Claudia Moses, a Minnesota delegate to the Democratic National Convention, had hoped to cast her first presidential ballot for a candidate promising transformational change. Drawn to calls for Medicare for All, tuition-free college and racial justice, the 17-year-old from Eagan threw her support behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
That puts her at odds with most of the state’s DFL delegates, who are bound to support Joe Biden, winner of the state’s March 3 primary. That includes her grandfather and political mentor, Jules Goldstein.
Bound by family ties, the two represent different sides of a generational gulf prevalent within the Democratic Party, a divide the Biden campaign hopes to bridge over the four days of the convention this week.
Goldstein, a retired systems analyst from St. Louis Park, sees value in political pragmatism and incremental shifts. Moses, now a Sanders delegate, doesn’t want to wait for an overhaul of politics as usual.
“Personally, I think there’s a lot of things that don’t work,” said Moses, who will be 18 in time to vote. “When something doesn’t work, you can fix it for a time until it breaks again, or you can replace it.”
Much of the programming at this week’s convention is designed to unify the traditional and progressive wings of the party, particularly the young activists who flocked to Sanders, who is giving Biden his full backing.
But as Democrats work to motivate young voters who wield growing political power at the polls, they also they work to win over moderates and swing voters essential to a White House win. One of the week’s themes is “Steady Leadership,” a slogan meant to invoke the 77-year-old nominee’s many decades in national politics and pitch for stability in tumultuous times.
It’s a balancing act that has Democratic organizers invoking the prospect of political stability while at the same time reaching out to young progressives hungry for social justice and structural change.
Although young people tend to vote at lower rates than older Americans, experts say youth turnout could make a difference in close races, particularly in Minnesota and other potential battleground states.
In addition to Republicans and party standard-bearers like former President Bill Clinton, the program for the four-day virtual convention features icons of the progressive left, such as Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. On Monday, Biden sat for an interview with rapper Cardi B that focused on the importance of turnout among young voters.
“In 2016, if 18- to 24-year-olds had voted in the same percentage as the rest of the population, there would have been 5.2 million more votes,” he said. “We wouldn’t have [Trump]; we would have had Hillary Clinton. The vote matters.”
There are signs that he has made some inroads among the Minnesota delegates. Elizabeth Hansel, a 19-year-old Biden delegate, said she’s seen a spike in engagement since 2016.
“Young people have to get behind Joe Biden even though he may not have been everyone’s first choice,” said Hansel, a University of Minnesota nursing student. “I think everyone, especially young voters, needs to pull together.”
But some leading youth activists in Minnesota say those overtures aren’t enough. Biden drew heat for failing to support Medicare for All in the interview with Cardi B. Ocasio-Cortez got just 60 seconds of convention airtime, while former GOP Gov. John Kasich delivered a four-minute taped address. And while historic, the selection of Kamala Harris as vice president further frustrated some progressives who dislike her record as a prosecutor.
“Young people right now in Minnesota are not excited,” said Jason Chavez-Cruz, chair of the Minnesota Young DFL Caucus. “Right now, a lot of our party is saying ‘anyone but Trump’ ... That’s not how you win young voters. You need to tell us why Joe Biden is a person we should be voting for.”
Moses agrees that a bigger focus on issues important to young voters, including climate change, health care, the Black Lives Matter movement and gun control, would help.
But she gives the campaign credit for picking Harris. Like Harris, Moses’ father is of Jamaican heritage, and she sees a younger, Black woman as an energizing choice for Biden. The protests following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police have brought new urgency to calls to elect Democrats, she said. And so, at the end of the day, she’ll do what it takes to help Biden win.
“I think everyone can acknowledge that there’s more at stake,” said Moses, who hopes to work for a campaign during a gap year before college. “Any progress is good progress.”
Hannah Liu, a St. Olaf student on the board of the College Democrats of Minnesota, sees that outlook growing among young progressives.
“We understand that after Biden is elected, it’s not like an end all be all,” said Liu, 21. “We aren’t solving our problems, [but] we’re not going back somewhere. We’re going forward.”
Lap Nguyen, an 18-year-old college freshman from Rochester, supported Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren before running as a Biden delegate for the Democratic convention. Voting to reject the party platform over its failure to include Medicare for All was an empowering moment.
“The polices are not the straight progressive policies that I wanted, but [Biden helps] get to the end goal,” he said.
Like Moses, Nguyen wants to see a bigger focus on climate and health care, as well as virtual programming focused on connecting with young voters. But he also understands the strategic considerations.
“They’re trying to win over the independents’ votes, so they can’t be flashy about progressive ideas,” he said. “The reason why candidates don’t focus on young people is, unfortunately, we don’t vote. It’s something I’ve been frustrated with.”
At 73, Goldstein has seen his share of political debate about the direction of the Democratic Party. Calls for revolutionary change rise and fall. Some settle into the mainstream. He gives Biden credit for trying meet the political moment.
“It’s not adapt or get out of the way,” he said. “It’s be willing to adapt and notice when you’re not going in the same direction as everybody else.”
But he can identify with the impatience expressed by many young Democrats, including his granddaughter. He cut his teeth in politics as a teen, campaigning to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. He introduced Moses to party politics when she was 9, recruiting her as timekeeper for a local DFL convention. Hearing his granddaughter’s generation demand their vision for progress gives him hopes for the future.
“One of the reasons I stayed active in politics is I wanted other people to have the same thrill,” he said. “The same ability to change the world.”