What Are Young Voters Looking For?

Want to ruin a Democratic strategist’s New Year? Bring up President Biden’s popularity problem with younger voters.

The strategist may start furiously tap-dancing about this outreach plan or that policy achievement. But she has seen the polling trend line. She has heard the focus groups. She knows that millennials and Gen Z-ers are not feeling the Biden love. Many are threatening to sit out next year’s election. Some are flirting with supporting Donald Trump — or a third-party rando.

And even if only a few of them follow through, the president and his party could be in big trouble. Americans younger than 45 have saved the Democrats from disaster in multiple recent elections. Their creeping alienation has the blue team rattled and raging: For the love of God, what will it take to lock in these voters?!

This is not a new question. The political world, especially the Democratic Party, has long been in search of the secret formula for wooing younger voters to the polls. Strategists noodle over which issues members of this cohort care about, which candidates they connect with, how best to reach them. In 1994, Bill Clinton ventured onto MTV and overshared about his underwear in an effort to impress the young ’uns. Now that is desperation.

Spoiler: There is no secret formula. Or rather, there is a whole host of formulas with scores of constantly shifting variables. Millennials and Gen Z-ers don’t just expect different things from candidates than do older voters; they approach the entire concept of voting differently, generally in ways that make them harder to persuade and mobilize.

The people who obsess about this issue for a living can overwhelm you with data and analysis, competing priorities and suggestions. Even the bits they think they have figured out can abruptly shift. (Just when some thought they had a solid grip on this election, along came the war in Gaza.) All that, of course, is on top of the concrete systemic challenges of getting younger people registered for, informed about and comfortable with voting in general.

As a close friend who spent years neck deep in the political weeds of cultivating younger voters observed, “The big theme is that there is no theme.”

And yet there are a few recurring subthemes that bubble up when you talk with the professionals and with the younger voters themselves. These insights won’t crack the turnout code. Or necessarily save Mr. Biden’s presidency. But they do shed light on some of the more amorphous reasons younger Americans are so hard to turn out — and can maybe even point a way forward.

“The No. 1 rule when you’re talking about young people: They may be progressive, but they are not Democrats,” warned Joshua Ulibarri, a partner with the Democratic polling firm Lake Research Partners. “They don’t turn out for parties.”

Younger Americans may vote more Democratic than their elders, but that does not mean they want to join the team. And while their politics are generally to the left of the party’s center of gravity, this isn’t merely a matter of ideology.

“Parties are institutions, and Gen Z-ers aren’t really into institutions,” said Morley Winograd, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy at the University of Southern California. The research on Gen Z-ers indicates they have little trust in most major U.S. institutions, and it’s hard to get more establishment or institutional than a political party. Certainly among the Gen Z-ers I know (I have kids, and they have friends), maintaining their independence from and skepticism of a compromised political establishment they feel is not working for them is a point of pride.

Today’s hyperpartisan system, with its Manichaean mentality, can make parties even more unappealing for younger voters, said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, whose specialty is younger voters. “They are not willing to take that responsibility to have to defend one party and create an enemy of the other.”

And definitely don’t expect them to be moved by appeals to help a party take control of Congress or even the White House, Mr. Ulibarri said.

Younger voters also are less inclined to turn out simply because they like a candidate’s personality. Now and then, one comes along who inspires them (think Barack Obama) or, alternatively, outrages them enough to make them turn out in protest (think Donald Trump). But more often they are driven by issues that speak to their lives, their core values or, ideally, both.

The most outstanding current example of this is the issue of abortion rights, which has emerged as a red-hot electoral force since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. Younger voters express anxiety about the practical repercussions of this decision and fury at the government intrusion into people’s personal lives. The issue has a clarity, immediacy and tangibility that appeal to younger voters. This is especially true when it appears as a stand-alone ballot initiative.

Younger voters’ focus on issues and values rather than candidates and parties raises the question of whether ballot initiatives could be a way to engage them and propel them to the polls. Supporting such measures is more straightforward than embracing candidates. Plus, they have the advantage of not being (or at least not seeming) as entangled with a particular party. They have more of a direct-democracy vibe. (Please refer to: Institutions suck.) How much more satisfying is it to vote for an issue you are passionate about than for some flawed politician with a fake smile making promises you’re pretty sure he won’t keep?

Supporting a candidate, any candidate, means accepting that person’s foibles and flaws along with the good parts. It requires balancing multiple concerns and priorities. And the longer the candidate’s record in public office, the more variables there are to consider. Just take the example currently giving the Biden campaign the worst nightmares: For progressives, at what point does Mr. Biden’s handling of Gaza outweigh his embrace of, say, combating climate change or protecting abortion access or supporting labor unions? What if the only alternative is another Trump term?

For younger voters who reject the team mentality of party voting, these equations get complicated and frustrating — often frustrating enough to just skip voting altogether. When researchers ask younger people why they don’t vote, one of the top responses, if not the top one, is: I didn’t feel I knew enough about the candidates.

Part of younger voters’ disenchantment may be wrapped up in the nature of progressivism. Younger voters tend to be more progressive than older ones, and progressives, by definition, want government to do more, change more, make more progress. You often hear variations on: Sure, the president did ABC, but what we really need is DEFGHIJXYZ. Or: This climate initiative/health care plan/caregiving investment/pick your policy achievement doesn’t go nearly far enough.

This is not to suggest that Mr. Biden hasn’t racked up some notable missteps (Afghanistan!) and failed promises (the student debt mess). But expectations are an inextricable factor. Harvard’s Theda Skocpol refers to “the presidential illusion” among those on the political left, the longstanding idea that the president is a sort of political Svengali and that federal leadership can counter conservatism in states and localities. When reality sets in, these supporters are not shy about expressing their disappointment.

Of course, most voting in America calls for choosing between candidates, in all their messy imperfection. Younger voters are less likely than older ones to have resigned themselves to this, to have curbed their expectations and idealism. So where does all this leave campaigns and, trickier still, parties desperate to win over younger voters?

Younger voters need to be reminded of the concrete changes their votes can effect. Because of the 2020 election, the Biden administration has pushed through a major investment in fighting climate change; billions of dollars for infrastructure are flowing into communities, including rural, economically strapped areas; the first African American woman was appointed to the Supreme Court; many judges from notably diverse professional backgrounds have been placed on the lower courts, and so on.

The dark corollary to this is detailing the explicit damage that can be done if young people opt out, an especially pressing threat with Mr. Trump on the vengeance trail. Separating migrant children from their parents at the southern border, stacking the Supreme Court with abortion-hostile justices, effectively declaring war on science — these were the fruits of the Trump administration. And that’s before you get to his persistent assault on democracy. Think of it all as his practice run, then imagine where another four years could take us.

The key is figuring out and effectively communicating the right balance of positive and negative partisanship for the moment, said Mr. Della Volpe, stressing, “The recipe for 2020 will not be the same as 2024.”

Another basic step: Candidates need to make clear that they understand and share younger voters’ values, even if they have different plans for working toward realizing their goals. Strategists point to the shrewd decision by Team Biden, after Senator Bernie Sanders dropped out of the 2020 primary contest, to form working groups with Mr. Sanders’s team, stressing their shared values. Connecting elections to something that resonates with younger voters — that is meaningful to their lives — is vital, said Abby Kiesa, the deputy director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a research group at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life that focuses on youth civic engagement. Issue groups can play a useful role in this, she said.

Most broadly, everyone from interest groups to parties to candidates needs to push the message that a democratically elected government can still achieve big things. This goes beyond any specific bill or appointee. Younger Americans aren’t convinced that government can make meaningful progress. Some days it is hard to blame them. But this cynicism has terrible implications for democracy, and all of us would do well to fight it.

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