Voters under 30 shattered previous turnout numbers for their age group in the 2018 and 2020 elections. That overlooked reality bodes well for Democrats in the 2022 election -- but only if the party makes it a priority to connect with young voters and doesn't take them for granted.
That's the view of John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. Della Volpe, a leading expert on the opinions and influence of young Americans in the digital and social media age, told Raw Story that his research has found their power is underestimated by the political class.
Della Volpe pointed out a seldom-noted fact: that voters in the 18-to-29 age group turned out in the 2018 midterm elections in numbers that doubled the previous cycle. He credits young voters with having netted a game-changing 10 Congressional seats and 2% of the overall vote in that election.
That reversed a decades-long pattern of low turnout by young people, Della Volpe said, and was followed by just as impressive numbers in 2020, giving President Joe Biden even larger numbers of support that President Barack Obama received from young voters in 2008 and 2012.
But Della Volpe also believes that the well-documented stress and anxieties facing Generation Z also pose a challenge to Democrats: They need to show young people that their election has meant tangible results.
Della Volpe says Democrats do have one important weapon, and his name is Donald Trump. The twice-impeached last guy "pours gasoline" on the anxieties of Gen Z. That can be huge for Democrats in the next two election cycles, he says, but only if the party prioritizes young voters.
Della Volpe has a book coming out in January entitled, "Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America." Raw Story spoke to Della Volpe to discuss what his findings portend for the midterm elections. Here's a lightly edited version of the interview:
Q. Considering the title of your book, would you say Generation Z could be a hidden factor in the political process?
A. Definitely. I think that young people, sadly, are still underestimated by the political elite and the political pundits and Washington DC. I'm still surprised that people say, "yeah but young people don't vote." In 2018 young people doubled their expected turnout in the midterm elections, which netted democrats about 10 seats that they wouldn't have won. They added two percentage points to the Democrats' overall vote total, which is incredible given their relative size of this generation.
Q. And that continued in 2020?
A. Yes. They voted in historic numbers. It was the first time in modern exit poll history that a majority of people under 30 voted. More young people voted for Joe Biden in 2020 than they did in 2008 and 2012 when Obama had that great energy.
Q. But people still underestimate the impact of young voters?
A. Yes. And I don't know, frankly, what else they need to do.
Q. This is a recent development, isn't it?
A. Yes. From 1986 to 2014, you'll find that the percentage of young people voting was pretty consistent, with the average turnout of 18-to-29 years old's right around 15%. Then it went up to around 18% and then it doubled in the 2018 midterms.
Q. And you're finding that the increased numbers are helping Democrats?
A. Right. They supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 at the same rate they supported John Kerry in 2004--about 55% percent. But in this post-Trump era, they are far more likely to reject the current Republican Party, and vote for Democrats. That is, if Democrats make the case that they're listening and will engage them on their terms and issues that they care most about.
Q. Are there particular hot-button issues -- climate change or the like -- that you think need to be focused on?
A: I think before someone talks about a hot-button issue or two or three, Democrats need to need to continue to build trust in the system, which is very, very difficult to do. To really engage young people, you need to do two things: One, is they need to believe that the system can work, part one. And part two is that voting for, in this case the Democrat, can lead to some tangible change. It's a two-step process. Joe Biden did that very well in the summer of 2020 coming off George Floyd and reminding all of us --especially younger Americans -- that in the darkest times through our history America has done big things. And we can do that, but it's going to be this generation's responsibility to help us get there. That same kind of messaging has to be a significant part of the 2022 effort.
Q. Let's talk about what makes younger voters different. It's hard for most of us to imagine what it must have been like to have your first two presidents be Obama and Trump. Talk about whiplash.
A. I use those exact words.
Q. For young people who don't have memories of 911, something like the Capitol riot would seem to stand out even more than for the rest of us and have a disproportionate effect on them. Would younger people have identifiable views from the insurrection that might inform their voting in 2022 or 2024?
A. It's an excellent question. I can't tell you that I've done a lot of work around this event. However, what I know is that young people engage when they can see the tangible difference that politics can make. We can measure this in a variety of ways. One is through survey work, which is often a precursor to what's going to happen on election day. So, we saw this massive 15-point change before and after September 11 around the efficacy of political engagements. That continued to increase with the war and with Hurricane Katrina ultimately to the election of Obama. The difference it made kind of dissipated quite a bit because there was gridlock and there wasn't a lot that got done in the eyes of young people, who are quite impatient.
Q. Wonder what brought it back.
A. Yes, that all changed again in 911-like fashion during Trump's election. It doesn't matter whether you're Democrat or Republican, you could see the literal difference that politics can make. Border walls were going up, people were not allowed to come into the country, young people in cages, pulling out of the Paris accords and a variety of other things, Charlottesville, etcetera. Then you had the insurrection. These were tangible differences that leadership and politics can make. It that regard it's incredibly important and a motivator.
Q. Let's talk about Trump. When you consider how effective he has been as a demagogue with 40% of the population, why has been there such a failure to connect with younger people? It's obvious why he might be rejected by specific groups he targets -- or just by thinking people in general -- but what accounts for the disconnect with voters under 30? For example, why does his xenophobia just bounce off of them?
A: I think two or three things are just ingrained in young people. One is a sense of fairness in helping those who are vulnerable. They looked at Trump as a bully who doesn't help the vulnerable. And who in fact makes them more vulnerable. And I think they looked at fairness around his economic policy and whose taxes he chose to cut -- such as corporations -- and what it did to expand the gap between the very wealthy and everyone else. Those are very basic things that young people object to.
Q. It's a nice thing that they object. But they're the always-on generation, and I would think that being always on, they'd be more susceptible to accepting his coarseness and the meanness of his politics because there's so much of that online. You can a make a case that it should have cut in his favor because they might have been conditioned not to mind that. But they seemed to have rebelled it, haven't they?
A: Fortunately, they have. The summer after Trump got elected, I spent a lot of time on the road for my book, talking to young people. And I would say things like, "What does an older white guy not get about what it's like to be a 17-, 18- or 19-year-old?" They would talk about this fear and anxiety and stress that they had. Being young is challenging enough, but he's making it worse. And maybe not for them, but for people they care about. If they were blocked, if they were gay, if they were female, he made it worse. The anxiety continued to increase and those people who were most anxious and stressed out were more likely to vote in the midterm election. That was the response. Rather than listening to the fear and try to calm it, Trump just poured gasoline on it.
Gen Z voting power is underestimated and their disdain for Trump could sink the GOP in 2022 youtu.be