Many years ago, one of my colleagues at Blue America insisted we poll a primary we were involved in. Our candidate was a Black progressive state senator in a district where a majority of the Democratic primary voters were Black and she was running against a very conservative white Blue Dog incumbent with an awful record of betraying his constituents. I didn’t want to do the poll; I felt it was wasting our donors’ money, money that could go into advertising instead. But we wound up hiring Celinda Lake to poll the district. She came back with horrific news. She said our candidate would get 19.5% of the vote. I’ve known Celinda for a long time but I dismissed her finding as impossible. Several months later, Election Day came along and our candidate lost… with 19.5% of the vote. Ever since then, I’ve paid very close attention to whatever Celinda says.
Yesterday, she teamed up with documentary filmmaker Mac Heller (Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook) to write an OpEd for the Washington Post, 2024 won’t be a Trump-Biden replay. You can thank Gen Z for that. Short version: the electorate has changed and there are too many young voters-- young voters interested in policy-- now for Trump to win.
“Every year,” they wrote, “about 4 million Americans turn 18 and gain the right to vote. In the eight years between the 2016 and 2024 elections, that’s 32 million new eligible voters. Also every year, 2½ million older Americans die. So in the same eight years, that’s as many as 20 million fewer older voters. Which means that between Trump’s election in 2016 and the 2024 election, the number of Gen Z (born in the late 1990s and early 2010s) voters will have advanced by a net 52 million against older people. That’s about 20 percent of the total 2020 eligible electorate of 258 million Americans.”
The good news doesn’t stop there. They noted that “unlike previous generations, Gen Z votes... Comparing the four federal elections since 2015 (when the first members of Gen Z turned 18) with the preceding nine (1998 to 2014), average turnout by young voters (defined here as voters under 30) in the Trump and post-Trump years has been 25 percent higher than that of older generations at the same age before Trump— 8 percent higher in presidential years and a whopping 46 percent higher in midterms.
“Similarly, though not as drastic, we have seen a 7 percent increase in voter registration among under-30 voters since Gen Z joined the electorate. In midterm elections, under-30s have seen a 20 percent increase in their share of the electorate, on average, since Trump and Gen Z entered the game.”
So what motivates these new voters? Not Trump, it turns out; he’s not the deciding factor. Is that bad news for Democrats who know only how to run a lesser of two evils campaign? “Our candidate may suck, but their candidate sucks worse.” Imagine that the party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, JFK and George McGovern has degenerated into that!
Jamie McLeod Skinner, the Blue America-endorsed congressional candidate in central Oregon had some interesting thoughts on this. "In Oregon, we’re seeing a decrease in party affiliation among younger voters," she told me this morning. "But they are starting to claim their power in elections. What I’ve learned from the young people who have driven my campaign is that they’re interested in what a candidate stands for, not party affiliation. They want solutions, not platitudes. They want representatives who are genuine and accountable to people, not mega corporations. For those of us committed to people-centered politics, this is exciting."
When pollsters ask why, Gen Z voters say their motivation is not a party or candidate. It is, instead, strong passion on one or more issues— a much more policy-driven approach than the more partisan voting behavior of their elders.
That policy-first approach, combined with the issues they care most about, have led young people in recent years to vote more frequently for Democrats and progressive policies than prior generations did when of similar age— as recent elections in Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin have shown.
In last August’s Kansas abortion referendum, for example, women under 30 turned out at a rate of 41 percent and helped win the contest. A similar Michigan abortion referendum brought youth midterm turnout to 49 percent— and 69 percent of voters younger than 30 voted to put abortion rights protections in the state constitution compared to just 52 percent of voters 30 and older. Michigan voters elected Democratic majorities in both state houses for the first time in years, and reelected their Democratic governor, attorney general and secretary of state.
While American voters historically have tended somewhat to become more conservative as they age, no one should expect these voting patterns to change drastically. About 48 percent of Gen Z voters identify as a person of color, while the boomers they’re replacing in the electorate are 72 percent White. Gen Z voters are on track to be the most educated group in our history, and the majority of college graduates are now female. Because voting participation correlates positively with education, expect women to speak with a bigger voice in our coming elections. Gen Z voters are much more likely to cite gender fluidity as a value, and they list racism among their greatest concerns. Further, they are the least religious generation in our history. No wonder there’s discussion in some parts of the GOP about raising the voting age to 25, and among some Democrats about lowering it to 16!
There are lessons— and warnings— here for both parties. For Republicans, the message is obvious: Listen to the voices of this soon-to-be-dominant group of voters as you formulate your policies on climate, abortion, guns, health care, inclusion and everything else. Unlike some older voters, they are listening to what you say— and to how you say it. Change your language and style from the unmitigated male id of “Never Back Down” and “Where Woke Goes to Die” to words of community, stewardship, sharing and collaboration. That’s the new patriotism, and young voters believe that approach will solve problems more effectively than what they’ve seen over the past two decades.
There are stark messages for Democrats too. Meet young voters where they are: on social media, not cable news. Make your messages short, funny and somehow sarcastic yet authentic and earnest at the same time. Your focus should be issues first, issues second, candidates third and party identity never.
A final word of warning: Both parties should worry about young voters embracing third-party candidates. Past elections show that Gen Z voters shop for candidates longer and respond favorably to new faces and issue-oriented candidates. They like combining their activism with their voting and don’t feel bound by party loyalty. And they can’t remember Ross Perot, Ralph Nader— or even Jill Stein.
We suspect both campaigns know most or all of what we have written here. Habit may prevent them from acting on it, but they have these numbers. In one of life’s great ironies, the group that doesn’t know it is young voters. They think of themselves as ignored, powerless and marginalized in favor of big money and shouting boomers. But over the next year, they’ll figure it out. Gen Z will tire of waiting for Washington to unite to solve problems, will grab the national microphone and will decide the 2024 presidential race.
I talked about this with my old friend Chris Larson, a state Senator from Wisconsin. He understands exactly what Celinda was talking about. “The next generation of voters,” he told me, “has no choice but to get active around elections. The promises of previous decades never made it to them. For too many, college no longer pays for itself and is instead a recipe for a lifetime of debt. Newly-weds cannot afford a house on two incomes anymore, much less one. Child care now costs more than college, forcing parents to decide who will forgo work to stay home with the kids. While previous politicians argued about whether climate change was real, climate change got worse and is now creating catastrophic weather patterns that we all have to deal with. All the while, wealth inequality has become worse than it ever has. Because the last generation has stood firmly on the cape of this generation and refused to allow them their same success, young voters are ready for policies that meet the moment. Tinkering around the edges isn't an option for them because they've been forced to realize what we should all know by now: no one is going to save us but ourselves.”
Another guy running for a state legislative seat, although this one in Texas, is Karthik Soora, like Larson, a Blue America endorsed candidate. You can contribute to both their campaigns here. This is what Karthik told me this morning. "In our quest for a revived American dream, we must address the structural issues at the heart of our establishment. Young people of today aren't just future leaders; they're activists, thinkers, and game-changers, reshaping our world. However, they're also a demographic feeling the sharp edge of a system that often seems against them. While we advocate for online voter registration and campaign finance limits, we're also pushing for more transformative changes. We're setting our sights on ballot initiatives to guarantee reproductive freedom and universal gun background checks. We're championing a wealth tax on billionaires, ensuring they contribute their fair share. But beyond these policies, our political structure in Texas and nationally itself needs reform. Gerrymandering stands as a glaring testament to manipulation within our electoral system. By embracing ranked choice voting and considering multi-member districts, we can break the cycle of restrictive single-party dominance, granting younger voters the diverse choices they crave. The Democratic Party must evolve. We can't address 21st-century challenges with a 19th-century system. Young people understand the profound ways our sclerotic democracy has let them down. They deserve more choice, more voice. If we don't grasp this, we risk losing their trust and future elections."
This is from the Academy of Country Music Awards ceremony! Dolly is 77 but she and her music engage with young Americans far more convincingly than most members of Congress, far more so than members less than half her age, like Elise Stefanik (R-NY), Patrick McHenry (R-NC), Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL), Jaake LaTurner (R-KS), Jake Auchincloss (D-MA), Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-WA), Kat Cammack (R-FL), Ritchie Torres (D-NY), George Santos (R-NY), Max Miller (R-OH), Josh Harder (D-CA), Mike Lawler (R-NY) and Lauren Boebert (R-CO).