WASHINGTON — Kristina Allen surprised herself in 2020 by voting for a Democrat.
The 53-year-old nurse from New Hampshire had always backed Republicans, but with her buried under debt and forced to move across the country from her family to be able to afford to pay off her loans, something snapped.
Allen cast her ballot for Joe Biden, hopeful that he would make good on his campaign promise to cancel up to $10,000 in student debt per borrower. Now, the self-described single-issue voter feels betrayed by the candidate who promised to deliver her some relief.
“If he doesn’t hold steady on his promises that he made during his campaign to get votes, I will never vote for him again,” said Allen, who owes more than $70,000 in student loans. “[I’ll] probably never vote Democrat again.”
As Democrats approach what many expect to be challenging midterm elections in the fall, progressive lawmakers and strategists are warning that Biden’s inaction on student loan debt forgiveness could cost them control of Congress, turning off more voters like Allen and dampening enthusiasm among core voter blocs.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has said it is “delusional” to believe Democrats would hold onto their seats without fulfilling promises on student loan debt. Missouri Representative Cori Bush wrote that potentially forcing millions of borrowers to resume loan payments, which have been temporarily paused during the pandemic until May 1, is “not a winning strategy.”
The White House announced an extension of the loan repayment pause this week, leaving borrowers to resume payments on Aug. 31 — two months before the midterms.
Biden’s promise to relieve student loan debt, made after he faced primary challenges from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and other liberals, appealed to younger voters in particular. And it’s those voters who arguably won him the election. People under 25 had the greatest increase in turnout compared to other age groups in the 2020 presidential election. Several polls conducted by the progressive organizations Data for Progress and NextGen America have found that more than 40 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 36 in key swing states list canceling student debt among their top five issues heading into the midterms.
Since taking office, Biden has delayed action on loans, saying his administration is studying whether he has the authority to forgive loans on his own, absent action from Congress. In his State of the Union address last month, student debt was missing from a lengthy list of other concerns, as the president appeared to tack to the center on policing and other issues.
In interviews with the Globe, a dozen voters saddled with significant student loans said their debt was weighing on their minds as they considered how to vote in November — or, in some cases, whether to show up to the polls at all.
Richelle Brooks, 34, said she plans to sit out the midterm election if Biden doesn’t follow through on his student loan promise.
“There’s just so much irony and conflict in the words that were given to us when he was campaigning and the person that he made himself out to be and what we’re actually getting as an American people,” said Brooks, an independent voter in California who owes about $240,000 in federal student loans for her undergraduate and graduate degrees. “As a Black woman, it’s just really hurtful.”
Alyssa Brock, a Salem, Mass., resident, is also disappointed in Biden, although she still plans to vote in the fall. The progressive voter, who owes about $40,000 in federal student loans and $100,000 in private student loans, appreciated that Biden addressed some of her other top issues during the campaign, like health care, but is now feeling deflated.
“We’re going to have to fight just as hard with Biden as we fought with [Donald] Trump,” to get help, she said.
Over 43 million Americans owe a collective $1.7 trillion in student loan debt, and more than half of borrowers were in default, deferment, or otherwise not paying off their student loans before the pandemic, according to data from the Department of Education.
Mike Pierce, executive director at the Student Borrower Protection Center nonprofit, which advocates for student loan relief, said Democrats have a reason to be worried about low turnout in the midterms.
Younger voters, who mobilized and voted for Biden in record numbers, tend to vote less in midterms and other off-year elections no matter the circumstances, he pointed out. Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial election presents a worrisome example for Democrats. Governor Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate, won by fewer than 2 percentage points. Only 27 percent of voters under 30 cast a ballot, compared to the 56 percent who turned out in 2020, according to data compiled by researchers at Tufts University. That helped doom Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, since young voters were the only age group that favored him.
“If that kind of turnout drop-off happens in the midterms . . . we’re looking at Speaker [Kevin] McCarthy,” Pierce said, referring to the current House Republican minority leader.
But other political strategists argue that in a year defined by war in Europe, record-high inflation, and the lingering pandemic, student loans are unlikely to be a motivating factor in the midterms.
“This election is going to be fought over issues that affect every American, not over relief that Biden gave to a select group,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Even if Biden were to forgive debt, it’s not necessarily a political slam dunk, Conant argued. The move could anger older voters who have paid off their student debt already or those who didn’t go to college.
However, not following through on his campaign promise could hurt his party’s reputation among groups who helped put him in office. Biden received 92 percent of the Black vote in 2020, helping to deliver him the presidency with high turnout in swing states like Georgia. According to data from the Department of Education, Black college graduates owe $25,000 more in student loans on average than their white counterparts, and recent polls suggest a majority of Black voters support forgiving loans.
Jada Green, 27, said she feels “bamboozled” by the Biden administration. Green, who is Black, said she plans to vote in November, but she’s unenthusiastic. She wants to see the president and members of Congress lay out more concrete plans that detail how they plan to accomplish their agenda, especially in regards to student debt cancellation and voting rights.
“It almost seems like we were just tricked into picking him for this presidency, because he made all these lovely promises,” Green said. “It feels like we were used, and now he’s going about with his true agenda, which just doesn’t seem right.”
If Biden doesn’t make a substantial effort to cancel student loan debt before payments are slated to turn back on, Lisa Ansell, 42, said she’ll be sitting out the midterms — even though the remainder of her student debt was erased in November due to a public service loan forgiveness program updated by the Biden administration.
Ansell, an independent voter who usually votes for Republicans, backed Biden in 2020 because of his promise to cancel student loans.
“As independents, this is an issue that sways our voting,” Ansell said. “It swayed our voting in 2020. And the lack of movement and action will sway our voting again.”
Haley Fuller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.