Can Gen Z Save the Midterms for Democrats?

Can Gen Z Save the Midterms for Democrats?

Can Gen Z Save the Midterms for Democrats?

Progressive organizers predict a “youth wave” election-night surprise.


Covering Climate NowThis story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation strengthening coverage of the climate story.

The message coming from America’s mainstream media has been consistent for months: The Democrats are going down. One news story after another projects that Tuesday’s midterm elections will give Republicans control of at least the House of Representatives and probably the Senate as well, rendering President Joe Biden all but powerless. Not only will he be unable to pass major legislation for the rest of his term, but he, his family, and his top aides will be harassed by congressional Republican investigations and even calls for impeachment.

Not so fast, say young organizers from the climate, gun violence, and other progressive social movements. At a press briefing Sunday morning, 48 hours before Election Day polls open on the East Coast, leaders from the grassroots groups March for Our Lives, Sunrise Movement, and Gen Z for Change predicted that a youth wave of voters will upend the conventional narrative. These groups have been working on the ground for months in battleground states, educating and urging young people to vote. They contend that the polling and reporting done by most news outlets is missing the growing engagement by people ages 18 to 29. That demographic cohort, they say, is motivated by three main issues—gun violence, abortion, and climate change—and favors Democrats over Republicans by a roughly two-to-one margin.

“There’s a lot of polls that are conducted over the phone and by voluntary digital polling. Young people are very rarely [included] in those polls, so they’re underrepresented,” said Olivia Julianna, the 19-year-old director of politics and government affairs for Gen Z for Change, which began as a coalition of TikTok creators using digital media to organize young people against former president Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, mainstream news coverage echoes outdated assumptions about younger voters held by political insiders in Washington. “Even if there are all these boomer pundits out there saying young people aren’t going to turn out…the data show that is not the case for our generation,” said David Hogg, 22, who cofounded the March for Our Lives movement after surviving the Parkland High School shooting that killed 17 of his schoolmates and wounded 17 more in 2018. “In 2018, we saw one of the highest youth turnouts of any non-presidential midterm in American history. In 2020, we saw the highest youth voter turnout in American history. And young people aren’t stopping…. Over the past several weeks, March for Our Lives has contacted several hundred thousand voters to help turn out the vote.”

Hogg cited a poll conducted in late September by the Institute for Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School, which has been “pretty accurately” measuring young people’s electoral involvement and preferences for 20 years. The new poll found that “40 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds state that they will ‘definitely’ vote in the November 8 midterm elections, on track to match or potentially exceed the record-breaking 2018 youth turnout in a midterm election.” The same poll found that 57 percent of young voters prefer Democratic control of Congress, while 31 percent favor Republican control. By contrast, the US electorate as a whole is split more or less equally: 45 percent prefer Democratic control of Congress, and 43 percent favor Republican control.

Early voting in some battleground states is matching or exceeding these pro-Democrat trends, said Julianna. In Michigan, “Democratic youth voter turnout is higher right now than it was in 2020 by about 8 percent,” she said. “Nationally, it’s 7.3 percent higher.” She argued that the upsurge is driven partly by recent events that have put more focus on the issues important to young voters, such as the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning the right to abortion and the relentless string of extreme heat waves and storms fueled by climate change.

The early voting data suggests something extraordinary, Julianna added. Historically, turnout by all demographic groups is much lower for midterm elections than it is for presidential elections. But the 2022 midterms could “have higher youth turnout than we did in the 2020 presidential election.”

“In the past, many young people prior to us felt they had the luxury of not voting, because they didn’t see how [voting] could affect them,” Hogg said. Today, “gun violence is literally the leading cause of death for young people in our country. The combination of the Parkland shooting, climate change, the reversal of Roe v. Wade, and especially, frankly, the election of Donald Trump showed our generation how politics is tangible to us.”

Instead of basing their reporting on dubious polls, journalists should look at real-world results, Julianna said. “We’ve seen three major elections happen this year where it was supposed to be this big, right-leaning blowout,” she said, citing Kansas, where voters decided by an 18 percent margin to keep abortion legal; Alaska, where Democrat Mary Peltola defeated right-wing darling Sarah Palin for a congressional seat; and New York’s 19th Congressional District, where Democrat Pat Ryan beat Republican Marc Molinaro despite trailing badly in polling and fundraising. “None of those races were supposed to be competitive,” said Julianna, “and they ended up with Democratic victories. We can talk about polling data all we want, but since the Dobbs decision, young people have been turning out to vote for candidates they ideologically align with.”

“The truth is that young people are the most progressive generation in the history of this country,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said on November 4 while urging young people to vote in Eau Claire, Wis. A leading example of that progressive energy is the Sunrise Movement, which arose after the 2018 midterms to push Democrats to adopt much stronger climate policies, including the Green New Deal championed by the newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ellen Sciales, a Sunrise Movement organizer, joined the press briefing from the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, where she had “been talking to students all morning.” Sciales said that the Sunshine Movement has contacted 3 million young people this year about voting. In Wisconsin, she added, Sunrise Movement organizers have been active on every University of Wisconsin campus in the state, and she herself has spoken to thousands of students one-on-one.

Many students, she found, lack basic information about elections and their right to participate. Others are skeptical that things will change even if they do vote. “But explaining things like student loan debt, climate policy, and gun prevention policy have helped these people see that government can work and that we have to pass more [of those policies],” she said.

One 18-year-old freshman told Sciales that she was sorry, but she couldn’t vote—she had missed the deadline for registering. Sciales informed the student that, in fact, Wisconsin permits same-day voter registration. The young woman was so glad to hear this, Sciales added, that she not only promised to vote herself but volunteered to help Sunrise encourage others to vote as well.

“Young people proved in 2020 that we are and could be the bedrock of the Democratic Party,” said Sciales, “as long as our leaders invest in us.”

Whether enough young people vote Democratic in Tuesday’s midterms to prevent a Republican takeover of Congress remains to be seen, but Gen Z voters are clearly a force to be reckoned with. “I’m not sure if we will see a red wave or blue wave on November 8—but we will see a Gen Z wave,” said John Della Volpe, the polling director at the Institute for Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “Youth today vote at levels that far exceed millennials, Gen X, and baby boomers when they were under 30.” And Gen Z will only become a bigger share of the general electorate in the years ahead. The kids who were in middle school and high school at the time of Parkland shooting are now reaching voting age, noted Hogg, who added, “Our voting bloc is growing literally every single day.”

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