HOUSTON — A groan erupted at a debate watch party at Texas Southern University last week as former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr. got a question about slavery and racism and gave an answer about Venezuela and record players.
But amid that exasperation, some students channeled their inner Beltway operatives and began a targeted rapid-response campaign.
Tyler Smith, 19, texted his grandmother after the debate, hopeful that Mr. Biden’s meandering answer may have swayed her from supporting him.
Amaya St. Romain, 19, mounted a three-day lobbying blitz on her mother and her great-grandmother, making sure they had seen the former housing secretary Julián Castro’s criticisms of Mr. Biden onstage.
In meme-speak, the efforts amounted to Killmonger, the villain in the Black Panther movie, challenging the people of Wakanda: “Is this your king?”
“I think I’m definitely influencing them,” Ms. St. Romain said of her family members. “But my dad is definitely still pro-Biden. And I don’t really argue with him.”
If Mr. Biden, 76, is going to win the Democratic nomination, it is likely to be because of the support of older black voters, a key constituency for the party and one that polls show is overwhelmingly supportive of the former vice president’s candidacy.
But if he is to be overtaken by one of his more progressive rivals, the most powerful tool against him may not be opposition research or negative advertisements. Instead, it may be an organic effort by younger black voters — concerned about Mr. Biden’s age and more moderate ideology — to sway their older family members.
Mr. Biden seems aware of this dynamic. In interviews, he has both acknowledged the generational gap among his black supporters and downplayed its importance, arguing that the support of older, more moderate black voters would be enough to give him an electoral advantage.
Still, Mr. Biden, by his own admission, would be unwise to underestimate the lobbying efforts of those who are young and politically engaged. At a gathering of the New Hampshire Young Democrats in July, Mr. Biden said the same phenomenon — young people converting their skeptical parents — had helped fuel his own ascension in politics almost 47 years ago, when he was elected to the Senate as a fresh-faced 29-year-old.
“The fact of the matter is, you have more influence on how your parents vote than they have on you,” Mr. Biden said in July. “You may sit at the dining room table, having dinner with your mom and dad, and say, ‘I met her and I really like her,’ or ‘I met him and I really like him.’ And your parents will pretend it didn’t matter much. But they’ll go up, not a joke, they’ll go up and say, ‘If my kid liked that person that much, and knew them, there must be something there.’”
At Texas Southern University, a historically black university founded in 1927 and the site of last week’s Democratic debate, dozens of students, ages 19 to 23, differed on their top candidate. Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Kamala Harris of California were among the favorites, as was one of the two Texans in the race, former representative Beto O’Rourke.
For Mr. Biden, though, students carried mixed feelings. They respected his tenure as Barack Obama’s vice president, but implicitly rejected his campaign’s central premise, that the primary goal of Democrats in the 2020 election should be defeating President Trump.
They pointed to systemic problems they said the country must address, such as inequality, climate change and gun violence. The Democratic nominee, they said, should embrace progressive proposals like canceling student loan debt, the Green New Deal and gun buyback programs.
“Me and my dad have the debate all the time,” said Samantha Williams, 19, a sophomore. “We want a candidate that reflects us and what the world is going to look like when we run. But he says what we call ‘woke’ is really just sensitive.”
Jaylan Jones, 20, said, “Older people have that conservative outlook on things,” even older black Democrats.
“Young people don’t want Biden. We want Beto. We want Bernie,” said Ms. Jones, a junior. “I think we can convince them.”
The difference in opinion across generations speaks to the changing politics of black communities, said Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, the racial justice organization. And the historically diverse Democratic field has given voters plentiful options to choose from: multiple black candidates, white progressives who openly back once-radical ideas like reparations, and Mr. Biden, who served as vice president to the first black president.
Black voters are overwhelmingly members of the Democratic Party, and polls show they have long regarded Mr. Trump as a racist president and individual whom they are desperate to replace. A recent national poll of Democratic primary voters from NBC and The Wall Street Journal showed Mr. Biden had the support of nearly 50 percent with black respondents, though others have shown a less commanding lead.
“Black people are strategic voters, particularly older black people,” Mr. Robinson said. “They’re thinking harm reduction. They’re doing a deep analysis about what they think white people will accept and won’t accept.”
He pointed to the last Democratic primary, when younger black voters tracked more toward Mr. Sanders than their older counterparts, who overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton. In 2008, younger black voters supported Barack Obama in much bigger numbers than the electorate at large, until his victory in the Iowa Caucus led to a surge of support.
“Young people are constantly signaling what’s next and what’s possible,” Mr. Robinson said. “And while there’s some love for Biden, but sometimes you’re in a relationship because you’re comfortable and it’s what you know.”
Another Texas Southern student, Christopher Anwuri, 22, said the generational differences in how black voters saw the primary were fueled by opposing theories of political change: incrementalism versus immediate upheaval.
“This generation is looking for an instant, quick fix for problems,” he said. Older black people, meanwhile, think “these things need to take time.”
It also comes back to Mr. Obama, and the long shadow he casts over national Democratic politics, particularly in black communities. Older black voters invoke his name in deference, and cite his embrace of Mr. Biden as something that helped him win the trust of skeptical white voters in 2008.
To younger generations, many of whom were in high school or younger at the time, Mr. Obama’s achievements exist on their own. Their first memories of Mr. Biden stem from his highly meme-able vice-presidential years. They are also more likely to hold his long and at times controversial record — on criminal justice, school segregation and the Clarence Thomas hearings, among other things — against him.
Jayla Lee, 19, said older black voters “like Biden because he was with Obama, and they feel like since they could trust Obama that means they can trust him.”
“But the things we endure are not the things they endured,” Ms. Lee said. “And I’m looking for someone who can change the things that affect me.”
Darren Black, 22, said older generations were always “going to ride” for Mr. Biden, because “Joe was there with Obama.”
“But the younger generation, we’ve seen mass shootings, we’re seeing more police brutality — we’re looking at different things,” Mr. Black said.
Yet contrary to their stereotype as idealistic and apathetic, and with the steely pessimism of seasoned political operatives, younger voters expressed a cleareyed understanding that their efforts to lobby their relatives would not necessarily be successful.
Asked if she’d had any luck converting her family to more progressive candidates, Ms. Williams, a political science major, said, “I’m making no progress. None. Not even a tiny bit. I wish.”
Ms. Williams called her pro-Biden father a lost cause. “We’re both opinionated and headstrong people, and I just don’t have the energy to go back and forth,” she said.
Mr. Smith, a member of the school’s College Democrats, said he liked Mr. Biden, but preferred his more left-wing rivals, such as Mr. O’Rourke, Mr. Castro, Ms. Harris or Ms. Warren.
After the debate, he thought about further pestering his grandmother over her support for Mr. Biden, but he reconsidered out of fear of coming off as pushy.
“You know, it’s grandma, so you got to let her have it,” Mr. Smith said.
When reached by phone, however, Mr. Smith’s grandmother, Alice Varnado, said his previous lobbying efforts had been more successful than he may have realized.
Ms. Varnado, 69, said she still preferred Mr. Biden, but that she had grown concerned about his age in recent months. She said she would vote for whichever Democrat earned the nomination, but she now considers Ms. Warren her second choice.
Her family members — Mr. Smith and his uncle — had convinced her.
“You know, since talking with my grandson and my son, I think I can go with her,” said Ms. Varnado. “I’m starting to like her. There’s been a turning point.”
Katie Glueck contributed reporting.