TEMPE, Ariz. – Recent moves by President Joe Biden to pressure TikTok over its Chinese ownership and approve oil drilling in an untapped area of Alaska are testing the loyalty of young voters, a group that’s largely been in his corner.
Youth turnout surged in the three elections since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, helping Biden eke out victories in swing states in 2020, pick up a Democratic Senate seat in the 2022 election and stem potential losses in the House.
But the 80-year-old president has never been the favorite candidate of young liberals itching for a new generation of American leadership. As Biden gears up for an expected reelection campaign, a potential TikTok ban and the Alaska drilling could weigh him down.
Meanwhile, his plan to wipe out billions of dollars in student loan debt is in jeopardy at the Supreme Court. The effort, announced shortly before last year’s midterms, was an attempt by Biden to keep a promise he made after defeating progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary campaign in 2020.
The risk for Biden is less that young left-of-center voters will vote Republican and more that they would sit out an uninspiring election altogether.
“I’m a Democrat, but I’m not voting for Biden,” said Mark Buehlmann, a 20-year-old Arizona State University student who said he likely would abstain if Biden is the Democratic nominee, as expected. “He’s maybe capable of doing a good job, but he’s not capable of gathering the troops, rallying the people. Especially the Democratic voter base. I don’t think he’s a strong candidate.”
TikTok allows users, 150 million of whom are in the United States, to post short, creative videos for friends and strangers. Its algorithm has an uncanny ability to figure out what interests its users and serve up videos they’ll enjoy. It’s become a supremely popular — some say addictive — place for young people to find entertainment and community.
Western governments are growing increasingly worried that TikTok’s owner, Beijing-based ByteDance, might give browsing history or other data about users to China’s government or promote propaganda and disinformation. The U.S. and other nations have banned TikTok from government-owned devices, as have several states.
The U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment, part of Biden's Treasury Department, has threatened to ban TikTok if ByteDance doesn't sell its stake in the app, according to a Wall Street Journal report this month.
Trump tried to ban TikTok in 2020, but the move was blocked in court and later rescinded when Biden took office and ordered an in-depth study of the issue.
ByteDance says it's working to address security concerns and has plans to route traffic through servers owned by Oracle, a Silicon Valley-based tech company.
Biden administration officials insist that political concerns aren’t weighing into the national security review underway, but they’re also not blind to it.
Both political parties have reoriented around staking out tougher economic and security positions on China’s rise, and Biden has come under increasing pressure from GOP lawmakers to take action against TikTok.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo offered hyperbolically, “The politician in me thinks you’re going to literally lose every voter under 35, forever.”
But it’s clear that the Biden White House and his likely reelection campaign are keenly aware of the app’s massive domestic reach and demographic skew toward Democratic-leaning younger voters.
Highlighting Biden's balancing act, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a progressive New York Democrat popular on the left, held a news conference this past week with TikTok creators who have built popular and profitable channels on the social network “in support of free expression.”
Lawmakers grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew for nearly six hours Thursday over data security and harmful content. They responded skeptically during a tense House committee hearing to his assurances that the app prioritizes user safety and should not be banned due to its Chinese connections.
“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said.
In interviews at Arizona State, one of the largest college campuses in the U.S. and a contributor to Biden's narrow 10,000-vote win in the swing state, young people described a TikTok ban as somewhere between an annoyance and an inevitability — but not something that would change their views of the president.
“Most people don’t really think about those kinds of things,” Lucas Vittor, a 19-year-old business administration student from Houston, said of a TikTok ban. “I think that they’ll probably just see it as, ‘He’s an oppressive leader, an old dude, he doesn’t know about social media.’”
If TikTok disappears, another app will emerge to capture the attention of young people, Vittor predicted. Other social media platforms, including YouTube and Instagram, have incorporated similar algorithm-driven video features, though some find them clunky compared with TikTok.
“It's not really Biden's issue,” said Ginny Xu, a 20-year-old chemical engineering student from Goodyear, Arizona. “It's more of a bipartisan thing — ‘safety’ from China."
Losing access to TikTok would be disappointing, Xu said, but it wouldn't dissuade her from voting for Biden if there's no better Democratic choice.
Her friend, 20-year-old chemical engineering student Maddie Bruce, agreed.
“I just am not a big Joe Biden fan,” Bruce said. She would prefer to see another Democrat run, but she would still vote for Biden, she said.
Forcing TikTok’s Chinese parent to sell its stake in the U.S. company could provide a convenient middle ground: minimizing the national security threat while avoiding having access to the app cut off for tens of millions of users.
The young have never voted at the same rates as their parents and grandparents, but their participation has ticked up markedly since the start of the Trump presidency.
The 2018 and 2022 midterms brought the highest levels of youth turnout of the past three decades, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, which studies young voters.
And when they do vote, young people vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.
Biden won 63% of voters age 18 to 24, compared with 34% for Trump, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of the electorate. Republican House candidates did better with young voters in last year’s midterms, but Democrats still had a 14-percentage point advantage, winning voters 24 and younger 54% to 40%.
“If Democrats are looking for their secret weapon, young voters are it,” said Jack Lobel, spokesperson for Voters of Tomorrow, which organizes young voters online and in person. “For Democrats especially, who already have young voters basically on their side, we are the untapped potential that campaigns are looking for.”
A TikTok ban might irritate a lot of young voters, but Biden can point to a strong record of standing up for young people’s interests, Lobel said.
Marisol Ortega, a 21-year-old journalism student from Glendale, Arizona, said many of her peers are looking for someone younger and more exciting, even if they'll likely hold their nose and vote for him.
“Joe Biden has been a name in American politics for a very, very long time," Ortega said. “I think people are just kind of ready for something new.”
Still, the Biden administration irked environmentalists and young people by approving the huge Willow oil drilling project on Alaska's North Slope.
Young activists have been particularly active in pushing to drastically reduce oil drilling and move away from reliance fossil fuels. Before the president's decision, a #StopWillow campaign garnered millions of views on TikTok urging Biden to block the project.
“He has delivered a lot for young people, and that’s why our advice to the administration was, ‘This is not the right direction to head on this issue,’” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president of NextGen America, a youth organizing group.
AP White House Correspondent Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.
This story was first published on March 25, 2023. It was updated on March 27, 2023, to correct that the 2018 and 2022 midterms, not 2020, brought the highest levels of youth turnout of the past three decades.