Experts say that Gen Z and millennial voters are highly invested in the political process because of their support for abortion rights and anxiety about the consequences of electing Republicans.
Democrats’ strong performances in the 2022 elections were powered by a diverse coalition of young and female voters who turned out in record numbers, especially in swing states, according to a new analysis of the midterm elections by the progressive data firm Catalist.
Especially in heavily contested races, millennial and Generation Z voters, defined collectively in the report as voters born after 1981, broke decisively for Democrats in even greater numbers than they did in 2018. That year, in what was seen as a rejection of President Donald Trump, the electorate handed Democrats a majority in the House of Representatives by margins the party hadn’t seen in generations. Experts told the American Independent Foundation that younger voters, who are much more progressive than those of their parents’ generations, are motivated by the desire to put their values into action and a fear of conservative political power.
The Harvard Public Opinion Project, the longest-running survey of the political attitudes of Americans between the age of 18 and 29, has found a marked shift in the political preferences of younger voters over the last 10 years toward favoring government intervention in American life to further progressive policies. Majorities of young voters now support state-sponsored health care and increased government spending to end poverty, for example. Other polling hasfound that Americans aged 18-29 support legalizing abortion more than any other age group.
Gen Z and millennial voters are very progressive and are likely to largely remain that way, said Morley Winograd, a researcher at Brookings who studies younger voters.
“Young voters are motivated, they’re engaged, they’re anti-MAGA, they’re pro-abortion, they’re pro-Democratic priorities and ideas,” Winograd told the American Independent Foundation. In the midterm elections, he added: “One of the variables was to what degree abortion was a major issue in the race, either because of the nature of the candidate’s position, or as in Michigan, because there was an actual abortion proposition on the ballot. Wherever that happened, then you got enormous turnouts of young voters.”
Winograd said that young voters were also motivated by economic concerns such as the affordability of health care, if not for themselves yet, then for their parents and grandparents, as well as of education and housing, and concerns about democracy itself. Republicans, Winograd argued, face an increasingly challenging electoral map without improving their party’s performance among young voters.
“The under-45 GOP voters were less likely to vote, and when they did, more likely to vote Democratic than any other age group in the electorate in 2018. And so Republicans have a defection problem with younger voters, which is not surprising given where they stand on the issues,” Winograd said. “If you have a coalition, as Republicans do, made up of older people, mostly white, the older people problem becomes more and more of a problem if you’re not replacing those voters with younger voters, and they’re not.”
Jackie Johnson, a 26-year-old marketing manager living in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, told the American Independent Foundation that she had voted in most elections since turning 18, a habit in part instilled by her dad. Motivated by her beliefs about women’s bodily autonomy, voting rights, and education, Johnson said that she voted for the Democratic ticket in the midterms in 2022 and for Judge Janet Protasiewicz, the progressive pro-choice candidate, in the state Supreme Court race in April 2023.
“I felt as if this last midterm had high stakes for Wisconsin,” she said in an email. “My participation felt very meaningful.”
Signe Espinoza, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates and a millennial herself, told the American Independent Foundation that abortion was decisive in motivating younger voters in the state, along with related economic concerns.
“I think one of the things when we’re talking about issues, when we’re talking about inflation, we’re talking about the economy, and we’re talking about the implications for our generation, our financial situation, we’re talking about college debt, we’re talking about the fact that our generation is deciding to not have children or making decisions to delay that decision,” she said. “And so when we’re thinking about these issues, I think that millennials are incredibly aware that when we’re talking about the economy, that is an abortion issue.”
Espinoza said it was frustrating to see abortion and economic issues being pitted against each during the midterms “when they were interconnected.”
In Pennsylvania, one of the battleground swing states that the Catalist report highlighted, the Republican candidate for governor, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, was resoundingly defeated by the Democrat, Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Mastriano, who lost by 15 points, attracted criticism from some Republicans who said he was too extreme to win a general election. He appeared to flirt with a Senate run this year, but announced last month that he would refrain from launching a 2024 campaign.
“We’re talking about a candidate in the gubernatorial race who ran off of no exceptions when it came to rape or incest in abortion care and was really clear on his position with his voting record in the legislature,” Espinoza said.
Mastriano was emblematic of the candidates that Republicans ran for governor and the U.S. Senate in almost every 2022 battleground state: Trump-endorsed election deniers who favored strict abortion laws.
Simon Rosenberg, a longtime liberal political strategist who accurately predictedDemocratic victories in the 2022 midterms, said younger voters in those contested battleground states were motivated to vote by what they viewed as an unpalatable, extreme conservative agenda represented by those candidates. Heavily-funded Democratic campaigns with robust grassroots organizing operations, he said, were well-positioned to use their resources to reach out to those voters and encourage them to cast ballots.
“Despite high inflation and low approval rating for Biden, [Democrats] actually gained ground in most of the major battleground states that determine the outcome of the presidential election,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg noted that, prior to 2006, the youth vote had traditionally swungbetween Republicans and Democrats. During that year’s midterms, younger voters turned out in record numbers and broke decisively for Democrats, Rosenberg said, motivated by deep dissatisfaction with the Bush administration driven by the Iraq War and the War on Terror.
Those crises, which sent young soldiers overseas to fight foreign wars, burst what Rosenberg calls “the bubble of affluence” and motivated younger voters to engage in politics. “What’s going to pierce the bubble of affluence for young people today? It’s not getting shot at school, it’s climate change, it’s abortion, it’s the disruption of COVID and being able to afford an apartment.”
While the conventional political wisdom is that younger voters turn out to vote at lower rates than older voters, Rosenberg says, that isn’t exactly true: “What we know from research is that registered young people vote at the same rates as registered old people — it’s just they’re registered at a much lower rate.” Rosenberg sees an opportunity for Democrats to take advantage of that and further improve their electoral performance by launching a national young voter registration drive aimed at young people.
Blue Future, a progressive political action committee that trains Gen Z volunteers in the fundamentals of political organizing and campaigning, is one organization working to bring members of Gen Z into the political process.
“I think young voters really knew that we had to stop the red wave because our rights were under attack. They know, first and foremost, that they are the ones that are going to have to deal with the impact of these elections for generations,” Morgan Stahr, the co-president of Blue Future, told the American Independent Foundation.
“When we’re talking to students, the reason that they say they want to vote, or when they’re talking to people on the phone is like, ‘We’re sick of having to do drills at our school’” she said. “Many of these young people we work with were in seventh or eighth grade when Donald Trump was elected.”
Stahr described the youth she works with as caught between the hope that they can move their communities in a more progressive direction and the fear of extremism, gun violence, and climate change.
In Georgia, Blue Future worked with the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, an Atlanta-based nonprofit run by high school and college students, to fight conservative-led efforts to ban books about race, gender, and sexuality from schools. Stahr said that they were able to defeat every book ban in the state.
“I think, from the beginning of our history, whether you’re looking at the Civil Rights Movement, the founding of the LGBTQ+ movement, and many other movements, and the climate justice movement, of course, young people have always been front and center. And I really do think that will continue, especially as we go into 2024,” Stahr added.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.