Democrats struggle to harness enthusiasm of Gen Z voters
Naina Agrawal-Hardin is only 17, but she feels like her generation is running out of time.
The Ann Arbor, Mich., native, an organizer with the youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement, is a member of Generation Z, the cohort of voters born after 1996 that has already witnessed a lifetime’s worth of political upheaval.
Like many of her peers, the political and economic context in which she grew up pushed Agrawal-Hardin toward progressive beliefs.
“Gen Z, many of us have lived through two or three recessions, through the 2016 election, through a terribly mismanaged global pandemic, also against the shadow of the looming climate crisis, which we inherited in a way that feels unfair,” Agrawal-Hardin told The Hill. “With each of those different events that are universal across the American Gen Z experience, we’ve seen our government put profits above the well-being of people and of the common good. … We have no choice but to demand better of our government.”
But Gen Z has not always found the Democratic Party to be a reliable ally in making those demands. While Gen Z voters are often progressive, youth activists and organizers are not yet sold on a party many feel does not listen to them and is unsure of how to communicate with them.
Two decades’ worth of climate inaction, mass shootings, widening income inequality and ballooning tuition costs, expedited by a triple threat of health, economic and racial crises this year, has shaped Gen Z’s political identity.
According to a Pew Research Center study published in May, Gen Z is the country’s most pro-government, anti-Trump generation — and 24 million of them will be eligible to vote on Nov. 3.
Seventy percent of Gen Z survey respondents told Pew they want an activist government. Only 14 percent believe the U.S. is better than all other countries, and just 22 percent of eligible Gen Z voters said they planned to cast a vote for President Trump in November.
On top of that, Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history — barely half, at 52 percent, identify as non-Hispanic white.
Those statistics could spell generational doom for the GOP, experts said. Even Gen Zers who identify as Republicans are much more likely to hold socially liberal views, including a belief that climate change is a man-made phenomenon and that racism is still prevalent in American society.
“Republicans are in very deep trouble when it comes to appealing to young people,” said Melissa Deckman, a political scientist writing a book on Gen Z. “I talk to a lot of Gen Z activists, and I’ll ask them, what can the Republican Party do? And most of them will say it’s beyond help.”
But the Democratic Party has not necessarily captured the demographic in the way their policy preferences would suggest they should.
Gen Z voters certainly prefer Democrats to Republicans. July polling from NextGen America, a progressive advocacy group that works to mobilize young voters, found that only 27 percent of Gen Z respondents identified as Republicans, while Democratic Party identification stood at 45 percent, with 28 percent of those calling themselves “strong Democrats.”
Favorable ratings for the Democratic Party stood at 53 percent, with 23 percent of voters expressing very favorable opinions of the party.
But interviews with more than a dozen young voters, generational researchers and organizers from youth advocacy organizations revealed Gen Z remains skeptical of a party they feel has taken them for granted and does not know how to communicate with them.
While many plan to vote for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, they have made it clear both he and the party need to do more to earn their support.
In NextGen’s polling, 56 percent of young voters disagreed with the statement: “The more I hear about Joe Biden, the more I like him.” Gen Z overwhelmingly supported progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Democratic presidential primary, rebuking Biden — CNN exit polls in California, for example, found that Biden received just 6 percent of the under-30 vote compared to a whopping 68 percent for Sanders.
“Young people are issues-first voters,” eight progressive youth groups wrote in an April letter to Biden demanding he commit to a slew of progressive policies, including “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal. “Fewer identify with a political party than any other generation. Exclusively anti-Trump messaging won’t be enough to lead any candidate to victory. We need you to champion the bold ideas that have galvanized our generation and given us hope in the political process.”
From their consumer habits to their political preferences, Gen Z values and rewards authenticity, said Jason Dorsey, president and lead Gen Z researcher at the Center for Generational Kinetics. They can tell when candidates are not genuinely invested in the issues they care about or cannot communicate it in ways that resonate with that desire for authenticity.
With brands, Gen Z rewards companies that they feel stand for more than just making money and are committed to the same causes as they are — social justice, fighting climate change and increasing diverse representation. They see what happened to millennials, who are saddled with student loan debt and still face climate change and injustice, as a cautionary tale and want to avoid a similar fate.
In a world of brands competing for their loyalty, Gen Zers do not feel like establishment Democrats, including Biden, have made authentic overtures to them or given them a voice. Biden’s age, 77, is not to blame either — through promoting policies popular with young people, engaging them directly and possessing an unrehearsed quality that resonates with Gen Z, Sanders, at 78, came across as a genuine spokesperson for young voters.
Dorsey said that unless Biden can engage young adults in a way they view as authentic, his campaign may struggle to convert the sizable levels of youth activism into voter turnout.
“There’s a sense that he’s not speaking directly to Gen Z,” Dorsey said. “That’s really the missing element — whether that’s digital engagement, where he’s in a more unscripted environment, talking to Gen Z directly, speaking directly to their concern in a candid way.”
Youth organizers are also concerned about the Biden campaign’s level of digital engagement. A July poll from the Alliance for Youth Action found that only 21 percent of Democratic or left-leaning voters saw Biden ads on popular digital platforms, while 47 percent saw ads for the Trump campaign.
A Biden campaign official said the campaign has had youth voter outreach programs on college campuses for a year and that it launched League 46, the formal umbrella organization housing programs targeted towards young voters, in May. Most campuses, however, were closed during the spring semester because of the pandemic.
The Biden campaign also pointed to partnerships with youth-led organizations including the Sunrise Movement, which pushed the former vice president through the Biden-Sanders unity task force to adopt a more aggressive climate policy that pledges to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
“We have engaged with young voters from across the country who are leading on some of the most pressing issues of our time from ending gun violence to tackling climate change to making education and health care more affordable and accessible,” the Biden campaign said in a statement to The Hill. “We will continue tapping into their energy, enthusiasm, and leadership to ensure we make Trump a one-term president and make the most transformational progress the country has seen in decades.”
Matthew Nowling, the 21-year-old interim president of College Democrats of America, said the non-electoral work young people are leading, including through protests, is vital to the party’s goals. He believes the party will be able to harness that energy and that Biden’s recent adoption of more progressive policies will drive his generation to the polls in November.
“The Biden campaign has listened to the needs of our generation and the demands of different groups like Sunrise,” Nowling said.
But Sarah Audelo, executive director of the progressive Alliance for Youth Action, said the Biden campaign’s outreach has been underwhelming, particularly in digital engagement.
Biden and the Democratic Party need to earn youth votes by promoting progressive policies and directing resources toward youth-led organizations, she said.
“The Democratic Party needs to treat these young voters like the base that they are,” Audelo said. “Young people are championing what the Democratic Party says they care about. They’re showing up to vote on the issues, they’re participating in direct action and protests, city council meetings, but the Democratic Party is choosing to ignore them more often than not.”
Destiny Washington, a 20-year-old development associate with the Minnesota Youth Collective, which works to register young voters and advance progressive causes in the state, said the party only seems to care about young voters when elections draw near. In the 2018 midterm elections, she said she did not hear from anyone affiliated with the Democratic Party until receiving a call just days before the election, encouraging her to vote.
That kind of treatment makes young people feel as though the Democratic Party is not interested in their viewpoints, she said.
“It can be frustrating,” Washington said. “We’re dealing with real issues. If you have people who just call you when it’s a day before the election, it doesn’t make me feel, my peers feel, like you care about us.”
That feeling of just being paid lip service when votes are needed is even more pronounced for young Black activists, said Nupol Kiazolu.
Kiazolu is president of Black Lives Matter Greater New York and the organizer of a 15,000 person nonviolent racial justice march on June 2 in New York City. The 20-year-old Brooklynite founded an organization called Vote 2000 that helps register young voters.
After she was put in touch with party officials to coordinate voter registration efforts, Kiazolu said she received no follow-up communications.
“I don’t need any more performative antics,” Kiazolu said. “I don’t want to see white folks in kente cloth on CNN. That does nothing for me. … We’re asking for resources, we’re not asking for performative acts.”
While she identifies as a Democrat, Kiazolu said the party is not doing enough to speak to the issues young Black voters face.
“If they keep going on the route they are now, with Joe Biden, you’re not going to get the youth voter turnout that you’re expecting,” Kiazolu said, who spoke to The Hill before Biden named Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate.
Heather Greven, NextGen America’s communications director, said youth voter engagement is all about meeting Gen Z where they are — online. Since the pandemic has shuttered in-person operations, NextGen has been working to register voters everywhere, from Animal Crossing to Minecraft to virtual drag shows.
Greven, a millennial, said Gen Z’s desire for authenticity and digital nativity means they can not only tell when a candidate is making a bold-faced appeal to them, but they have no problem using social media to call them out.
She said while the Biden campaign is taking “steps in the right direction” by engaging YouTube influencers, they know creating a TikTok video would be “cringey.” The best course of action, she said, would be to partner with the youth-led groups that know how to promote genuine digital engagement.
“You can’t sell Joe Biden as the next Bernie Sanders,” Greven said. “You need to be honest and honor the intelligence of young people.”
But Gen Z can also use their digital communities to reward politicians they deem authentic by turning them into micro-celebrities, even among older politicians, like Sanders or Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who is running for reelection but faces a Democratic primary challenge from 39-year-old Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.).
While both Markey and Biden are septuagenarians, Markey is the one with an online cadre of dedicated young advocates, both phone banking for the senator and making memes about his support of progressive causes like the Green New Deal and net neutrality.
Markey’s campaign pays tribute to its young base with fancam videos — fan-made clip reels — and memes informed by a knowledge of internet culture that only a young person could have, something they notice and appreciate, Agrawal-Hardin said.
“It signals that this is someone who wants to learn from us, respects us and our internet culture and our ways for communicating,” Agrawal-Hardin said. “If candidates want to engage with young voters digitally, hire young people and pay them to tell you how to do that.”
But to even begin a conversation with Gen Zers, online or not, Democrats have to first embrace the policies that they care about, young voters said.
Emma Tang, an 18-year-old from Colorado Springs, Colo., supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. She is still waiting on the Democratic Party to embrace progressivism as fully as she has since the 2016 elections.
Tang was particularly disheartened after interning for Stephany Rose Spaulding, a progressive candidate who ran in Colorado’s Democratic Senate primary before dropping out. Establishment support for former Gov. John Hickenlooper, a moderate and the primary’s eventual winner, compelled Tang to try community organizing rather than political campaigns.
The Democratic Party will embrace the language of progressivism insofar as it gets them young votes, she said, but will not adopt the policies young voters want and then blame them for poor turnout.
“For the past few years, I’ve heard a lot of: ‘Why don’t young people vote? Young people don’t care.’” Tang said. “But on the other side, when we do care, a lot of the adults say, ‘You’re too young to care and you need to listen up first.’”
In any generation, youth voter turnout tends to be lower than that of their older counterparts.
Voters under 30 turned out at record levels for the 2018 midterms — an encouraging sign that 2020 will yield a record high turnout for a presidential election, said Nowling, the College Democrats interim president.
But without a unifying vision, Agrawal-Hardin said, even if Gen Z delivers for Biden, Democrats are at risk of alienating them in the long term.
“It’s not exciting to do voter turnout on the premise that we need to beat Trump,” Agrawal-Hardin said. “What’s exciting is to do voter turnout on the premise that we need transformative change. … Until Democrats are championing that, until they’re bringing people into a bolder, more ambitious, more exciting vision, it’s hard to imagine that they’re going to retain young voters.”
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