After a strong performance in the 2022 midterms and a progressive victory in the Wisconsin State Supreme Court election, Democratic leaders are still attempting to answer a key question: How do they maintain strong mobilization and engagement with young voters? For the Democratic party, the challenge of mobilizing this demographic represents both an existential challenge—and an opportunity.
The Center for American Progress projects that, by 2024, Gen Z-ers and Millennials will comprise more eligible voters than both Gen X-ers and Boomers, creating a ripe opportunity for Democrats to capitalize on America’s changing demographics. As a researcher of youth public opinion trends, I have heard many young people say voting rarely moves the needle on key policies. As a result, young people tend to stay home on election day.
If Democrats want to win among this growing demographic, they need to meet young voters where they are at—both in moments of accomplishment and struggle. That requires bridging communication gaps with young messengers they can relate to on the media platforms they use.
Addressing communication gaps
In 2020, opposition to Trump drove sporadically-voting young people to join the coalition of Americans who put President Biden back in the White House. However, today, those same young voters say they don’t see a return on their investment.
Herein lies Democrats’ chief dilemma: One of the top reasons young voters give for not voting is the perception that voting doesn’t translate to tangible impact. For instance, in a poll of college students, the top obstacle they cited as a barrier to voting was “the belief that voting doesn’t change anything” (41% chose this). This is a messaging problem more than a governing problem.
President Biden and the Democrats understand that young voters’ top priorities include issues like gun violence (43%) and climate change (31%), so they addressed them through several large and historic bills. The Safe Communities Act strengthened background checks and the Inflation Reduction Act put a $369 billion investment in clean energy. But when we talk to young voters, they don’t seem to know about them. In one focus group, 4 in 8 hadn’t heard of the IRA’s passage a month after it happened.
Getting messages like legislative accomplishments directly to young voters requires exploring new methods to break through the noise and resonate.
Breaking through the noise with young messengers
Reaching America’s youth may require Democrats to change their messengers.
Over the last few decades, Congress’s average age has increased. The average age in the Senate is 64 years; in the House, it’s 58 years. Such a gap partly explains the Democrats’ communication hurdle. Young people want voices that speak to the unique circumstances that have defined their lives. This is best done by other young people.
Instability and strife characterize the critical period of political socialization for many young voters. Millennials grew up during the Iraq War and the Great Recession, while Gen Z-ers came of age during the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd national protests. Young people respond better to young leaders who know what it’s like growing up with waning economic mobility or who came of age during a pandemic and marched for racial equality. 29% of college students said their top barrier to voting was disliking the candidates—young leaders who understand the Gen Z and Millennial experiences can more effectively connect with these voters.
Fully realizing the power of young voters necessitates giving young political organizers a seat at the table. Young leaders from movement organizations like March for Our Lives and Sunrise Movement should be invited into decision-making spaces. It gives Democrats effective policy messengers who also share young voters’ lived experiences and media habits.
Youth organizers put in the work to turn out their peers, in the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court race, centering the typically low-turnout race on a primary motivating issue for young voters: abortion. As a result, young voters surged to the polls, particularly on college campuses, and flipped control of the high court, enabling it to potentially strike down Wisconsin’s total abortion ban. When young organizers talk to young voters and show them how specific elections and candidates can tangibly make a change on issues they care about , young people show up.
A young leader with a blueprint
While the party struggles to break through the noise, one of Democrats’ brightest young stars has proven effective at doing just that. I often ask young voters in focus groups which politicians inspire them. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the most frequent response. She has built credibility with young voters by channeling their shared values and activism.
Ocasio-Cortez’s identity as a Millennial Puerto Rican woman reflects that of America’s youth, who are more diverse than any previous generation and for whom identity is politics. Her previous work as a bartender allows her to relate to the economic struggles of a generation defined by the Great Recession and limited upward mobility. Young people praise her for engaging in politics as most young people do: at protests and on social media.
Polling shows that the top source of information for Gen Z voters of color is social media posts. And Ocasio-Cortez proves adept at demystifying complex topics and communicating accomplishments in shareable digital formats. For instance, her easy-to-digest Twitter graphics (her Twitter and Instagram accounts have 13.4 million and 8.5 million followers, respectively) on the IRA’s climate investments can potentially reach more young voters than an MSNBC segment (primetime has on average 105,000 viewers ages 25-54).
Ocasio-Cortez also has a plan when there aren’t policy accomplishments on top issues to tout. For example, after the Dobbs decision, we presented young voters in focus groups with action items she promoted on social media, including opening abortion clinics on federal land. A young voter lauded it, saying, “That’s what I want. Here are the steps. That’s tangible.”
Additionally, Ocasio-Cortez’s combative tone about abortion access mirrors young voters’ attitudes. A poll of Gen Z and Millennial adults showed the top emotion they felt toward the Dobbs decision was anger (24%). AOC captured this defiance in a June 28, 2022 tweet, where she thumbed her nose at Republicans chastising her for showing her followers how to skirt abortion bans. And this past week, when a federal judge moved to suspend access to medication abortion, she called for the Biden administration to simply defy the judge.
The Biden Administration and Democrats have begun using some elements of Ocasio-Cortez’s playbook by meeting voters in the digital spaces where they spend their time. At the onset of the Russia-Ukraine War, the White House gathered 30 top TikTok stars to brief them on the conflict so they could relay accurate information to their young followers. And at the 2023 State of the Union, California Representative. Nanette Díaz Barragán brought Olivia Julianna, a strategist for the social media activist group Gen Z for Change, as her guest. Before his speech, Julianna tweeted a thank you to President Biden for American Rescue Plan Funding that helped put her through college. That tweet got more than 750,000 impressions—far more reach among young people than primetime cable.
Sustaining long-term political engagement with young people requires embracing relatable messengers who understand their generation’s struggles and inhabit the same digital and physical spaces. To break through the noise, this messaging must tangibly convey the direct impact of accomplishments on young voters’ top issues and channel the emotions they feel about those issues.
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