Politics Without Trump? His Youngest Fans Barely Remember It.

When Donald J. Trump held a rally in Rome, Ga., in March, his audience included a second-generation supporter and first-time rallygoer named Luke Harris.

“My parents were always supporters of him — especially when he was going against Hillary,” recalled Mr. Harris, who was in sixth grade in Cartersville, Ga., when Mr. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 to win the presidency.

Mr. Harris, now a 19-year-old student at Kennesaw State University, “just grew up looking at him, listening, watching him,” he said. “I kind of grew into it.”

Mr. Trump’s victory, to supporters and detractors alike, represented a profound break with politics as usual in the United States. People who voted against him feared he would turn the American presidency upside down. People who voted for him hoped he would.

But for the youngest Trump supporters participating in their first presidential election this year, Mr. Trump represents something that is all but impossible for older voters to imagine: the normal politics of their childhood.

Charlie Meyer, a 17-year-old high school student who volunteered at a Trump rally in Green Bay, Wis., last month, said he was first drawn to Mr. Trump at 13, during his presidency, because of his views on abortion, which resonated with his own as a Christian.

He has little memory of pre-Trump politics. “I was too young at the time,” he said.

Although President Biden continues to lead among 18- to 29-year-olds in most polls, several surveys in recent weeks show Mr. Trump performing much more strongly with young voters than he was at the same point in 2020, and more strongly than he was against Mrs. Clinton at the same point in 2016.

In the latest New York Times/Siena College poll, from last month, Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden were neck and neck among 18- to 29-year-olds. In the latest Harvard Youth Poll, conducted in March by the Harvard Institute of Politics, Mr. Trump trails by eight points.

“He’s not anywhere close to actually winning,” said John Della Volpe, the Harvard poll’s director, who polled young voters for the Biden campaign in 2020, when Mr. Biden ultimately beat Mr. Trump among 18- to 29-year-olds by 24 points. But “he’s doing as well as any other Republican nominee at this stage of an election since 2012, and that’s meaningful.”

Mr. Della Volpe and other pollsters note that these findings come with a wealth of caveats. Mr. Trump’s relatively good standing with young voters is at odds with their broadly liberal views on most issues, which have led them to favor Democratic candidates for decades.

In polls like Harvard’s, Mr. Biden performs much more strongly among registered or likely voters than he does in polls of all adults, suggesting that he is weakest with those least interested in the race. Young people, who are often late in following elections, appear to be especially disengaged from this year’s race, a contest between two familiar candidates in their 70s and 80s.

“It’s incredibly early to be taking their temperature on the candidates and the election,” said Daniel A. Cox, the director of the American Enterprise Institute Survey Center on American Life, who noted that polls have shown young voters paying far less attention to this year’s election than they did in 2020. “A lot of them simply haven’t tuned in.”

Still, the Trump campaign sees opportunity in the signs of shifts in the demographic. A stark gender divide has emerged in young people’s politics in recent years, in which Republicans enjoy an advantage among young men. In a Times/Siena poll in February, young voters were far more likely to say they were personally helped by Mr. Trump’s policies than by Mr. Biden’s, and far more likely to say they were personally hurt by Mr. Biden’s than by Mr. Trump’s (though in both cases, about half said neither president’s policies had made much difference either way).

John Brabender, a media consultant to Mr. Trump’s campaign who focuses on young voters, pointed to the long shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, which transformed and defined high school and college experiences for many of this year’s young voters. That discontent hurt Mr. Trump in 2020, but Mr. Brabender argues it is more likely to hurt Mr. Biden in 2024.

“Their whole life has been delayed compared to previous generations,” he said. “And they’re extremely frustrated with Biden for that.”

Mr. Biden ran successfully in 2020 by appealing to voters’ desires to return to a pre-Trump status quo, and this election his campaign has called attention to Mr. Trump’s breaks with democratic norms as president. But those appeals may carry less weight with voters who were in middle school at the time of Mr. Trump’s election.

They have formed their opinions and identities in a political landscape in which he is a constant, not a cataclysm.

“That was the world I came up in,” said Makai Henry, 18, a student at Florida International University, in Miami. “For better or worse, I think this is the Trump era.”

For some first-time voters, this has made Mr. Trump more of an afterthought in the evolution of their politics than a defining figure.

Allyson Langston, 20, became a Trump supporter during his presidency, but she described the shift as more about Republican values broadly than about the former president.

A middle-school student when Mr. Trump was elected, Ms. Langston was living in Orlando, Fla., at the time, with Republican parents and a sister who supported Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, in the Democratic presidential primary. Watching the presidential debates, she was skeptical of both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump, but “I thought I was more Democratic,” she said.

But in high school and college, she found herself moving right. When her mother and sister lost their jobs during the early days of the pandemic, she had to help support the family on her part-time restaurant job salary. She began questioning Democratic priorities like student loan forgiveness, which she now considers an unreasonable proposition in light of other demands on federal spending.

“I agree with a lot of things the Democrats like, like free college and things like that,” she said. “But I understand that’s just not possible in a world like this anymore.”

An unexpected miscarriage at 19 led her to rethink her views on abortion, which she now opposes with some exceptions.

And although she is bisexual and supports gay rights, she rejected liberals’ views on transgender politics. “At the end of the day, there are only two genders,” she said. In her first presidential election this year, she plans to vote for Mr. Trump.

“He follows what this country’s built on,” she said.

Mr. Henry followed the opposite trajectory. The son of immigrants from Dominica whose politics were center-left, he attended Barack Obama rallies with his mother as a young child and, as a sixth-grader, tagged along when she canvassed for Mrs. Clinton in 2016.

When Mr. Trump was elected, he recalled, “I wasn’t pro-Trump, but he was kind of funny.”

In middle school and high school, he developed an interest in current affairs and, informed by a steady diet of YouTube videos from pundits like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson and organizations like Turning Point USA and Prager University, thought of himself as a conservative.

But he eventually broadened his media diet, and that and the success of the federal government’s pandemic stimulus efforts under both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden made him skeptical of conservative claims about deficit spending and government programs.

Mr. Henry now considers himself an independent and is leaning toward voting for Mr. Biden in his first presidential election, though he thinks Democratic alarms over the threat posed by another Trump presidency are overblown.

“I feel like this is not necessarily a case of a choice between two evils,” he said. “It’s between a moderate good and a moderate ‘meh.’ Trump’s the ‘meh.’”

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