It’s Friday, July 3, 2020. Election Day is 123 days away. Have questions, comments, or tips? Email me. Thanks for waking up to politics!
Editor’s note: Wake Up To Politics will be taking a short summer break to recharge over the next few weeks. The podcast will also be on hiatus until August, although it’s a great opportunity to catch up on old episodes you might have missed! I hope you all have a happy Fourth of July and I will see you back in your inboxes before long!
But first, in today’s newsletter: A deep dive into Generation Z and the 2020 election...
Special Report: Gen Z poised to play critical role in 2020 race
Political organizing is nothing new for members of Generation Z.
They have marched for gun control and climate action. In recent weeks, they have organized mass protests for racial justice and even gained attention by signing up for tickets to President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa, only to inflate the expected turnout and leave the seats empty.
This election cycle, roughly 24 million members of the rising generation — which comprises those born since 1996 — will be eligible to cast ballots in the 2020 election, many for the first time. So the question on the minds of many political operatives is: will they turn out to vote?
Comprising about one-tenth of the electorate, Gen Z could be a potent political force in November. And experts say they are already primed to take advantage of that influence. “Young people are really, in what we’re seeing, seizing their power at the moment,” said Abby Kiesa, the director of impact at Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which studies political engagement among young people.
A leading factor seeming to drive political engagement among members of Generation Z: “a very general dissatisfaction that young people have with the status quo of America’s political institutions,” explained Cathy Sun, a rising junior who chairs the Harvard Public Opinion Project (HPOP).
Harvard’s most recent “Youth Poll” found just 8% of 18- to 29-year-olds “believe that the country is working as it should be,” a bipartisan condemnation of the systems of government handed down to them by adults. Those feelings have only hardened in recent weeks, amid racial unrest and a worsening pandemic, which Kiesa called “a giant civic lesson for some people.”
But rather than leading to disengagement, this rising sense of dissatisfaction seems to be fueling political activity for young Americans.
Or, as 18-year-old Jonah Gottlieb put it bluntly: “Young people are getting involved out of desperation.”
In the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders far outpaced former Vice President Joe Biden among young voters, offering a program of systemic change that appealed to their widespread dissatisfaction. Gottlieb is one of those young former Sanders supporters; he now leads the National Children’s Campaign, which seeks to place youth issues at the center of the political conversation.
“Me and my team wouldn’t be spending our childhoods analyzing bills and planning virtual bus tours to educate voters about climate change if we didn’t realize how bad everything was,” Gottlieb said.
According to a CIRCLE survey released this week, 83% of young people believe they have “the power to change the country.” 50% of those surveyed were trying to convince their peers to vote, 29% had donated to political campaigns, and 27% had participated in marches or demonstrations this year; each metric was a marked increase from 2018, which was itself a historic election year for youth engagement.
“There’s this myth of apathy out there that just gets recycled,” Kiesa, the CIRCLE researcher, said. “And when you really look at the data, not only are young people engaged, but there are so many ways that young people are actually affecting elections in addition to voting.”
Recent events have also reshuffled the top priorities for young people, CIRCLE found. While climate change remains the top concern for young Americans, their survey found, racism and health care have risen to a tie for second place — likely a reflection of the protests and pandemic that have become chief parts of the daily reality for many young people.
“We’re fearful for what’s happening in America right now. At the same time, we’re optimistic for the alternative that we can achieve together,” said Katie Henitz, a rising sophomore who is also involved with the Harvard Youth Poll, summarizing the opinions they had unearthed in their surveys.
As the 2020 general election approaches, CIRCLE found broad support for Biden against Trump: 58% of young people said they back the Democratic nominee, while 24% support the incumbent president. But, even if they support him against Trump, only 28% of those surveyed said they approve or strongly approve of Biden.
The former vice president, Gottlieb said, “has a long way to go to truly being a champion on [youth issues] who’s going to be doing the most good for our generation.”
He also expressed frustration with the Biden campaign’s outreach to youth voters, explaining that his and other aligned groups had repeatedly tried reaching out to the campaign to begin a dialogue. “So far, we haven’t gotten any traction at all,” Gottlieb said.
That isn’t to say there aren’t some Biden stans among Generation Z. Eli Moog, the 16-year-old national co-chair of “High Schoolers for Biden,” said hundreds of students have already signed up to join his group, which is an official arm of the Biden campaign’s broader youth coalition, “League 46.”
“Yeah, I understand that there were more younger people that were supporting other candidates [in the primaries],” Moog acknowledged. “But I think that [Biden] has done so much outreach and made clear that he wants to earn their votes. And I think he is earning their votes.”
“Joe Biden is a leader who knows that young Americans are going to be critical to the success of his campaign,” spokesman Matt Hill promised.
But Trump’s most ardent young backers spy a vulnerability, saying the president’s youth support is much more enthusiastic than Biden’s. “He’s the pop culture president. He’s somebody that attracts young people. He’s funny. He’s hip. He gets the job done,” Students for Trump national field director Austin Smith, 25, argued. “Young people are not stupid. They like that kind of stuff. They like somebody that’s real with them. And Donald Trump is real with them. And you don’t get that with Joe Biden.”
Smith rejected the substantial polling that shows Trump trailing among young voters. “The pollsters get it wrong every time. The consultants are getting it wrong every time,” he said. “Now things are changing. And we’re exactly where we need to be.”
“If young Americans want the freedom to live the life they choose, opportunity to succeed, more money in their pockets, and a safe and strong America – they want President Donald J. Trump,” re-election campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso said.
Reached for comment about the campaign’s youth outreach, Farnaso appended his statement with reams of statistics attesting to the “Trump digital advantage.” Caitlin Gilbert, a co-director of the Biden Digitial Coalition (which operates outside of the campaign), similarly argued that digital efforts — such as the TikTok “hype house” her group has set up to rally Biden support — are an important step to reaching young voters because “more of their life is online and they’ve lived their lives online” to a greater extent than many adults.
However, Gottlieb, the youth activist and former Sanders supporter, cautioned campaigns against simply equating digital outreach with youth outreach. “There are the campaigns that just think, if I get a TikTok or make some dead meme on Instagram or something like that, then they just get the youth vote, and that is just inherently untrue,” he said.
“A young person isn’t just going to get out of bed on Election Day and go to the polls in the middle of a pandemic because they like your social media. They’re only going to do it if they think you’re going to improve their lives.”
Heintz, the Harvard Youth Poll leader, said Biden’s campaign was jeopardizing youth support by “excluding young people on his policy-based ads.”
“He’s [targeting adults] on the ads that he runs talking about policy, and he brings [young people] back in on the fluffier, soft ads, which is something I think someone’s probably told him that that’s the move,” she said. “But based on our results, I would say we’re worth more than that. We care about the substance a lot. So we want to see those ads also.”
“I want the ones where we talk about policy and not just signing the birthday card or whatever it is.”
For Biden or Trump — and for other candidates up and down the ballot — convincing young voters to turn out to the polls in November could be the difference between victory and defeat. And considering it is a demographic with historically underwhelming turnout, even a small increase in 2020 — not out of the realm of possibility due to the recent uptick in political engagement — has the potential to swing elections.
“In some of these states,” Kiesa said, “they will be the deciders, we think. They should not be taken for granted at all on either side.”
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