Higher young voter turnout in midterms changes approach to major political issues

This midterm cycle, young voters turned out in historic numbers and helped Democrats stave off the Republican red wave. They were still a small portion of the electorate, but voters under 30 have shown increased participation in the last few elections. John Della Volpe of the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and Victor Shi of Strategy for Voters of Tomorrow joined John Yang to discuss.

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  • William Brangham:

    This midterm cycle, young voters turned out in historic numbers and helped deliver Democrats some key victories in toss-up states.

    John Yang has more.

  • John Yang:

    Analysts say Gen Z and millennial voters played a key role in the midterm elections to help Democrats stave off the Republican red wave. While they're a relatively small portion of the electorate, voters under 30 have shown increased participation in the last few elections and supported Democratic candidates by bigger margins than ever before.

    Two voices to talk about this voting bloc.

    John Della Volpe is director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. He's the author of "Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America." And Victor Shi, he's a student at UCLA and director of strategy for Voters of Tomorrow, a nonpartisan Gen Z-centered civics advocacy group.

    Gentlemen, thanks to you both for joining us.

    John Della Volpe, I'd like to start with you.

    How big a difference did these voters make in the midterms?

    John Della Volpe, Director of Polling, Institute of Politics, Harvard University: Thanks for having us.

    I think they made all the difference, John. Let me break it down for your pretty simply. When you think about Gen Z, and you add in millennials, OK, those are essentially two generations of voters who have a similar set of values, they voted for Democrats by 18 points, OK, plus-18 for Democrats, the under-40 vote, 59-41.

    Republicans won the over-40 vote, which, as you said, is much larger, by 10 points. So, if not for Gen Z, and the combination of Gen Z and millennials, I do think we have that red wave that so many people were expecting. Gen Z, specifically the people under 30, increased their level of participation relative to the average, increase their support for Democrats, and made all the difference in the world a couple of weeks ago.

  • John Yang:

    And are there particular races where this was key, John/

  • John Della Volpe:

    Yes, I will give you a couple of different examples, and one of which is Pennsylvania, a very, very close race.

    The under-30 cohort supported John Fetterman at 70 percent, 70 percent for Fetterman among the 18-to-29 group. When you go look out West to Arizona as another example, Mark Kelly won this cohort by 50 points. I think the reason that the Democrat Senator Cortez Masto won in Nevada was similar enthusiasm among young people. She won a double-digit victory.

    I think her final number, according to the exit polls, was in the mid-60s. And I think we saw higher turnout than we normally did even relative to 2018 in Nevada. So those are three very, very quick examples of some of the tighter races that tipped because of younger people.

    But, real quick, John, this isn't the first cycle that we have seen. This happened in 2018. And it also happened in 2020. So this should not be a surprise.

  • John Yang:

    Victor Shi, what's motivating you and voters like you, voters your age, and why are so many breaking for Democrats?

    Victor Shi, Voters of Tomorrow: So the biggest thing that we're seeing in terms of just having conversations with young people and some of the polling that we have seen among young people leading up to the election is the Dobbs decision and overturning Roe vs. Wade, because, at the end of the day, that was the first time that young people, who thought that abortion would be a guaranteed right in their life, was overturned by the Supreme Court.

    And then, all along the way, you also saw Republicans engaging in really a sustained effort to attack our lives, starting with abortion, then going into classrooms, controlling what we can say about racial conversations, doing LGBTQ stuff.

    So all of these things, I think, contribute to this overwhelming sense among young people that Republicans don't really care about our lives. And so that's one hand. And, on the other hand, you also have Democrats delivering for a lot of the things that young people care about, things like climate change, things like education reform, things like making sure that we have racial justice with the pardoning of people who have simple marijuana possession.

    So I think it was this really clear contrast between both parties, one that cared about us and one that didn't. And I think that's why you saw a lot of young people turn out overwhelmingly for Democrats in this election cycle.

  • John Yang:

    John Della Volpe, I want to go back to the point you just made, that this is the third straight election where you have seen this.

    For so long before, youth — young voters were seen, and also in the turnout, were unreliable, as compared to the older voters. What — why the change? Why the shift?

  • John Della Volpe:

    I think that's — yes, that's a fair assessment.

    So, when Baby Boomers were young voters, when Gen X were young voters, and when millennials were young voters, they voted at roughly half the level as this generation of Gen Z. And two things happened, I think, John, in 2018. The combination of President Trump's election, on the heels of President Obama, showed how relevant politics can be in the lives of young people. That's one.

    People began to pay attention and to see the tangible difference, part one. The second part, though, is on the heels of the tragedy of Parkland and the work that those young people did to call attention to the epidemic of school shootings, to mobilize folks, to register, and to make sure that they voted.

    The combination of those two factors, I believe, basically kind of awakened the civic spirit within Gen Z. The first time they could vote was 2018. We saw a similar effect in 2020. And now again it's carrying over. So politics is very, very meaningful for this generation.

  • John Yang:

    And, John Della Volpe, are they going to continue to be important in the 2024 elections and beyond?

  • John Della Volpe:

    Well, John, like we said, we now have two generations who essentially have the same values, OK, Millennials and Gen Z. Gen Z are slightly more progressive than millennials. But, together, they overwhelmingly support Democrats.

    Together, John, they will be 40 percent of the electorate in 2024. So, as Victor said, the time of, like, ignoring or actually not taking seriously or even mocking young people, that needs to be over if you're seeking to win a national election.

  • John Yang:

    And, Victor Shi, are we seeing — are you seeing your peers doing more than just voting? Are they organizing? We now have a Gen Z member of Congress next January.

    Are more running for office and being more active than just voting?

  • Victor Shi:


    So, you — basically, with Gen Z'ers and young people in general, what you saw with us that made us such a unique generation before this election and before 2020 was that we weren't afraid to go to the streets and protest and make our voices heard. You saw that with protests like the climate change movement. You saw that with the Black Lives Matter movement. You saw that with the women's march, just so many young people going out to the streets and making their voices heard.

    At the same time, you saw a lot of young people go register to vote and actually vote starting in 2018, like John said. But what made this election so special, compared to previous elections, was that you saw a historic number of Gen Z'ers actually run for office. And that was just pretty remarkable.

    Not only that, though. You saw historic number of Gen Z'ers actually went off it. So I'm thinking of people, like you said, Maxwell Frost, who is going to be the first Gen Z'er from a state like Florida, going to Congress and representing Gen Z there. But you also have Gen Z'ers running across the country down-ballot.

    Someone like Nabeela Syed from my home state, Illinois, is going to be the first member of the Illinois state legislature who is Gen Z. And so all across the country, what you're seeing from Gen Z'ers isn't just the reality that we're going out to the streets and protesting, but we're also going out there and voting and running for office and actually winning office.

    And that's going to translate into some real tangible differences for Gen Z'ers and what we care about.

  • John Yang:

    And talk about the difference that this is going to make or that you want, you hope it will make as your generation and millennials remain important to politically — what do you want to see happen? What do you want to see come from that?

  • Victor Shi:

    So, representation really matters.

    And having someone who is of kind of similar life experiences, who understands the concerns of Generation Z is going to be really important when we think about what policies we want to get passed, things like gun reform, things like more bold action climate change. All of those things are going to really matter with more Gen Z'ers in Congress, and I think what we're going to see a lot of kind of what's going to happen with the policies that get passed from the federal level and state level.

    At the same time, I think it's just important for young people too to look at their institutions and government and see someone who actually looks like us, someone who is young, someone who is vibrant, who might be diverse. And so I think it's going to be great in terms of just kind of looking at politics and being inspired and actually being civically empowered, but also into tangible policy differences too.

  • John Yang:

    Victor Shi of Voters of Tomorrow and a student at UCLA, John Della Volpe at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, gentlemen, thank you both very much.

  • Victor Shi:

    Thanks so much.

  • John Della Volpe:

    Thank you.

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