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Young progressives warn that Democrats could have a youth voter problem in 2022

By Rachel Janfaza, CNN

With less than one year until the 2022 midterm elections, young voters — who turned out in high numbers for President Joe Biden in 2020 — warn that if the Biden administration and congressional Democrats don’t act now on issues important to young progressives, they could risk alienating the demographic.

Citing college affordability, climate and immigration policy — the fate of which hangs in the balance amid negotiations over Democrats’ social safety net bill, known as the Build Back Better Act — young progressives are pleading for further investments while the Democratic Party currently holds a majority in both chambers of Congress and the White House.

While House Democrats on Friday voted to pass Biden’s sweeping $1.9 trillion social safety net expansion legislation, the legislation faces a tough road ahead in the Senate. Senate Democrats have no room for error to approve the legislation and key lawmakers — most prominently moderate West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — have expressed concerns over elements of the plan as policy fights loom on the horizon.

Without the items promised in Biden’s social safety plan, progressive organizers worry there will be nothing incentivizing young people to vote in 2022.

For young people, there’s, “an overall feeling like I voted in the 2020 election and nothing really has been done for me,” Shaadi Ahmadzadeh, who is 19 years old and goes to University of California, Berkeley, told CNN.

Despite backing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primary — Ahmadzadeh served as a student organizer for the progressive candidate while in high school — she voted for Biden in the general election.

Ahmadzadeh was able to get behind the President in part because he listed student loan debt cancellation, climate action, criminal justice reform and the Iran deal as issues he would prioritize.

Now, she’s disappointed.

“I was expecting substance out of his administration. I am getting some substance, but not enough,” Ahmadzadeh said, adding that she believes Democrats need to pass Biden’s social safety net plan as soon as possible. She cited prescription drug costs as one of the areas where Democrats could help her family.

Although Biden this week signed into law the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill — that will deliver investments into traditional infrastructure such as roads, bridges, transit, broadband and the electric grid — young progressives say that package alone does not go far enough.

Jeffrey Clemmons — a 21-year-old student who said he “agonized” over voting for Biden, but cast a ballot for the President — thinks Democrats should be “worried” about youth voter turnout in 2022.

“We haven’t gotten so many of the things that we were promised,” said Clemmons, who attends Huston-Tillotson University, a historically Black college located in Austin, Texas.

Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Biden overcame an initial lack of support from younger voters.

Half of young people ages 18 to 29 voted in 2020, according to research from Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts (CIRCLE). And in that age group, 60% cast a ballot for Biden, while only 36% voted for former President Donald Trump, according to CNN’s 2020 exit polls.

But nearly one year into his presidency, Biden’s popularity is waning. According to a recent CNN Poll conducted by SSRS, among those under age 30, Biden’s approval has dipped to 61%, with just 9% saying they strongly approve of Biden’s performance as president.

Lessons from this month’s state and local elections — most notably in Virginia where former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe lost support with younger voters, helping Republican Glenn Youngkin win the gubernatorial race — should serve as a warning sign to Democrats ahead of 2022, organizers say, adding that in order to secure the youth vote, Democrats need to go beyond being anti-Trump and actively prove they are committed to improving the daily lives of young people.

“It’s not enough to just run against Donald Trump. We need an affirmative vision about what you want to do with our future,” Maxwell Lubin, CEO of Rise, a youth organization focused on college affordability and voting rights, told CNN.

Tuition-free community college was cut from the version of Biden’s Build Back Better plan that passed the House. Lubin worries that if it’s not revived early next year before the midterms, it could be a repeat scenario.

“We (could) have nothing to sell next year,” Lubin said about the midterm elections, adding that young people are the most likely to drop off as voters between election cycles.

Bruna Sollod, a 30-year-old DACA recipient, said that when running campaigns, “It’s not enough for Democrats to say they’re not Trump.”

Sollod, who serves as senior communications and political director for United We Dream Action, a youth-led immigrant rights organization, said the immigrant rights community is feeling let down.

While Biden promised action on immigration, he has not yet followed through.

Although Democrats and advocates have for months been pushing to include protections for undocumented immigrants in the bill, that too could be left out of the final legislation as the Senate parliamentarian previously made a recommendation that a pathway to citizenship should not be included if Democrats use the reconciliation process.

Sollod said she’s lived in the country for 22 years, but currently has “zero pathways to citizenship,” explaining that her DACA status is not permanent, especially now, as the program continues to face legal challenges.

“I think the Democrats try to complicate things. They say there are these rules and tradition,” Sollod said, referencing the filibuster and Senate parliamentarian. “Voters don’t care about that. They want Democrats to pass bills.”

‘We expect a return on our investment’

Likewise, climate activists have in recent weeks grown increasingly vocal about their frustrations. They have taken a number of measures to demonstrate their anger, including a 14-day hunger strike outside the White House.

“Young people handed Democrats everything they needed in 2020: a governing majority and a popular mandate. If they fail to deliver their agenda, then they will be the reason young people disengage from politics forever,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, the progressive youth climate activist group.

“We expect a return on our investment and for politicians to deliver on their elected promises,” Prakash said.

Ellen Sciales, spokesperson for Sunrise, said the disappointment young progressives are putting on display should make Democrats nervous.

“Democrats should fear that young people won’t come out to vote in 2022 and Democrats will lose,” she told CNN. “And there’s too much on the line to lose.”

Furthermore, some young progressives worry that even if a pared down version of the Build Back Better bill passes, due to a lack of clear messaging from Democrats, the average young voter doesn’t know what’s in the bill or how it will impact their life.

“The sad thing is even if the smaller version of the Build Back Better bill does pass, we need to do a lot more work to get young voters to understand what’s in the bill,” said Ali Sait, a 20-year-old student at the University of Chicago.

Sait, who is originally from Texas, said that Democrats’ weak messaging on their priorities is a problem that could impact youth voter turnout.

Ahmadzadeh, like Sait, said the Democrats’ messaging needs improving.

“I know it’s early to know what specific parts of our community will get the money, but I want to know how that will affect me personally,” she said.

To fill the gap, Sunrise Movement wrote a blog post attempting to explain the negotiations and Build Back Better legislation to its community of supporters.

But according to Clemmons, if Democrats want support from young progressives, it’s up to them to effectively reach young people with their messaging.

“Right now we’re facing the climate crisis, evictions, health care crisis,” Clemmons said, adding that in order to “inspire” young voters, Democrats should highlight “concrete” policy proposals.

“I need to hear a theory of change,” the self-described progressive said. “How do you plan to include us in the process of your legislation and how do you plan to move it forward on these issues?”

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