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How Gen Z Held Off the Red Wave

By Ashley Aylward, TIME Magazine | November 10, 2022

Many were expecting a red wave to crash on Tuesday, Nov. 8—instead, an earthquake of young voters shook up the political world.

The data is still coming in nationally, but from what we know, Gen Z-ers sustained their record-breaking 2018 turnout during the 2022 midterm elections, opting for Democratic House candidates by 25 points and limiting Republican gains. Voters under the age of 29 broke for Democrats and helped many win in battleground states. In the high-stakes Pennsylvania Senate race, which Democrats flipped by a three-point margin, Gen Z-ers supported John Fetterman by a 46-point margin and increased their share of the electorate from 2018. This all goes to show one central point: When young people’s rights are on the ballot and championed by the candidate, they show up.

Many political operatives base their decisions on polls with a strict definition of likely voters, leaving young people vastly underrepresented. They assumed that America’s youngest voters wouldn’t show up in this midterm election.

I disagreed. As Senior Researcher for HIT Strategies, a public opinion research firm focused on young voters and people of color, I’ve conducted dozens of focus groups and several polls with Gen Z-ers. I saw an energy among Gen Z-ers. That fire was sparked by the direct threats to their rights like abortion access, and it was sustained by candidates who spoke Gen Z-ers’ language on social media.

The youngest voting generation is strongly pro-choice and can be mobilized by threats to reproductive healthcare. Our September poll of Gen Z voters of color in battleground states found that 87% supported abortion rights. And in our national poll with URGE following the leak of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision in May, 65% of Gen Z voters reported that abortion access was an important part of their decision to go vote. We’ve seen this energy play out across the electoral map, buoyed by Democrats’ 9-figure investment in ads on abortion.

But it’s not just that Democrats talked about abortion—it’s what they said. Gen Z-ers want tangible plans to respond to bans threatening their bodily autonomy. In a post-Dobbs focus group of young Democrats, participants told me they liked the specificity of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s action plan in response to Dobbs v. Jackson, as well as her willingness to abolish the Senate filibuster in pursuit of codifying the Roe v. Wade decision. Fetterman pledged to do so during his campaign and handily won Gen Z-ers as a result. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer took decisive action in court even before Roe fell; she won Gen Zers by 29 points and cake walked to re-election.

To activate Gen Z-ers, it’s also essential to meet them where they are on social media. While moderating focus groups, I consistently hear young people tell me that they want political candidates to engage with them online. In our poll with Campus Vote Project, as you might expect, college students found their top source of information was social media. Fetterman and Whitmer were both incredibly active on Twitter and Tik Tok.

But it’s not enough just to tweet. To mobilize the most online generation of all time, candidates must speak their language, engaging with social media the way young people use it. Gen Z-ers are loud and passionate, and they see themselves in politicians like AOC. One young focus group participant told me she liked AOC because, “she’s a fire-starter” and went on to describe her level of tenacity of never backing down in her fight for our rights, even when she becomes a target from the opposing party. AOC shows this in her clap backs, as when she told Mike Pence that “absolutely no one wants to hear from you.” That’s exactly the energy Gen Z-ers want.

Fetterman brought this youthful zeal to his campaign, in part because his Digital Director, Sophie Ota, age 26, is a borderline Gen Z-er herself. Fetterman communicates through memes and liberally deploys emojis. He posts throwback photos and is snappy with his quote tweets. Young people want to see themselves in our political leaders. Unfortunately, so many of our political leaders only use these channels to communicate the policy wonk portion of their accomplishments. Gen Z-ers crave authentic, online political engagement.

Gen Z power is only growing, and it will permanently change the dynamics of our elections. They comprise 10% of eligible voters already, a share that will increase with each passing day as more age into the electorate. Case-in-point, Gen Z-ers increased their raw vote total in the 2020 election by 289% since the 2016 election, when they first aged into the electorate.

Additionally, Gen Z-ers are the most diverse generation in American history. In 1969, the Boomer generation were just 18% non-white. Today, 48% of Gen Zers are people of color. This unique identity, along with their growing numbers, will permanently upend our political system.

Angered by threats to reproductive rights and activated by a savvy social media campaign, Gen Z puts Fetterman over the top in Pennsylvania. Across the country, threats to abortion access and direct engagement on their issues from candidates motivated them to vote—a dynamic that likely voter polls missed for young people. And in Florida, even amid a Democratic wipeout, the first Gen Z-er was elected to Congress.

The times are changing—and it’s about time we keep up.

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Ashley Aylward is a Senior Researcher at HIT Strategies, a Washington-based public opinion research firm. She specializes in the political attitudes of young people.


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