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Young Americans Are Stressed. They Are Angry. And They Can Swing Congress.

  • May 16, 2022

With Gen Xers in their 40s and 50s turning more conservative, and Hispanic Americans more aptly described today as a swing vote than a reliable Democratic-voting bloc, maintaining historic levels of participation and securing a 60 percent youth vote threshold is no longer a “nice to have” but an indispensable component of Democratic competitiveness in this moment.

Younger Americans are a notoriously tricky population for anyone to reach; the challenge for government and politicians is even more significant as a growing number choose to turn away from the daily news for their mental wellness. Instead, they prefer to “check in” at specific points throughout the year. The State of the Union was one such moment when youth viewership increased; commencement season is another such opportunity.

Building on the substantial youth participation from the last midterm election is no easy feat. When baby boomers, Gen Xers, and older millennials were under 30, they often voted at roughly half the level that Gen Zers did in 2018. By understanding the drivers of Gen Z’s and young millennials’ hopelessness, and the circumstances that have shaped their worldview, Democrats will empower young voters and continue to reshape the electorate.

The best chance for Democrats’ success in the Senate starts with three states where younger Americans already have higher-than-average voter registration rates:

  • Pennsylvania, where John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor who was once dubbed “America’s coolest mayor” in an earlier role, is the favorite to win the party’s nomination for Senate in Tuesday’s primary;

  • North Carolina, where Cheri Beasley, who was the first Black woman to serve as the state’s Supreme Court chief justice, is the front-runner in her Senate primary, also being held Tuesday;

  • and Wisconsin, where Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican and an increasingly unpopular misinformation peddler, is seeking his third term.

In Arizona and Georgia, young African Americans and other voters of color played critical roles in 2020 and 2021 and can do so again — but the challenge for Democrats is steeper. The Phoenix and Atlanta regions are suffering the highest rates of inflation in the country, putting even more pressure on the incumbent Democratic senators up for re-election, Mark Kelly of Arizona and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, to prioritize young voters and speak to their values.

Capturing three tossup House seats in California, including one once held by Devin Nunes, as well as winning or holding youth-friendly seats in Washington State, Iowa, Maine and Colorado, are among the best shots for Democrats to mobilize young voters in hopes of hanging on to the House in November.

Gen Z and young millennials hold the fate of Congress in their hands. Their message to all of us is clear: the systems we have built cannot meet the challenges of our times and guarantee even basic rights to many of its people. Young voters are stressed. They are angry. In 2018 and 2020, they elected Democrats but in 2022 they need to see more before they commit with similar zeal again.

The pathway is narrow, but the race is far from over.

John Della Volpe (@dellavolpe) is the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and has overseen its Youth Poll since 2000, and the author of “Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America.” He was a pollster for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020.

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