The unlikely coalition that first sent 29-year-old Joe Biden to the Senate in 1972 included an army of first-time voters – many of them under 21 years of age. With a polarizing Nixon White House, historic racial protests following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and a seemingly endless war in Vietnam, Biden added his voice to America’s unruly discussions on war, addiction, the environment, prison reform, ethics, and equality. Even before winning his first election, he made a priority of shaking up the old guard, insisting on the inclusion of youth at every level of politics. It’s a key reason he won.
In the months preceding ratification of the 26th Amendment (giving 18-year-olds the right to vote) Biden -- only 28 himself and the youngest member of Delaware's 1971 Democratic Party Renewal Commission – helped revamp the state’s Democratic Party. He did this by demanding youth inclusion. "We must identify issues of interest to young people -- poverty, racism, the draft, pollution -- and develop legislative programs,” he said. “We must integrate youth into the party organization at all levels.”
That fateful right-to-vote ratification for 18-year-olds arrived July 1, 1971 -- two weeks after my 18th birthday. I was a teenage volunteer charged with the logistics of implementing youth education and volunteerism for the '72 Biden campaign and son of state party Chairman Henry Topel, who helped usher him onto the national stage.
Nationally, Democrats expressed hopes that a surge in support from 18-to-21-year-olds would give the party a huge boost. But the military draft that had sent so many young Americans to Vietnam ended that year and President Nixon all but co-opted the 26th Amendment: The upshot was that Nixon won by a landslide in 1972 as young Americans voted very much the way their parents had. One of the few exceptions was in Delaware, where Joe Biden upset a Republican incumbent by 3,162 votes. It was clear to us that young people had made the difference.
I was there to see that with passion and heart, Joe Biden brought a new vitality into nearly every high school and community college in the state, educating teens on the power of their voices and the influence within their reach. He sent thousands of young people home armed with literature and information, inspired to begin discussions around the family dinner table about issues ranging from prison reform and pollution to ending the war in Vietnam.
What made young people trust Joe Biden? It was a combination of attributes. It wasn't merely his age, appearance or position on the issues, but rather an authentic, alert, attentive and empathetic presence. By listening and speaking candidly from his heart, he inspired a new generation, moving them to action in numbers that would not only shift the local balance of power but forever alter political campaign strategies.
Fast-forward to 2021. The concerns of Millennials and Generation Zers, according to the Pew Research Center and recent polling, are closely aligned on a host of issues ranging from climate change and gun violence to social justice. While some voiced concern that Biden's campaign stances on key issues concerning today’s younger demographic was too moderate, his prescience in keeping a distance from Bernie Sanders' more progressive, youth-appeasing positions was borne out by the election returns – in both the primaries and the general election.
Biden's policies on immigration reform, global warming, and student debt reduction proved attractive to young voters, who were alienated by the Trump administration. As the year wore on, the closer young voters looked at Joe Biden’s record – from his 2012 support of gay marriage to his backing of the decriminalization of marijuana at the federal level – the more they found to like.
Now, with Cabinet nominations that strive to reflect America's diversity, Biden's relatability to youth is more likely than ever to translate into lasting support. A defining moment of the 2020 campaign was the image of an open-hearted Joe Biden focused on 13-year-old Brayden Harrington, sharing how he, too, overcame stuttering as a boy and the techniques he continues to use in order to do so.
Can Biden lead another youth movement? Absolutely. If anything, behind his vision -- weathered by a lifetime of experience, love and loss -- lies a great authenticity, one that transcends age and generations, bridging the divide and bringing us truly together.