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How did the presidential debate reverberate with members of Gen Z?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The current and former presidents of the United States debated last night for 90 minutes. And unlike the two times they met on stage in their last campaign, they did not interrupt each other. That's because the debate ground rules called for the mikes to be muted. For 90 minutes, Americans heard Joe Biden and Donald Trump in depth.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On immigration, abortion, foreign policy and the economy. Here is Biden. This is early in the CNN presidential debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: He rewarded the wealthy. He had the largest tax cut in American history, $2 trillion. He raised a deficit larger than any president has in any one term. He's the only president, other than Herbert Hoover, who's lost more jobs than he had when he began - since Herbert Hoover.

MARTIN: And here's Trump moments later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: The only thing he was right about is I gave you the largest tax cut in history. I also gave you the largest regulation cut in history. That's why we had all the jobs. And the jobs went down, and then they bounced back, and he's taking credit for bounce-back jobs. You can't do that.

MARTIN: They also faced questions about their age and fitness for office. Either man would be the oldest president in U.S. history if sworn in next year. Here's Biden, who's 81.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: This guy's three years younger and a lot less competent. I think that this - look at the record. Look at what I've done. Look I've turned around the horrible situation he left me.

MARTIN: And here's Trump, who's 78.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I think I'm in very good shape. I feel that I'm as in good a shape as I was 25, 30 years ago. Actually, I'm probably a little bit lighter. But I'm in as good a shape as I was years ago. I feel very good. I feel the same.

FADEL: So what might young voters make of at all? Here in the studio, we have Jack Lobel, national press secretary for the left-leaning group Voters of Tomorrow. Welcome.

JACK LOBEL: Thank you.

FADEL: And on the line, we have Joe Mitchell. He's the head of Run GenZ, which encourages young conservatives to run for office, and he walks that talk. Joe Mitchell is also a former Iowa state lawmaker. Welcome.

JOE MITCHELL: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Jack, let's start with you. We saw President Biden last night, whose voice was raspy at times; he would trail off. Sometimes he was hard to follow. As both a Democrat and a young voter, what did you make of President Biden's performance?

LOBEL: Yeah. President Biden seemed old, but he's an old guy with record of fighting for Gen Z. He has delivered on all of our top issues and has a compelling vision for what he wants to do for us in a second term. Meanwhile, Donald Trump was similarly old-seeming, but he is a felon. He is - he has been found liable of sexual assault, and he would restrict abortion access and access to other forms of health care. That is not a vision that resonates with Gen Z and that's why I'm still going to be voting for President Biden in 2024.

FADEL: Joe, I want to turn to you and talk about Donald Trump. He rattled off statements throughout the debate that simply weren't true and were left unchecked. How did he come across to you?

MITCHELL: Well, I mean, first of all, the hardest job today in America is to defend that bait for Joe Biden. I mean, I think the fact checking that, you know, analysts and panelists talked about afterwards, that needed to be happening on both sides. And so it was pretty skewed, the criticism towards that. But I mean, all together we saw in that debate stage last night that Joe Biden does not belong on a debate stage. He does not belong in the Oval Office. He belongs in a nursing home. And Donald Trump stayed on-message. He talked about inflation. He talked about the economy. He talked about the open border and the crisis that's happening there, and Joe Biden clearly just didn't have a message at all. And his own vice president couldn't defend his performance. So it was truly something sad to see for the country. And ultimately, Donald Trump went away with a knockout win in the first round.

FADEL: Now, I will say, although unauthorized crossings hit a record high under Biden, the border is not fully open. It's arguably more reinforced than ever. But I'm going to talk - to ask you both about these two candidates. You're both young voters. Is this a matchup that works for young voters? I'll start with you, Jack.

LOBEL: Yeah, it is. We have one president who has given Gen Z a seat at the table, someone who Gen Z can push and who listens to us. He's delivered the American Climate Court, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the Office of Gun Violence Prevention only because Gen Z voted in 2020, and then President Biden listened to our voices since he has taken office. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has shut us out of the room and would continue to do so during a second term. Young voters have a very clear choice in November, and Voters of Tomorrow is going to do everything we can to make sure Gen Z is educated about the issues at hand that are on the ballot in 2024 and ensure that Gen Z uses their voices.

FADEL: And so you see Biden as the right candidate for Gen Z?

LOBEL: Yes, that is correct.

FADEL: And, Joe, what about you? Is this a matchup that makes sense for young voters?

MITCHELL: Yeah. I mean, young voters are smart. They see through all this, and that's why you see President Trump's poll numbers with young voters better than any other modern-day Republican nominee ever. And that's because young voters see that the price of housing is going up; the price of groceries are going up. You should not have to go to the grocery store and have anxiety to go buy a carton of eggs or a gallon of milk. And so that is what's happening right now as young voters are seeing with their own eyes how difficult it is to live in Joe Biden's America. And so that's why Donald Trump is going to prevail in November, and last night was just a snippet of what's going to happen over the next 18 weeks before the election.

FADEL: Do you think the candidates spoke enough about issues important to young voters last night? Jack, I'll start with you.

LOBEL: Yeah. President Biden talked about making necessities more affordable - housing, education, health care. He also talked about protecting abortion rights, which is one of Gen Z's top issues and something that fueled us to go to the polls in 2022. President Biden has brought Gen Z into the room where decisions happen. So even though he's not a Gen Zer, Gen Z still feels like they have a voice in the White House. And that's really important. Meanwhile, Donald Trump shuts us out, and that presents a clear contrast that young people can truly see.

FADEL: And, Joe, did you feel that the candidates spoke enough about issues that young voters wanted to hear about?

MITCHELL: Yeah. I mean, again, President Trump was on-message the whole time, talking about his four years versus the last four years of Biden and talking about the inflation crisis, the economy. And on the abortion subject, President Trump was actually really on-message. I was really impressed by his answer that he had.

FADEL: Jack Lobel of Voters For Tomorrow (ph), thank you for being here.

LOBEL: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: And Joe Mitchell, head of Run GenZ, thank you for taking the time.

MITCHELL: Yep. Thanks, Leila.

MARTIN: Now we're going to turn to NPR political reporter Elena Moore because she's been focusing her reporting on new voters in youth politics, and she's also here with us. Good morning to you.

ELENA MOORE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What stood out to you? What'd you hear?

MOORE: I mean, I think it makes sense that Jack is highlighting Biden's record prevailing over worries about his age, while, you know, Joe is criticizing the same issue here. And throughout the campaign, we've heard concern about both these men's ages. They're pretty similar in age. But Biden is a few years older, and it has been a bigger concern. The Biden campaign has pushed back against that concern and said, look at his record; look at his political tenure. But this debate was an opportunity to assuage some of those worries and come out really strong against Trump, and we didn't appear to see that.

Plus, you know, I don't think either candidate directly spoke to young voters. Trump has less to lose here because the voting block is less part of his base. But Biden, you know, he brought up a few things related to the environment, which we know are issues - an issue young people care about, but on a topic like abortion, which we know motivates young people to turn out, that message was muddy, Michel.

MARTIN: It wasn't - yes. It isn't something he seems to really like talking about.

MOORE: Yeah

MARTIN: You know, his record might be one thing, but - whether he wants to talk about it or not. Well, talk about being on-message. Both Joe and Jack very much were...

MOORE: Yeah

MARTIN: ...As one would expect because - that - they're living in this space, you know, as advocates. But what are you hearing on the road? I'm interested in what you're hearing when you kind of go out and talk to voters who don't perhaps pay as much time, pay as much attention to these issues as these guys do.

MOORE: I would say, outside the organizer space, that sentiment, it's much more shared across the country of being not happy with these two men, worried about age, wishing we had someone new, younger. It's something I hear especially from young people who do vote for Democrats. You know, they make up a larger portion of voters under 30 in recent elections, and there is a notable enthusiasm gap here. According to the most recent Harvard Youth poll, 76% of Trump voters are enthusiastically supporting their candidate, compared to just 44% of Biden voters.

MARTIN: Given that, do you have a sense - and forgive me if I'm asking you to speculate here, but do you think that this debate is likely to turn anything around for either candidate?

MOORE: Yeah. I mean, it's hard because we don't know how many young folks actually watched the debate or have cable or have a television. You know, less than half of voters under 30 said they would watch the debate, according to the latest NPR/PBS News/Marist poll, which was conducted earlier this month. That was lower than any other age group surveyed. But at the same time, these debates do provide these viral moments, which we're already seeing, and it's likely folks could see clips of the debate on - you know, in the news here or on social media.

MARTIN: Right. Right. And talk a little bit more about your understanding based on your reporting of what this generation cares about.

MOORE: I mean, this is an issue-driven generation. I hear all the time about how fired up young people are about different topics. And that noticeably is much less so about candidates and political parties. It's a generation that deeply cares, notably, about their financial futures. And the candidates did spend a chunk of time talking about the economy, so need to mention that. But remember, these are voters who came of age during several very high-profile moments of political movements and demonstrations. I'm thinking the movement around protecting the environment, curbing gun violence, addressing gender and racial equality. So talking to them about the economy isn't the only priority.

MARTIN: Very briefly, do they vote? The stereotype is young voters don't really vote. Do they vote?

MOORE: These voters are an investment. They are a growing portion of the electorate. They've turned out pretty highly in past elections, given the history of young voters, and it's a group that's only going to grow in prominence.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Elena Moore. Elena, thank you.

MOORE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.
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