Despite a highly anticipated Red Wave, Democrats won many key races in the 2022 midterm elections, thanks in large part to Gen Z and young millennial voters’ historic voter turnout. In many high-stakes Senate and gubernatorial races in Pennsylvania and other swing states, young voters showed up in droves not only to vote, but to help boost Democratic candidates, specifically.
According to an analysis of early exit polling from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 27 percent of voters aged 18-29 voted in the midterm elections, the second-highest youth voter turnout in nearly three decades. In addition, young voters overwhelmingly leaned left, with 63 percent showing up to vote for Democratic candidates. Among those who showed the greatest support for Democrats in this age group were women, LGBTQ people, and people of color. While Gen Z and young millennials were moved to vote for a number of reasons, the top issue motivating this demographic was abortion, with 74 percent of young voters saying they trusted Democrats to protect Americans’ reproductive rights more than their Republican counterparts.
“We talked to young voters throughout the course of the election, and time and time again, young voters cited abortion as our number one issue,” Victor Shi, the strategy director for Voters of Tomorrow and co-host of the “iGen Politics” podcast, told the Bucks County Beacon.
In the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, many young voters have grown increasingly concerned about abortion rights and bodily autonomy more than any other age group. While many Republican candidates were running on anti-abortion platforms, Democratic candidates, like Senator-elect John Fetterman, vowed to use their power to codify Roe v. Wade and even expressed their willingness to abolish the Senate filibuster to do so. Because of this issue, and many others, 70 percent of young people voted for Fetterman in the Pennsylvania Senate race over his opponent Mehmet Oz.
In addition to abortion access, issues like climate change, student loan debt, gun violence prevention, and voting rights also heavily influenced the youth vote, prompting Gen Z and young millenials to vote for candidates who prioritized these concerns, many of whom ended up being progressive candidates. According to Shi, “the state of the Republican and Democratic parties” also played a big factor in who young Americans voted for, noting that the Republican Party is generally interested in “taking away so many rights and really targeting a lot of issues that we care deeply about,” whereas Democrats have focused their energy more on the key issues that affect young people the most.
Shi also thinks the previous administration’s policies helped “set up the groundwork” to motivate young people to turn out to vote.
“For so many young people, Trump was really the first president that we paid attention to. We were constantly on edge,” he said. “We saw a president who violated norms and traditions constantly, and so that really put a lot of young people in the position of realizing just how much of a threat Trump and the Republican Party writ large poses.”
Historically, young voters have often been underestimated and undervalued when it comes to campaigning by both major parties, and in recent years, candidates have made little effort to reach out and appeal to them. While Democrats have made some leeway on this front, there are still many misconceptions about Gen Z and young millennials that get in the way of effective campaign outreach.
“They say young people are apathetic, and so candidates literally don’t even come and talk to them,” Angelique Hinton, the executive director of PA Youth Vote, told the Bucks County Beacon. “The youth vote has not been very high because people haven’t been engaging them and teaching them why voting matters. So when they can see that the youth vote is not high, they’re just not going to engage.”
As a result, this perpetuates a cycle of low youth voter turnout. According to Hinton, young people won’t feel compelled to vote and participate in their civic duties if candidates aren’t taking them seriously and making an effort to address their concerns. “And if you’re not voting, you’re making it easier for them to just disregard your needs,” she said.
Candidates in both major political parties also tend to heavily rely on solely reaching out to their core base, which is usually overwhelmingly composed of older generations, but this has proven to be a faulty strategy. As we’ve seen in the last few election cycles, young people are becoming more and more engaged in politics and showing up to make their voices heard at the polls, and now they’ve helped deliver some key wins for at least one major party. “Without young voters, neither party really has any path to victory,” noted Shi. Increasing voter outreach to Gen Z and young millennials, however, can help further increase youth voter turnout in the future.
One way to do this is for candidates to increase their digital presence and utilize more non-traditional platforms to meet young voters where they are and convey their message on social media, instead of focusing solely on in-person gatherings. “By 2024, Gen Zers and millennials are going to out number any generation in America, and so the kind of urgency to invest in young voters only begins and should only increase from here,” Shi added. And now that young voters have helped Democrats win many key races in Pennsylvania and across the country, both major parties will have to take them seriously and address their concerns in the next election if they want to have a chance at winning.
“I guarantee you in this next election cycle, they’re gonna pay very close attention and they will probably be a lot more likely to accept invitations to come and talk to young people,” said PA Youth Vote’s Hinton. “Because once you are a threat to an elected leader’s power, they pay attention to you.”
At the end of the day, increasing campaign outreach to Gen Z and young millennials will not only help candidates win, but it will also create a more responsive and representative elected leadership and finally give young voters a seat at the table.