If the historic voter turnout during the U.S. midterm elections is any indication, the 2020 presidential election could potentially draw a record number of young people to the polls, including the 18- to 23-year-old Generation Z, many of whom will be casting ballots for the first time.
Together, Gen Z and millennials (ages 24 to 39) are projected to make up 37% of voters in the 2020 presidential election, according to the Pew Research Center, and both demographics are largely split along party lines.
“Gen Z is a little bit more liberal than millennials at this point,” Robert Griffin, a top researcher at the bipartisan Democracy Fund, tells Fortune. “They’re a little bit more racially diverse, they’re more educated, and they’re on track to be more secular than other generations.”
About 55% of current Gen Zers identified as Democrats, as opposed to 51% of their millennial counterparts, according to a soon-to-be-released Nationscape survey conducted by the Democracy Fund and UCLA.
James Lance Taylor, a political science professor and a former political science department chair at the University of San Francisco, believes it may be too early to say that these young generations of voters will have an impact in determining who will be sitting in the White House, but says Trump could have a “radicalizing effect” on young people.
“There could be an awakening because of the backlash they may think he represents,” Taylor says.
Taylor compares most young voters to a majority of black voters. He says the groups are not in full step with Republican ideology, and they may feel taken for granted by Democrats. Indeed, the President himself might be the common denominator in their decision-making.
But will America’s youngest voters play a significant role in the upcoming presidential election?
With this demographic so evenly split along party lines, it will depend on how many show up on Election Day. And what it will take to get these voters to the polls is up to both the Republican and Democratic parties to figure out.
Issues over candidates
Kyle Lelli, a co-founder of The Tylt, a debate and polling website focusing on issues relevant to Gen Z and millennials, says this election season, young voters are focused on issues like climate change, health care, and gun control, rather than the candidates.
“They’re not out there necessarily following the horse race, they’re more focused on the issues,” said Lelli. “Young voters are independent thinkers with strong opinions, and if they turn out, they definitely will have an impact.”
Democrats have been targeting those issues that tend to speak to younger voters, says Tim Malloy, Quinnipiac poll’s assistant director. Bernie Sanders, specifically, has not been afraid to call out big pharmaceutical companies and to make public pleas to help combat climate change.
“Sanders speaks to the younger segment of voters,” Malloy says.
And, as billionaire candidates like Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg try to reach out to the middle class as part of their campaigns, Sanders has been fighting for workers rights for years, even when he was seen as an outcast in the U.S. Senate.
Taylor says that, similar to 2016, Sanders, technically an Independent running as a Democratic candidate, “is speaking to young people” in a way the two major parties can’t. Taylor cites Sanders’ themes of being an advocate for economic, racial, social, and environmental justice.
“I think, more than anyone, Bernie speaks to issues that directly affect young people: minimum wage, student debt forgiveness, universal health care, and concerns about the environment, issues he’s been consistent with,” says Taylor, who teaches college students. “He’s nothing but a ‘New Deal Democrat,’ a centrist who attracts new voters and those really learning about politics for the first time.”
“There’s something about Sanders’ appeal that’s still a bit of a mystery,” says Carl Cannon, a longtime D.C. insider, and the Washington bureau chief for polling aggregation site RealClearPolitics. “Somehow, he’s caught lightning in a bottle with young folks, and it still seems to be working,” Cannon says.
On the subject of impeachment, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, the results of which were released last week, 52% of likely Gen Z and millennial voters surveyed believed that President Donald Trump should be removed from office—not a huge difference from the 43% of 50- to 64-year-olds and the 51% of those 65 and over, who said the same.
While younger voters appear divided on impeachment, they don’t seem to be divided on Trump, overall.
According to Nationscape, Trump is trailing all four of the top Democratic candidates in terms of favorability among Gen Z voters—Sanders by 40 points, Joe Biden by 37, Elizabeth Warren by 31, and Pete Buttigieg by 26.
Power in numbers
The increasingly Gen Z base is “going to vote at crazy rates,” Anne Moses, the founder of Ignite, a nonprofit training young women to become civically and politically engaged, said during Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit last month. “Get ready.”
During the 2018 midterm elections, Gen Z and millennials doubled their presence at the polls, boosting their demographic’s average voter turnout of 16% to 34%, says John Della Volpe, the director of polling at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and the founder and CEO of SocialSphere.
“They’re already proving through that one metric that they have a significant impact,” Della Volpe says of young voters. “They do believe that their votes matter.”
“It’s really going to be a matter of if they can be convinced to turn out,” says Rebecca Eissler, an assistant professor of political science at San Francisco State University. “If they do, they can sway the election.”
And candidates are reaching out to young voters in nontraditional ways in order to make it happen.
Consider Warren, the onetime Democratic presidential front-runner, who is now sliding fast in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. She recently took the time to make a video answering personal questions for the traditionally young readers at Elle.com (as well as give some voting advice) in a unique attempt to attract younger voters.
“You show up to volunteer, you show up to vote,” Warren said. “That really means you’ve got that little piece of hope still in you that, in a democracy, no matter how bad it is, together, we’re going to make this better.”
Warren also organized Students With Warren to gain ground among voters; Biden launched a Team Joe Organizing Fellowship to teach young people about political organizing; and Sanders started Students for Bernie Summer School to do the same.
“Look, if the Democrats succeed in limiting Trump to one term, voters under age 40 will be the difference,” Cannon of RealClearPolitics says. “I’m convinced about that.”
With anticipated record turnouts, Gen Z voters could pose a short-term problem for the Grand Old Party in 2020—and beyond if those young American voters begin to show up at the polls consistently, Griffin adds.
“They appear to look like a generation that should be, over the long term, a concern for the Republican party,” he says.
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