Gen Z will make or break the 2024 elections

To brace for our nation’s most contentious election, young people must vote.

(Ashwin Yogaratnam / Daily Trojan)

Almost four years ago, the United States faced one of the most contentious presidential elections in our history, and for many members of Generation Z, it was the first presidential election in which we were able to vote.

The 2020 election had the highest youth voter turnout rate since the 1972 election between Richard Nixon and George McGovern, with 55% of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 showing up to vote, up 11 percentage points from 2016. 

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It is safe to say young voters turned the tide in the 2020 election. Fueled by the desire for solutions to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the ever-worsening state of climate change and a sense of racial justice reckoning since the 2016 election, Gen Z might be the most politically active generation in recent years.

Biden’s administration prioritized climate change as a major platform point in the 2020 election and continued that platform into his presidency. Just under a third of Gen Z-ers took action via voting, donations, volunteering or rallying to bring awareness to the climate crisis, compared to only a fifth of Baby Boomers.

With recent polls showing that voters will likely face the same decision between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump in 2024, young voters may once again play an integral role in deciding the results of the presidential election — so we need to make sure we show up at the ballot boxes.

Time speculated in 2021 that “Gen Z in particular is stepping into the political arena after being antagonized by Trump, radicalized by the reckoning over racial justice and demoralized by a year of virtual schooling due to COVID-19.”

Harvard’s annual Institute of Politics poll found that 36% of young people consider themselves politically active, a 12 percentage point increase from former President Barack Obama’s second election in 2012. 

Young voters were also integral to Biden’s presidential win in 2020. Biden pulled 60% of voters under 30 at the ballot box, a percentage that proved increasingly crucial in Biden’s victory in four key states: Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania. 

With a margin of more than 100,000 votes, the Democratic candidate gained a lead on Trump in traditionally red states like Arizona, Michigan and Georgia, and continued Pennsylvania’s track record of voting blue. 

“Young people’s activism, participation, and leadership in this election have been historic,” wrote Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Newhouse Director of Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, in the CIRCLE report.

However, in last year’s midterm elections, the national youth voter turnout dropped five percentage points from 2018 down to 23%. Last year, certain states such as Michigan had youth attendance as high as 37%, while in others such as Tennessee, it was as low as 13%. 

As the assistant director of the USC Political Student Assembly, Leah Nwizugbo, a sophomore majoring in political science, works in the Undergraduate Student Government assembly that hopes to increase civic engagement. 

Nwizugbo said the lack of youth engagement in midterm and local elections is concerning. Although the youth vote in the 2020 presidential election may have been promising, she said it is these smaller elections that more directly impact day-to-day life.

“The issue is a lot of older generations have more traditional viewpoints that maybe a lot of Gen Z-ers may not agree with; they are the ones that have almost perfect voter attendance,” Nwizugbo said. “So it’s really important for Gen Z to mobilize themselves and look at voting as a necessary requirement to push themselves towards the America that they want to see.”

However, midterm elections have consistently seen lower voter turnout since the 1840s, which many scholars attribute to the lack of human interest without presidential campaigns in the mix. For youth, this is particularly impactful because young voters are usually motivated by highly debated issues and closely contested campaigns.

According to CIRCLE, abortion was one of the most important issues driving youth voting and registration in 2022, specifically in Michigan, resulting in its high youth voter turnout.  Furthermore, 39% of Gen Z respondents to a CIRCLE survey indicated that gas prices and inflation were two of the main issues motivating them to vote in 2022. 

From a party standpoint, nearly 68% of voters under the age of 30 supported Democratic candidates in 2022, 8% more than the estimated percentage of youth voters who cast their ballots for Biden in 2020.

Though November polls have favored both Biden and Trump depending on the given day, as of Wednesday, YouGov polls reflect Biden’s narrow advantage over Trump — only a 2% difference as Biden stands at 44% and Trump follows closely behind at 42%. 

With Democratic and Republican presidential nominations approaching next summer, the race becomes more contentious as less popular candidates struggle to keep up; Biden remains the favored candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, with fellow contenders Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips falling behind.

Similarly, it is anticipated that Trump will take the GOP nomination, with The Hill describing him as the “runaway favorite.” Ron DeSantis stagnates in polls, while fellow contender Nikki Haley ranks third but is on the rise following her debate performances.

The majority of Gen Z is inclined to vote for the Democratic party, but they are increasingly disillusioned by the party’s failure to deliver on certain policies. In a College Pulse poll, only 48% of Democratic-identifying college students said they believe their party is acting in the nation’s best interests. 

This means that a loss in 2024 for the incumbent president could come not so much from wider Republican support, but weakened support from younger, disillusioned voters.

Based on Gen Z’s voting patterns, there are two main considerations that likely shape how Gen Z’s vote will affect the elections: whether Democrats take the right actions on issues Gen Z-ers care about, and whether Democrats can motivate them to turn out. 

In the 2022 midterms and 2023 state elections, Democrats demonstrated they were able to mobilize voters by focusing on issues Gen Z deeply cares about, such as abortion rights. In a Gallup poll from this past May, 64% of 18-29 year-olds identified as pro-choice, the highest of any age group. As Republican lawmakers scaled up legislation restricting reproductive healthcare and banning abortion, younger voters turned out for Democrat candidates who campaigned heavily on abortion rights. 

There is still a year until the 2024 general election. During that time, there is ample room for polling numbers to change as legislation is passed and new issues arise. In addition to abortion, issues such as climate change, student loan debt and working wages are deeply important to Gen Z. President Biden’s leadership, the Democratic Senate majority’s ability to collaborate with him and the House GOP’s legislative action can persuade or dissuade Gen Z voters to turn out.

“In my opinion, the most politically engaged, the most politically intelligent and the people who can make the best are the ones who don’t just listen to one side,” Nwizugbo said. “They’re the ones who listen to information from different perspectives, different spheres of influence, and then they weigh their options, and then they choose where they lean.”

With this in mind, the traditional lay of the land during a presidential election — if the concept even truly exists — is in greater flux than what the electorate faced in 2020. The Republican National Committee pulled out of the Commission on Presidential Debates in April, and its likely nominee has not attended the sanctioned Republican primary debates. 

It’s likely that we won’t see Biden and Trump on the same stage until it’s time to fill out our ballots — rather, each voter will have to rely on their memory of how the candidates have impacted them separately this time around.

To that end — and to every fellow young voter in whose hands lies our electoral future — keep that memory alive: Watch every debate, even if polling continues to show the presumptive Biden-Trump matchup. If you get called by a pollster, don’t hang up; take a moment to share your thoughts. 

Remember the full breadth of the issues you care about rather than voting as a single-issue body; consider opinions outside of your own. Study every candidate that will be on your county’s ballot. Request absentee ballots if you live out-of-state.

Most of all, for the sake of equally important down-ballot elections alone, make sure to register and show up to vote. Gen Z voters are the most valuable real estate in the electorate — let’s act like it.

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