Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Could Help Biden Win the Election—But He Hasn't Asked For Her Endorsement

Joe Biden has promised to unify the Democratic party, in part by winning over the young and progressive voters who energized Senator Bernie Sanders' campaign, but the one person who could help him do that is the same one he has so far failed to reach out to: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Emails obtained by Newsweek show why that could be a mistake for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee's campaign.

The emails showed Ocasio-Cortez's endorsement of Sanders boosted his youth support in big and surprising ways. The early-November emails captured a conversation with Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir, senior advisor Jeff Weaver, strategist Tim Tagaris and one of his employees. Data from Tagaris' firm showed that Ocasio-Cortez's endorsement video increased the likelihood that 18- to 24- year-old-voters in Iowa would consider voting for Sanders almost 10 points, up 9.7 percent.

The following news was so major that they bolded the words "AOC is making younger college educated voters consider Bernie" to make a point. The firm's data also showed that the endorsement video, called "Our Aspiration," increased vote consideration by an impressive 17 points among Iowa college-educated voters under age 50. The version Ocasio-Cortez shared when she announced her endorsement on Twitter had been viewed more than 3 million times by mid-April.

"This type of movement on vote consideration has not been seen with any other creative," Tagaris' employee wrote. What that means is among all of the ads Sanders campaign had tested up to that point in the campaign, the Ocasio-Cortez video was by far the most effective one in getting more voters to consider Sanders, one the campaign saw as an opportunity to grow with college-educated voters.

The internal communications underscore what many Democrats told Newsweek they know to be true: Ocasio-Cortez is trusted and her opinion holds weight among young and progressive voters. Yet Biden, who lags in enthusiasm among these voters, has not yet courted her to help him boost his chances of winning in November.

Sanders ran up big margins with young voters in the primary against Biden, but the former vice president is still expected to win young voters in the general election against President Donald Trump, as Democrats have consistently in recent elections since 2008. A March Quinnipiac poll showed Biden winning 59 percent to 30 percent against Trump among 18- to 34-year-olds, for example, similar to Clinton's 55 percent to 36 percent among voters under 30, according to 2016 exit polls.

Although young voters were not enough to fuel Sanders to the nomination, Democrats continue to fret over restoring the storied Obama coalition. The concern among Democrats continues to be that young people, who turned out less for Clinton in 2016 than they did in 2012—and voted more for third-party candidates—could be the missing piece for Biden.

AOC Bernie Sanders
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) addresses supporters during a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders on March 8, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Brittany Greeson/Getty Images/Getty

His campaign declined to answer Newsweek's specific questions and Ocasio-Cortez's office did not respond to a request for comment.

The congresswoman also told The New York Times she has not spoken to Biden and said there has been staff-level outreach between the two sides. A Biden aide told Newsweek that they've been working with progressive groups so far, and while there has not been much outreach yet beyond staff-level conversations to Ocasio-Cortez, there is a plan to do much more engagement in the coming weeks.

A source close to Ocasio-Cortez who asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive party issues said "the lack of serious outreach already doesn't bode well in how serious they are about young people," noting that the strategy appears to be "focused on the affluent suburban vote that flipped the House in '18. Only issue with that is that winning House districts is different electoral strategy than winning states."

Ocasio-Cortez has already said she will support Biden in November, but added that her efforts will depend on what policies he offers about issues progressives care about.

"I think what's important and what I want to make clear is that I will be voting for Joe Biden in November, I will be supporting him in the general election," Ocasio-Cortez told The Daily podcast, adding it's "really important that our nominee has plans and is speaking to young people and Latino voters and working-class voters."

Progressives who spoke to Newsweek said bypassing her won't bode well for Biden's campaign.

"I think not reaching out to Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez earlier was a mistake and right now is a sensitive time of negotiation with progressives seeking policy and personnel appointments that would earn their vote and enthusiasm," Justice Democrats spokesman Waleed Shahid, a former Ocasio-Cortez aide, told Newsweek about the Biden campaign's approach.

The view from those who spoke to Newsweek is that Ocasio-Cortez's support is in many ways a proxy for the goals of the progressive movement, a push-and-pull that has already seen mixed results. When Sanders dropped out, Biden introduced a plan to cancel student loans, which Shahid said was a "good step forward." But the response to the campaign's plan to lower the Medicare age to 60 was swift, with Ocasio-Cortez herself calling that attempt at an olive branch "almost insulting" in The New York Times.

One letter illustrates the disconnect between Biden and the voters who support Ocasio-Cortez. A coalition of youth groups sent it to Biden in early April, writing that a "return to normalcy" is a nonstarter for a generation that "grew up with endless war, skyrocketing inequality, crushing student loan debt, police murders of black Americans and mass incarceration."

Sarah Audelo, the executive director of Alliance for Youth Action, which signed onto the letter along with groups like Justice Democrats, United We Dream Action, and the Sunrise Movement, said young people trust Ocasio-Cortez, and they'll know whether she strongly endorses him or offers tepid support.

"AOC is so important, not just if she supports him and bounces, but what is the story she tells about supporting vice president Biden, and how she has gotten to that place?' Audelo told Newsweek.

Belen Sisa, one of Sanders' former staffers who ran Latino press, said if Biden doesn't get his act together, November could be "very scary" for Democrats.

"Unless you're making an apparent effort to reach these people, why should they vote for you?" she told Newsweek.

Even Biden allies such as CNN contributor Maria Cardona, who speaks regularly with the campaign, said they want to see AOC and Biden iron out their communications issues.

"I would love for them to work together, I think they need to work together," she told Newsweek. "I hope they figure it out because together they can be unstoppable in getting Democrats to take back the White House.

The progressives who spoke with Newsweek said the urgency of Biden's outreach to Ocasio-Cortez and the progressive wing of the party includes the current moment of national crisis, but also goes beyond it.

Brad Bauman, the former executive director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said the country and the party find themselves at a generational transition point where millennials and Generation Z will eventually eclipse the electoral power of the baby boomers.

"It's important for Biden's campaign to win this election, but the longterm health and well-being of the Democratic Party is at stake here if they don't do more to reach out to younger voters, especially at a time when younger voters are disproportionately being affected by the economy shutting down."