, one white Millennial said “the saving grace of this (potential) presidency would be his crew. If he actually chooses true progressives and activists, I will be surprised but happy to admit I misjudged him.”
The Democratic Avengers has since become one of the group’s most popular messages about Biden, according to its surveys, and the idea has made its way into ads. One features action-movie music, a comic-book font, and various Democrats stylized as cartoon characters. Bernie Sanders, it reads, “supports a $15 minimum wage!” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is “champion of [the] Green New Deal!” Joe Biden, meanwhile, “is building the team that we want to run things!” A similar theme has also made its way into an ad by Students for [Ed] Markey, another old guy who recently triumphed somewhat unexpectedly. Recently, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert made a loving send-up with a similar Avengers theme.
The prospects of the Avengers strategy are still murky. The Avengers-style ad by NextGen had 145 views on YouTube when I last played it. Young voters’ cynicism about Biden and other traditional politicians might extend to a PAC’s dorky attempt to convince them that senators are superheroes.
I pointed out to Wessel that this message is exactly what conservative pundits say about a potential Biden presidency: that the aging moderate will be easily manipulated by more radical Democrats, such as Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders. He didn’t seem concerned. “The Republican Party saying it’s the Biden-Bernie agenda? Yeah, that’s totally motivating for our voters,” he said. “Keep it up.”
It was motivating for one woman I interviewed who was depressed about Biden’s nomination. Gemma Rose Cohen, a 33-year-old from San Francisco, told me it wasn’t that she didn’t like Biden, “just that I felt like he was from the last generation of Democrats.” She was still planning to vote for him, but she felt a little meh about it. But when I told her that Biden might surround himself with other, more leftist Democrats, she sounded more enthusiastic. “He’s already incorporating those progressive ideas and working with people that I love,” she said.
If the Avengers model works beyond focus groups and the occasional YouTube video, it could suggest that young people, or at least Democrats, or at least young Democrats, are actually more interested in liberal policies than they are in charismatic candidates. Rather than get fired up about Biden’s personality, 20-somethings might thrill to a coterie of technocrats who have concrete proposals to change the way the country works. Brent Cohen, the executive director of Generation Progress Action, another youth-voting advocacy group, told me that he’s not worried about the Biden enthusiasm gap because “young people vote based on policy.” And he and other Democratic strategists believe that when it comes to policy, the choice for young voters is clear.