Young voters will become more important than ever when 2020 rolls around. In their effort to not simply win the presidency, but also defeat the most polarizing and nefarious president in recent history, Democrats will have to not only get young people on their side but also convince them to turn out to vote.
The concept of the “generation” is, at its core, fallacious; it doesn’t really capture as much as we think it does. However, this is not to say that targeting generations of voters is not a viable political strategy. Most of us, including politicians, think of the “generation” as being a useful marker for age-based trends and ideology. And, as with most phenomena, its accuracy is less important than how useful people feel the “generation” to be.
According to the Pew Research Center, in the 2020 elections, members of the “Millenial” and “Generation Z” generations will make up 37% of all eligible voters. Whether or not their members actually turn out to vote is, of course, another story. But, what is blatantly clear is that the 23 hopefuls for the Democratic ticket need to woo Generation Z. So, for each of the top six polling candidates, I have broken down their strategies to attract young voters and how appealing each candidate it is to my generation.
Bernie Sanders – Baby Boomer
Bernie Sanders is, perhaps, an unexpected magnet for my generation. He is 77 years old, and isn’t even registered with the Democratic party (he’s an independent, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist). But, that’s his charm. He’s an outspoken, Jewish Brooklynite – a refreshing breath of air from other Democratic politicians who seem overly polished in their rhetoric, and overly friendly with Wall Street. And, he is the most politically left of the candidates, appealing to progressive young voters.
In the 2016 Democratic primary, he successfully leveraged Facebook and text messaging and was the favorite Democratic candidate among young people, though he ultimately lost the nomination. His policies are attractive to Gen Z and they are also fleshed out and comprehensive, including a free college program and a plan to make the national minimum wage $15. Sanders has also been a long-time advocate for climate justice and is fundamentally a grassroots organizer – what prototypical liberal Gen Z’er doesn’t love that?
Sanders has tweeted: “We cannot accept our younger generation having a lower standard of living than their parents, but that is where we are headed.” This is where most of his rhetoric stems from, and the notion that a politician might cater to the future of Gen Z is enormously appealing. Even though Sanders is, himself, of an older generation, he knows how to effectively tap into the economic insecurities and generational anger that many Gen Z’ers possess.
He further applies this rhetoric to specific policy items. At a town hall arranged for college students to question candidate, Sanders stated: “My campaign speaks to the idealism of young people who understand that we are not where we should be.” He also mentioned reinvesting the $80 billion spent on criminal justice in education and jobs for young folks.
This is not to say that Sanders has been all-things-perfect for my generation. He has been criticized for a lack of diversity in his staff and there have been numerous claims from women who worked on his 2016 campaign that they were paid less than their male counterparts, both of which may cause young Sanders supporters to think a second time about who will be getting their votes.
Beto O’Rourke – Generation X
Beto exploded in popularity following a 2018 Senate race in which he narrowly lost to Senator Ted Cruz ®. He seems to be doing a pretty good job of capturing the minds and hearts of Gen Z despite struggling in the polls. In his senate race, Beto captured 71% of voters under 30 and he is looking to capitalize on that momentum moving forward on the national stage.
A major magnet for Gen Z attention, Beto keeps an Instagram account on which he doesn’t just show up to campaign rallies, but he also rummages through vintage record stores, supports LGBTQIA+ communities, and takes photos with dogs in patriotic garb. He (and his social media team) have figured out what type of images Gen Z’ers like to see – an intelligent mix of political messaging and humanizing content – and he uses the platform with immense efficacy.
And it’s not just his youthfulness and command over social media that attract his Gen Z followers. Beto has heavily promoted his climate change plan; he was also the first 2020 Democratic candidate to release an actual comprehensive policy on the matter. On Twitter, he posted a video to promote the plan, saying: “We will ensure we are at net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by the year 2050, and that we are halfway there by 2030.” According to a Deloitte survey, Gen Zers and millennials uniformly care about climate change more than any other policy item, with the climate justice movement in large part being led by students, so Beto’s prescience on the matter is immensely attractive.
Young people also seem drawn to Beto’s grassroots approach to politics. “Beto is funded 100% by the people. No PACs, no lobbyists no Special Interest groups, no corporations, none of it, “ the account “Gen Z for Beto” tweeted.
Beto’s punk-rock background and youthful charm haven’t been able to overcome the name brand nostalgia of Biden and Sanders in the polls, however. And, he has been unable to bring the same mass momentum to his presidential run as he created in his senate race, enjoying his share of gaffs on the way. So, we will have to wait and see whether Beto can effectively tap into the national spirit the way he did last year.
Elizabeth Warren – Baby Boomer
Senator Warren seems like she should appeal to progressive voters of my generation based solely on her policies. She has a comprehensive free college plan. Her campaign has reached out to college students living in early primary states like New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina. She supports the Green New Deal, which was endorsed by the youth-climate justice movement Sunrise. She is the only candidate who has indicated they will take on the fight to reform social security, usually considered a taboo in political campaigns. She has been an ardent fighter for gun reform. Besides Sanders, her policies are the most socialist in nature in the field.
But, she seems to be gaining less attention from my generation, or at least the way in which the media captures Gen Z, than her fellow nominees. She does have active social media accounts, so while they might not capture the attention of young people as viscerally as Beto’s do, her team is trying to Gen Z and millennial voters. Whether the lack of enthusiasm from my generation is because people do not believe she will be able to beat Trump in an election, whether it’s because of ineffective marketing strategies, or whether it’s because she is viewed to lack the charisma of her male counterparts – a misogynistic but nonetheless potent viewpoint – her team will have to work hard to court young voters.
Joe Biden – Baby Boomer
A key facet of Biden’s strategy in attracting young voters seems to be to remind them of their longing for the Obama presidency and the relationship shared between the two politicians, who continue to care and show affection for each other. And, that might not be a bad strategy – in the Trump era, many people in my generation remember watching Obama’s inauguration ceremony and feeling politically engaged for the first time with a deep nostalgia. Prior to announcing his campaign, Biden visited Brown University, where I attend college, and before he came on stage, a video heavily featuring his relationship with the former president played to uproarious applause. Plus, Biden is undeniably outperforming his peers in the polls, so something must be working.
Biden would appear to, in perhaps every way besides age, be the opposite of Sanders. Despite our nostalgia for the Obama era, Biden doesn’t seem to be the man to capture the quintessential spirit of Gen Z — he’s too old school, too moderate. While Biden’s support is stronger among older voters, recent surveys indicate that Biden and Sanders actually “split the electorate sharply along generational lines.” The most common second-choice for Sanders supporters is Biden and vice-versa. Is this simply because of name recognition? Is it because Biden is believed by some analysts to have the best shot at defeating Trump come 2020? We’ll have to wait and see, as the data seems counterintuitive.
Biden also seems to be investing more into older voters rather than younger ones. He is spending a lot of money to harness Facebook, perhaps the least relevant of the social media platforms for my generation. According to Vox, “he’s advertising to people who already know him and are likelier to support him.” In other words, older voters. Though, to be fair, prior to announcing his candidacy, it was reported that Biden had been meeting with social media executives on how to attract young voters using NowThis videos and Twitter.
While Biden might be foraying into the social media sphere, his relationship with the #MeToo movement is likely to hurt his relationship with young voters, especially young female voters. Several women have stepped forward to say they felt that Biden initiated inappropriate behavior with them, and he has also been scrutinized for the way in which he handled Anita Hill’s testimony during Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings while he was a senator. Biden offered a light apology for his actions regarding inappropriate invasions of personal space, but many found his words to miss the point. A key facet to older politicians winning over younger voters will be to genuinely invest in largely youth-led movements and demonstrate real effort to reform behavior.
Kamala Harris – Gen X
Kamala Harris is one of the more politically moderate Democratic candidates, but she has also proved herself to be steadfast in her opposition to President Trump and has garnered much media attention for such opposition. And, for many young female voters of color, Harris is emblematic of how important representation is in a field still dominated by white men.
To attract young voters, Harris began “Camp Kamala”, a training program for students on Iowa college campuses to learn “how to organize your community, the history of the Iowa caucus, and Kamala’s strategy to win in 2020.” In promotional materials for the “camp,” Harris spoke about her policies on the student debt crisis and on climate change, both of which are clearly meant to spark passion in Gen Z voters for Harris’ platform.
However, Harris’ harsh criminal justice policies have sowed doubt in the minds of progressive voters – young and old alike. When she served as California’s attorney general, she actively fought to uphold wrongful convictions and advocated for legislation to send to jail parents of truant children, primarily Black and low-income parents. She was also a staunch defender of the death penalty, a phenomenon that many progressive Gen Z’ers are passionately opposed to. While Harris might do well with moderate young voters (though she faces stiff competition in Biden), I anticipate that she will fall short in capturing the more progressive among them.
Pete Buttigieg – Millennial
Mayor Pete is the youngest candidate in the Democratic field, and although the specifics of his policies are TBD, he is running on a platform of generational change. As the first openly gay man to run for the presidency, many young LGBTQIA+ voters are finally seeing themselves represented in the political arena.
Pete has advocated for a “generational alliance” to reverse the negative ramifications of climate change, and fundamentally this sort of generational revolution rhetoric has remained constant in his speeches. Buttigieg has further capitalized on his youthfulness to make fun of the current president. After Mr. Trump likened Buttigieg to Alfred E. Neuman (of MAD magazine), Pete responded, “I’ll be honest, I had to Google that, I guess it’s a generational thing,” attempting to relate to young voters while taking a jab at the president.
Like Beto, Buttigieg has successfully harnessed social media to meet the desires of young people. Besides the usual campaign photos, Pete’s Instagram account also includes photos with cute dogs, photos with his husband, decorated school backpacks, etc.
Pete has focused on the issues that the youth care most about — gun control, environmental change – and has suggested that the reason these issues still exist is because the generation in power is too old to find solutions. While he hasn’t actually come up with that solution, it’s easy for my generation to rally around the idea that prior generations have totally screwed things up.
The Gen Z for Pete twitter account is a good foray into my generation’s love for Pete. Run by 17-year-old Avalon Fenster, the account has tweeted of Buttigieg, “Our generation- and those that follow- demand a leader that puts the value of our lives first.” The Twitter account is part of the National Youth Assembly of Pete for America, a Gen Z grassroots organizing group looking to raise funds for Buttigieg’s campaign.
Pete understands that some high schoolers will be able to vote in 2020, and it’s important to court them now. He has also been quick to recognize his white male privilege and come to terms with certain ramifications of his real estate policies, which led to gentrification; these two issues are crucial for many progressive Gen Z’ers.
It’s still a crowded race, and it’s still early in the election season, but candidates are already showing that they deeply value the Gen Z vote through their rhetoric, policies, and resource allocations. Hopefully, this will give Gen Z a louder political voice in an arena largely dominated by much older generations.