Resolute Square

Ring The Alarm

Young voters are more progressive than ever, but record 2020 turnout and support for Democrats in 2024 are far from guaranteed.
Credit: Anya Dillard/Wikimedia Commons
Published:June 22, 2023

This piece is published with the generous permission of John Della Volpe. To read more of his outstanding writing and analysis, visit JDVonGenZ+.

By John Della Volpe

The Backdrop

In the simplest terms, when the Democratic party nominee for president garners 60% of the youth vote, Democrats win. Otherwise, it’s ugly for them.

  • President Obama won 66% of 18–29-year-olds in 2008; in 2012, he earned 60%.
  • President Biden reached 60% in 2020;
  • But Vice President Gore (48%), Senator Kerry (55%), and Secretary Clinton (55%) each fell short.

Building from a foundation of:

  • Meaningfully increased levels of youth participation in midterm and presidential campaign cycles since 2018 (translation: Gen Zers and young millennials are out-voting geriatric millennials, Gen X, and baby boomers when they were young, and it’s not close);
  • Growing support for a progressive Democratic policy agenda (click here for details); and
  • Antipathy for the modern MAGA Republican party;

means there’s a tremendous opportunity for the national Democratic Party to build upon recent efforts and lock down the youth vote in 2024 and beyond. 

In 2020, President Biden flipped five battleground states in large part due to the combination of record-level turnout and youth support. Voters aged 45 and older chose Trump in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. President Biden won the under-30 cohort by roughly a 20-point margin and millennial voters in their 30s by high single digits.

In 2022, Democrats again lost voters over the age of 45it was near record level turnout and double-digit margins among Zoomers and millennials across nearly every battleground state that propelled Democratic Senate and House candidates.

However, despite the high youth engagement levels in the Trump/Zoomer era and support for a progressive agenda -- we must not assume that 2024 will yield the same results.

Nearly every sign that made me confident in historic levels of youth participation in 2018, 2020, and 2022 — is now flashing red. Twenty-plus years of directing the Harvard Youth Poll taught me that the ground is more fertile for voting when youth believe voting makes a tangible difference.

  • Between 2016 and 2018, there was a net 16-point shift in a positive direction around youth’s perceptions about the efficacy of politics. Turnout in the midterm elections increased by a corresponding 17 percentage points, from 16% to 33%.
  • In the time since 2018, however, there’s been a net 27 shift in the opposite direction which is an increasingly burdensome attitudinal barrier for campaigns and organizers to overcome.

And while there’s more than a year before even the party conventions take shape, daylight’s burning for a political party that needs youth to win today and maintain and grow an electoral edge in the years ahead.

Neon sign: Go Up And Never Stop
Photo by Fab Lentz on Unsplash

My Big Three Takeaways

While the 18-to-29-year-old youth cohort is becoming more progressive in their values, relative to Spring 2019, fewer are:

  • Likely to vote;
  • Identify as Democrats (or liberals);
  • Paying close attention to the political news; and
  • Likely to believe that politics is a meaningful way to create change in the system.

While all of this could change in the months ahead; none of this is good for the party in power. None of this is good for our democracy. Below I break it down by young Black, Hispanic, and white voters.

#1: Young Black men and women are turning away from their parents’ and grandparents’ party

While older Black voters in South Carolina are credited with delivering the nomination to Joe Biden in 2020, Democrats today find it significantly more challenging to engage and win over the younger Black electorate. In the last four years, the number of young Black men and women who identify as Democrats has declined a jaw-dropping 15 percentage points, from 64% to 49%. Less than half approve of the President’s job performance — and more than half question the efficacy of political engagement today. Moreover, the percentage of those likely to vote has declined from 50% in 2019 to 42% today.

#2: Republican efforts to woo young Hispanics from Democrats are showing early signs of success

In the last four years, Democrats have given up 10 points of their margin to Republicans in party ID among young Hispanic and Latino voters; what was once a 36-point margin (47% Democrats, 11% Republican) is now 26 points (41% Democrat, 15% Republican).

Like young Black Americans, this group is also less likely to vote than they were four years ago — as their disappointment in government and cynicism of the system is reaching peak levels and drowning out their belief in progressive government solutions.

#3: Compared to others, young white Americans are the least likely to be Democrats, and the most likely to vote

Even though white Zoomers and young millennials under 30 are decidedly more progressive on social issues — they’re also less likely to follow the news closely, less supportive of Democrats, and more motivated to vote than young people of color.

The Bottom Line

Democrats have had a lot of success lately; much of it despite brutal economic and historic headwinds. That’s good; they have earned it. We need to move on.

NOW is the time for Democrats to look in the mirror — and deep inside the crosstabs.

To secure the votes of Gen Z and younger millennials, who are principally driven by their values rather than transactional politics, the Democratic Party needs to:

  • Invest early and wisely. It must start in 2023, not 2024. These young voters cannot simply be viewed as a resource to be exploited in the weeks leading up to an election. Youth don't typically participate in reciprocal, exchange-based politics, making early and consistent engagement essential for the party's success.
  • Coordinate efforts up and down the ticket, from Party HQ to the grassroots. The urgency of appealing to youth — and doing so with an educated, values-based approach — should be an essential element of field, digital, media, and fundraising efforts in all 50 states and for every office.
  • Develop and adequately fund a specific communications and content program that addresses the core issues noted above and reaches young people where they are — out of home, on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, etc. This programming must be rooted in insight and guided by Gen Z — rather than repackaging content created for their parents.
  • Make young people an integral part of campaigns — in every area — including leadership, messaging, and organizing.

The stakes are too high for us to settle for anything less. Our future demands it.