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Biden is facing skepticism among Wisconsin's college student voters

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Wisconsin is expected to be one of the most competitive states in the general election, and President Biden is banking on the support of younger voters.

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RO KHANNA: You all will really decide this election in this state.

SUMMERS: That's California Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna, who toured a handful of Wisconsin colleges last week for the president's campaign. NPR's Elena Moore was there to hear how college students are feeling about Biden.

ELENA MOORE, BYLINE: It's finals season at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and 23-year-old Danielle Hoffman is finishing up her final classes.

DANIELLE HOFFMAN: I'm graduating in Spring.

MOORE: She's excited to close the door on college. But when she looks past the summer and talks politics next fall, it's a different story.

HOFFMAN: Oh, I would like to hope one day that it's not going to feel like you begrudgingly have to vote for somebody. Like, I would really like to be like, oh, I can actually really get behind this person instead of feeling like, ugh, you know, I got to, like, check a box.

MOORE: Hoffman typically votes for Democrats. She doesn't support Trump but isn't sold on Biden. The president has struggled with Gen Z and younger millennials who backed him four years ago. And over the past few years, young voters in Wisconsin have turned out in high numbers, so the Biden campaign is investing heavily in youth outreach and working with the party to organize across college campuses.

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KHANNA: Thank you for being here.

MOORE: Standing in front of Students For Biden-Harris posters, Congressman Ro Khanna addresses a small group of student leaders at La Crosse.

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KHANNA: I appreciate it very much what you're doing.

MOORE: Khanna is one of several national faces making their way to Wisconsin for the Biden campaign. Here he is at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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KHANNA: What is your advice on what all of us should be talking about - issues that you think appeal to young people here on this campus?

MOORE: The issues brought up by student leaders at both schools sounded familiar.

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UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: The environment is super important to me and preserving that.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: We've really been working for reproductive freedoms, LGBTQ rights.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I think Biden's done a pretty good job with the economy and with the environment, but I definitely do feel some of that lack of enthusiasm for him on campus.

MOORE: That lack of enthusiasm comes as schools across the country erupt in protest over the Israel-Hamas War. Even at a school farther away from the big cities, it's a topic that keeps coming up.

MATTHEW LEHNER: Frankly, talking about the situation in Gaza.

MOORE: That's 20-year-old Matthew Lehner, the chair of the Wisconsin College Democrats and a student at Eau Claire.

LEHNER: You just need to have a good answer for young people because a lot of young people are concerned. And, you know, I'm concerned as well.

MOORE: Biden's message on Israel has shifted since the Hamas attack last fall. He's become more critical of their military response and supports a temporary cease-fire. That's what makes Khanna a unique messenger. He's more in line with many young voters, supporting a permanent cease-fire and stopping additional aid to Israel. Plus, he acknowledges the issue affects the campaign.

KHANNA: It would be foolish to think that this wouldn't make a difference, especially when we're talking about an election that is on the margins.

MOORE: Toward the end of his trip, Khanna met with students during a closed press meeting in Milwaukee. But nearby, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, students echo what was heard on other campuses.

TAYLOR MORRIS: Something that gives me pause voting for the Democratic Party is the stance that they're taking on Palestine.

MOORE: That's Taylor Morris, a 32-year-old Navy veteran studying at the college. Debriefing after his meeting, Khanna told NPR that, among other topics, like the economy and abortion, the war did once again come up.

KHANNA: It's one of the issues, but I would think it's a mistake to make it the only issue.

MOORE: And that's true for Taylor Morris, too. Access to reproductive care matters so much to her that it pushed her to move to Milwaukee.

MORRIS: The Dobbs decision, honestly - being a woman in Idaho was becoming, like, more and more untenable.

MOORE: Studying nearby is Miles Medina, a 27-year-old sophomore. They're undecided this fall but understand that sitting out for Biden could benefit Trump.

MILES MEDINA: I'm not happy with Biden's foreign policy. But at the same time, as a transgender person, I don't want my rights taken away. And I know that's something that a lot of people in my age are like, what do we do?

MOORE: And because of that, Medina says, it's a very hard decision to make.

Elena Moore, NPR News, Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

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.