In 2020, campaigning at the height of the global pandemic, the Biden campaign leaned heavily on influencers to reach young voters. Republican rivals called it a cop out — they said Biden was “hiding in his basement” — but it was hard to argue with the results of that social media-intensive strategy: Biden won voters under the age of 29 by a 26-point margin.
In 2024, the Biden campaign is doubling down, with plans to add even more than the roughly two dozen staffers who worked on the campaign’s influencer program in 2020. But this time around, there are real questions about whether that strategy will work: handpicked influencers that have been on the receiving end of overtures from the administration are noticing increased criticism of Joe Biden among their followers — particularly as it relates to the president’s handling of the crisis in Gaza — and some influencers courted by the White House are strongly considering backing alternative candidates in 2024.
George Lee Jr., who has 2.4 million followers as The Conscious Lee on TikTok, was invited to a State of the Union watch party at the White House last year. “It was a lovely experience — I’m a first generation college student from a small town in Texas, so the fact that I was able to get invited and have my work be recognized on such a platform was definitely good.” He spoke with Joe Biden, and even asked Jill Biden to dance.
But the invite didn’t buy enough goodwill to guarantee his support next November. “I would imagine I probably will never get invited again — especially with the way I’ve been so unapologetic with this Palestinian genocide that’s happening. Joe Biden is really shooting himself in the foot,” Lee tells Rolling Stone. “When we start talking about the lesser of two evils, a lot of my followers — all 3 million of them — are literally asking the question, like, ‘Damn, so the lesser of the two evils is the one that is supporting genocide? Noted, noted, noted.’”
“How I talk to my followers about it is like — and excuse my language, I’m gonna cuss — ‘Goddamn, Biden. Your weak ass is gonna rally the entire of America to be against right-wing governments? Meanwhile, you are being unrelentless, unconditional in giving support to a right-wing government?’ That’s funny.”
Lee says he would never sit an election out — “Shit, my life is impacted by policy. I’m gonna be voting” — but Joe Biden has not locked his vote in for 2024. He’s seriously considering throwing his support behind the academic and activist Cornel West, who is running an independent bid. “He’s very critical of American imperialism,” Lee says.
Polls, of course, have started to pick up on that sentiment: The latest New York Times/Siena College poll showed Biden leading Trump among registered voters under the age of 30 by a single percentage point. Surveys generally show younger voters disapprove of the way that the president is responding to the war between Israel and Hamas at a higher rate than older voters. (Not all polls agree, though: one recent YouGov survey found support for Biden’s handling of the was was higher among 18-to-29 year olds than any other age group.)
The Biden campaign is not panicking — yet — about the polls that show young voters deserting the president as he seeks a second term. Asked directly about surveys that show Biden’s support from young people eroding, Deputy Campaign Manager Rob Flaherty tells Rolling Stone: “There is just a huge difference between this period now, and the period where the election is a choice. We saw similar stuff in 2020, where — when it was clear what the choice was — young people came out in droves.”
But plan to replicate that success hinges on influencers.
“Campaigns are used to talking to people through traditional press. And the reality is, if you look at young voters in particular, they actually prefer to get their news from individuals and not institutions. You have to have a creator strategy. We pioneered a lot of stuff in ‘20,” says Flaherty, who helped lead the team that worked with influencers while he worked inside the administration. With Biden-Harris 2024, he says, “We’re scaling that, and that really informs a lot of our program: getting to people who have trust and influence with the voters that we need.”
Flaherty clarifies that the money campaign committing to its influencer program does not go directly into creators’ pockets. “We don’t, as the campaign, tend to spend on paying people to say nice things about Joe Biden”; rather, they work “with folks who are mission-aligned.”
Ashley Renne would seem to be one of those people: She is a vegan cookbook author and climate activist. In 2022, she attended a climate event at the White House, and was later offered an audience with Vice President Kamala Harris after the vice president spoke in Atlanta. “It was actually really cool,” Renne tells Rolling Stone. They spoke about the impact of the meat and dairy industry on the climate, and the climate benefits of a vegan diet. But Renne is frustrated by the Democratic party’s efforts to avoid a competitive primary, and she is giving the motivational speaker Marianne Williamson — who is running against Biden in the Democratic primary — a hard look.
“The DNC has already decided for us that we need to vote for Biden, and it needs to be a Biden versus Trump election again,” Renne says. “Nothing against Biden, but I just think it would be a lot more fair — especially for young people who feel so slighted. They really want to make sure that the person who’s representing them has their best interests at heart. They might be concerned that somebody who is a typical old white male will be continuing the same politics as usual, that won’t be benefiting them… I think they’re thirsty for something different — thirsty for radical change.”
It’s a change Renne, who voted for Biden in 2020, thinks Williamson might be able to effect, if her campaign had a fair shot. “She’s very, very clear in her stance on climate action, I appreciate that,” Renne says. “There are a lot of people in my space — the environmental space — who were disappointed by [Biden’s] approval of the Willow Project [a massive drilling project on the north slope of Alaska]…I think a lot of environmentalists are starting to lean towards Marianne Williamson, because she’s made it clear that she wants to reverse that.”
Biden’s inability to counter, in a meaningful way, Republican attacks against abortion and gender-affirming care at the state level has also been disappointing, Renne says. “Republicans have gotten through a lot of policy changes that are really harmful to people — and it’s all happened under his administration. We just feel like maybe if he was a little bit stronger, a little bit bolder, a little bit more fiery, then he could have prevented some of this harmful legislation from passing… All this happened while he was in office. It might not have been what he wanted. But, you know, it did happen under his watch.”
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the White House said that Biden has used every tool at his disposal — including issuing executive orders to force hospitals to provide life-saving abortion care, and pushing Congress to codify the protections of Roe v. Wade — to combat state policies that have taken effect since Republican-appointed members of the Supreme Court overturned Roe.
V Spehar, the host of Under the Desk News, with 3 million followers on TikTok — who has been invited to events and briefings by the White House — echoed the Biden campaign’s view that a lot can change in a year. “Looking at the polls today for what’s going to happen in a year, I don’t think is really beneficial to anyone,” Spehar says. “But I think if we’re talking about the Israel-Palestine stuff, and the election was today, I think there would be a lot of problems [for Biden] because young people are actively calling for a ceasefire. They want nothing less than that. Israel has, in many ways, lost the PR war, and the content war.”
It’s clear, Spehar says, that Biden is struggling to figure out how to respond.
“In the past, when young people have been passionate about something — say gun control — Biden has had the benefit to immediately jump in and say, ‘I’m going to ban ghost guns,’ and ‘I want to see gun restrictions,’ and to show that he’s on their side,” Spehar adds. “In this case, it is not that easy to immediately align with [young voters demonstrating their] passion.”
A.B. Burns-Tucker has noticed a palpable discontent among her followers, too. The lawyer, who has more than 700,000 followers on TikTok, has been invited to so many Zoom briefings by the White House that she’s lost count. She says, “I’ve seen more comments with regards to being dissatisfied with Biden — openly — since this conflict.”
“There is dissatisfaction with the way that the war is being handled — the war between Israel and Hamas… Have I seen it vocalized much more recently? Yeah, in the comment section. It’s a complicated conflict, and there’s strong emotions on both sides. But the humanitarian aspect… seems to me from the comments section, to be the biggest concern right now.”
Circumstances and minds, of course, could both change dramatically in the next 12 months. In November 2019 — as one Biden surrogate pointed out — no one knew the defining feature of the 2020 election would be a pandemic. Team Biden was able to use those unexpected conditions to its advantage, and they’re hoping to do it again this time. “What we care about is where people are going to vote in just about a year from now,” Flaherty says. “And we’re building towards that. We’re building the infrastructure to make sure that we’re able to get those messages out as effectively as possible.”