Millions of newly minted college graduates are about to enter a scorching job market, but many are still held back by feelings of hopelessness and depression. Less than one in 10 Americans between 18- and 29-years-old describe ours as a “healthy democracy.” Most are convinced that both political parties cater to elites over people like them and that our politics cannot meet the challenges of the times. More than anything, “happiness and stability” are what youth seek, but even that appears out of reach at a time when they’re readying to launch.
These headwinds, identified by our Harvard Youth Poll, combined with untamed inflation and declining approval of President Biden, should be of significant concern to Democrats who relied on young millennials’ and Generation Z’s historic participation to win the House in 2018, the White House in 2020, and the Senate in Georgia’s 2021 special election. Without both record-breaking turnout and the 20-point margins that teenage and 20-somethings put up for Mr. Biden in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Donald Trump would be a two-term president.
Yet there’s a reason to believe that Democrats can run their own once-in-a-century, Rich Strike-style derby and maintain control of Congress in November’s elections. A trifecta of events and likely developments create a narrow window for Mr. Biden and Democrats to regain their footing and shock the world.
The growing presence of Mr. Trump’s voice back on the national stage; the leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion on abortion and the likely fall of Roe v. Wade; and the opportunity for Mr. Biden to make good on a campaign commitment to address the student debt crisis have formed ideal conditions for Democratic renewal. While older voters will prioritize each party’s pledges to reduce inflation this fall, younger voters will additionally weigh the broad set of values and vision for the future held by Democrats and Republicans.
Young Americans are more likely to vote when they see a tangible difference between the parties and feel the consequences of election outcomes. As Generation Z and young millennials were tuning into politics more closely, millions watched Mr. Trump roll back climate policy, undermine the Affordable Care Act, deliver tax breaks for the wealthy and pave the way for white nationalist theorists to enter the public square — all moves that were antithetical to the values of reducing inequality and standing up for those without a voice. These are values that we’ve found in young Americans across most points on the ideological spectrum. As Mr. Trump’s regressive MAGA message gains newfound traction through Republican primaries and in Elon Musk’s vision for Twitter, the fear of Trumpism on the march can be weaponized by Democrats to motivate young voters, as it was in the last midterms.
Not long after Mr., Trump’s inauguration in 2017, young Americans from Boston to Bakersfield began describing to me how fear was a unifying force of their generation. “Fear of death. Fear of our rights being infringed upon. Fear of the future for our kids. Fear for our family. Fear for our health” is how a college student summarized it for me in an Ohio focus group. Polling that I conducted earlier this year for Snapchat underscored these views and their relevance once again to midterm elections. “Preserving individual rights and freedoms,” “ensuring that health care is a right,” and “safeguarding the rights of vulnerable populations” are viewed by at least two-thirds of likely Democratic-leaning and undecided young voters as “very” important issues in the coming congressional contests.
The Alito draft opinion will only heighten these concerns. Three-quarters of adults under 35 disagree with the likely court ruling and believe Roe v. Wade should stand. Nearly half describe their reaction as “angry” in a recent CNN poll, and abortion policy was rated the most important midterm issue among this cohort by 10 points in a recent Monmouth University Poll.
Criminalizing abortion with a new precedent that could jeopardize other constitutional rights is a clarifying political issue that — if harnessed effectively by Democratic candidates — will inspire a new class of values-first voters centered on protecting the rights of women and the vulnerable. I heard these views first hand, and raw, in Gen Z focus groups I conducted in Houston, Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio last week — especially among young women of color. These are issues of both morality and practicality for this generation. The urgency reflected in the conversations I am having with young voters today is reminiscent of what I heard after the Parkland shooting in 2018 and George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Both events helped fuel record-setting youth participation at the polls.
Later this month, when President Biden delivers the commencement address at his alma mater in Delaware, he can do something that will boost the financial standard of two generations while also giving another reason for young people to vote. Already relieving nearly $20 billion of federal student loans and pausing repayment until August, Mr. Biden can honor his commitment to Gen Z and millennials and immediately cancel $10,000 in student loan debt for every American. Accordingly, this executive action will help millions of Gen Z and millennials commit to their careers, family, and communities like their parents and grandparents did at a similar life stage. Beyond the essential economic bottom line, this action will begin to materially rebuild the fractured relationship between the leader of the Democrats and a voting bloc that was integral to his party’s most recent successes.
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;
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.