The report is based on research from the Walton Family Foundation, education advocacy nonprofit Murmuration, and public opinion research firm SocialSphere. Its goal was to gather insights and information for those who want to figure out how to appeal to Gen Z voters, which it designates as youth aged 15 to 25.
“I think the overall theme of this suite of research that we’re doing on this project is that a lot of people talk about Gen Z, but they don’t talk to Gen Z,” John Della Volpe, founder and CEO of SocialSphere and director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, told the Capital-Star.
“People in my position, pollsters, think about messages to engage with Gen Z. But for them it’s about values, not messages, and not transactions. So there has to be alignment on values. And honestly, that is the biggest opportunity Democrats have and the biggest challenge that Republicans have,” he said.
The research began in May, with three big town-hall style groups in Houston, Atlanta, and Columbus, and two smaller groups in Arkansas. It also included national surveys of 3,805 people between 15 and 25, and about 1,108 people over 25. A second national survey in late August polled high-schoolers, and a third round included interviews conducted in the days and weeks after the November midterm elections.
Among Gen Z voters, 33% said they wished they’d had more information about candidates before voting. Seventy-eight percent of Gen Z voters considered it important to address systemic racism, and 29% said abortion and reproductive rights were the issue they were most concerned about when they voted in the 2022 midterms.
Rachel Janfaza, a freelance journalist and fellow with the Walton Family Foundation, conducted listening sessions included in the research. She also conducted election day exit polling with Gen Z voters in Philadelphia.
“One of the things that stood out to me was just this idea that young people are craving more information about the candidates who are on their ballot, the initiatives that are on their ballot,” Janfaza said. “And while there is a lot of talk about ‘go vote, go local,’ that oftentimes gets lost on young people who are like, ‘well, what am I voting for? Or who am I voting for?’ They really want more information, and some of them even said they refrained from voting because they didn’t have enough information and they didn’t want to make an uninformed decision.”
And this cohort showed up in significant numbers in those midterms, bucking the conventional wisdom that young people don’t vote: A Tufts University report on exit polls found an estimated 27% of voters age 18-29 cast ballots, the second-highest turnout of that demographic in the past three decades.
But not all of them love the “Gen Z” label, her research found.
“The term Gen Z has been stigmatized in a way,” a student at Dover High School in Delaware told her. “Especially older generations see [someone in] Gen Z as someone who is too sensitive or you can’t say anything to them because they’ll always get offended,” she said.
Janfaza said many of the young people she interviewed spoke eloquently about issues that are directly affecting their lives, such as fear of gun violence, the climate crisis, wanting access to reproductive healthcare, college affordability or housing.
“You name it, it runs the gamut,” she said. “But they’re able to very succinctly point out these issues and how they’re directly impacting them. And yet, aren’t necessarily always making the links to how and if these issues are going to be affected by the candidates who are on their ballot.”
Gen Z voters speak about wanting to see change, she added, but don’t necessarily see voting as the vehicle for that change.
“There’s a lot of talk about democracy that I think falls flat for our generation,” one 20-year-old student organizer at Georgia Tech said, adding she hopes for “Americans to have the power to change the things in their everyday lives for the better and not a political system that essentially just stands in the way of all that.”
The top issue on the minds of Gen Z voters?
“Overwhelmingly in our conversations we talked about gun violence,” Janfaza said, adding it wasn’t restricted to young people in classrooms.
In the Philadelphia conversations, almost every young woman she spoke to said the issue driving them to the polls was reproductive health care and women’s rights, Janfaza told the Capital-Star.
“They wanted to elect someone, especially for the governor’s seat, who was going to make sure that there was access,” she said. There was also a focus on gun violence. “Some of the people I spoke with in Philadelphia said this area has increasingly become more dangerous when it comes to daily incidents of shootings. And that was very palpable.”
The researchers also found that while yes, Gen Z gets a lot of information from social media, it isn’t enough for politicians to make a few TikTok videos and call it a day. Candidates need to meet young people where they are, both online and in person.
“Governor [Josh] Shapiro was all over college campuses,” during the campaign, Janfaza noted. “And I think that made a big difference. I spoke with a lot of young people in Pennsylvania in the lead up to the election who said when they saw him on campus, it was like, ‘Whoa, you know, he’s actually here.’ And they felt like she was listening to them. I think that that’s something that across the country, young people are really craving from their elected officials.”
And authenticity from candidates is crucial for this voting cohort, Della Volpe added.
“So be on TikTok if you’re authentically comfortable on TikTok, right? That’s how they poked fun at [GOP Senate candidate Mehmet] Oz. Remember the ‘crudite’?” Della Volpe said, referring to Mehmet Oz’s widely-mocked video where he tried to illustrate the high cost of groceries by describing a tray of vegetables as “crudite.”.
The way Gen Z thinks about the issues in politics is different than the way millennials and other earlier generations did, Della Volpe said.
“There’s an urgency that I didn’t recognize in millennials.” Much of it has to do with the fact that Gen Z are seeing first-hand the effects of climate change, and what it looks like to have reproductive rights stripped away, issues that may have felt a bit more abstract to earlier generations. “It is a concrete, tangible connection between a policy and an outcome.”
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