Mar 13, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Democrats fear young voter backlash over TikTok bill

Illustration of an exclamation point in the style of the TikTok logo.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

House Democrats are warning that legislation that could lead to a ban of TikTok risks intensifying their party's problems with young voters heading into the 2024 election.

Why it matters: Young voters have made up the backbone of the Democratic coalition in recent elections, but both parties have ramped up their courtship of the critical voting bloc this year.

Driving the news: The bill, which would require Chinese-based ByteDance to divest from TikTok, passed 352–65–1 on Wednesday.

  • 155 Democrats voted for the bill along with 197 Republicans, and 50 Democrats and 15 Republicans voted against it.
  • The bill may face an uphill battle in the Senate, where even China hawks have expressed skepticism of the bill's constitutionality.

What they're saying: "You pile this on top of Gaza — very different reasons for concern, but yes, you could push people away," Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who voted for the bill, told Axios.

  • Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.), a leading opponent of the bill, called it "horrific politics," comparing it to "taking away your phone and not allowing you to text."
  • "We've already got a problem with young voters not coming out to vote," said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.). "Anything that further alienates them … helps Republicans."

By the numbers: A Pew Research survey released last month found that 52% of U.S. adults ages 18 to 34 reported using TikTok.

  • The company counted over 150 million daily active users in the U.S. as of last March, Axios' Sara Fischer reported.
  • In an apparent acknowledgement of the app's power with young people, the Biden campaign created a TikTok account last month.

The other side: Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) argued it is "more of a danger to Democrats if [TikTok] goes on as it does, because they will try to influence the election for Trump."

Between the lines: Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) acknowledged the political concerns that "came into some of the conversations" about the bill, but said they shouldn't override the substantive reasons for supporting it.

  • "There may be a political impact, but you just can't measure every vote on that scale," he told Axios.

The backdrop: Lawmakers were barraged with phone calls from young TikTok users lobbying against the bill in the days leading up to the vote.

  • "An awful lot of our incoming calls have been from young people," said Beyer, adding that many callers believed the bill constitutes a TikTok ban.
  • Rep. Wiley Nickel (D-N.C.) said Democrats will need to put out "good information" to "make sure everyone knows House Democrats don't want to get rid of TikTok, we want to make sure we protect folks."

Yes, but: Rep. Pat Ryan (D-N.Y.) said those calls were "further validation" for the bill: "I had 8-year-olds calling my office who were manipulated by TikTok with misinformation about what this bill is even about."

  • Another House Democrat said they are "not especially worried" about backlash from young voters because "most of the callers to my office sound like they're 12-year-olds."
Go deeper