Joe Biden was hardly the darling of the youth vote during the Democratic primaries. From the Iowa caucuses through the March 17 primaries, he won just 22 percent of the votes among those younger than 45 years old and far less among those aged 18-24. But despite his low levels of initial support and ongoing reports of a lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy, polls now show the former vice president boasting a 20+ point lead over Pres. Donald Trump among young voters. It’s little wonder why. Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) and Generation Z (born after 1996) identify or lean heavily toward the Democratic Party and solidly reject the presidency of Donald Trump, the politics of Trumpism, and the direction the county is headed.
Zoomers (a nickname for members of Gen Z) and Millennials now make up 10% and almost 30% of eligible voters in the American electorate, respectively, which potentially could make them kingmakers in the 2020 elections. Younger voters historically have a habit of not showing up to the polls. But youth-led activism in response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and resistance to Trump spurred a 16-point bump in turnout among this cohort between the 2014 and 2018 midterms, which suggests turnout may be higher this November as well. And the nationwide upheaval of protest sparked by the murder of George Floyd, which has been led by young activists (and particularly young African Americans), may also drive new voters to the polls.
A youth-led wave election may not only deny the president a second term, but also allow Democrats to regain majority control of the Senate. But a deeper underlying concern for Republican strategists is that their party has put itself at a long-term disadvantage by not keeping pace on new-voter outreach and failing to adjust to the changing racial and cultural diversity of the electorate. Their inability to address the most pressing concerns of younger Americans – including climate change, gun violence, and racial and gender inequality – is also problematic.
There remains some empirical evidence that today’s young liberals will get more conservative as they age. But the famous adage that “those who are not liberal at 20 have no hearts and those who are not conservative at 40 have no brains” is woefully overstated if not completely outdated. Voting patterns and party identification numbers among voters who will turn 40 in 2021–aka the older Millennials–do not signal a trend toward the Republican Party as they move toward their middle-age years. And if the “impressionable years” hypothesis (which suggests that voters form durable political attitudes and party affiliations in early adulthood) is accurate, the GOP is on track to lose not just an overwhelming majority of Millennials but also of Zoomers.
The Pew Research Center has done the most to measure the social and political attitudes of the youngest American voters. Their surveys have found that–like their Millennial counterparts–most Gen Zers think the government should do more to solve problems, believe that climate change is caused by human activity, and think that increasing racial/ethnic diversity is good for society. Perhaps most importantly, given the current national reckoning on racism, a majority of Gen Z also believe that “Blacks are treated less fairly than whites” in America today and approve of “players choosing to kneel during the national anthem as a form of protest.” These same surveys found that Gen Z Republicans lean more to the left on these issues than their older counterparts. None of this bodes well for a Trumpian Republican Party.
Is there anything the Republican Party could do to make inroads with Generation Z? We conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,049 adult members (18-24) of Gen Z via a Qualtrics online panel from May 19-28, 2020, after the outbreak of COVID-19 but before the national protests against racism and police brutality. Those who are invested in the future of the GOP will find cause for both concern and hope in the results.
First, we gave the Gen Zers who did not identify as or lean Republican a list of general characteristics and asked which ones would make them “more likely to at least consider” voting for a Republican candidate. Unsurprisingly, sizable majorities of the respondents indicated that none of the individual candidate characteristics would make them more likely to consider voting for a Republican.
Yet approximately one in three non-GOP members of Gen Z said they’d be willing to consider a Republican candidate who was “politically moderate” or “opposed to Donald Trump.” And nearly thirty percent would consider a Republican candidate who was “fiscally conservative but socially liberal.” Female candidates and those who are racial minorities also have the potential to gain some traction with these voters. However, candidate identity appears to be less compelling than a candidate’s ideological position.
Would rejecting Trump, embracing ideological diversity, or actively recruiting candidates who can attract female, and minority voters cost Republicans their young party faithful? Maybe not. We also asked Gen Zers who identify as or lean Republican their views on the Republican Party and Trump. Results suggest that Gen Z GOPers reject the notion of ideological purity and don’t express an immediate aversion to identity politics. Seventy percent agree that moderate candidates should be welcome in the Republican Party, and around two-thirds think the GOP needs candidates who could win over more women and racially diverse voters.
Their views on Trump, however, are mixed. While two-thirds of Gen Z Republican respondents believe that the president “represents who I am as a Republican,” just as many agree that they “support Pres. Trump’s policies more than I personally support him as a candidate.” And a third disagree with the notion that Trump is a true conservative.
Finally, we asked these respondents whether more candidates like Trump would influence their likelihood of sticking with the Republican Party. Sixty-percent said they would be “more likely” to stay if the party continues to nominate “candidates like Donald Trump.” But almost 20 percent of Gen Z Republicans say they would be “less likely” and another 20 percent were “unsure” that they would stay. Keep in mind that our survey, and other research, estimates that Republicans already represent less than 30 percent of Gen Z voters. Thus, the risk of losing 40 percent of their young voters by sticking with Trump may not be the best way to build a future party.
The Democratic-leaning and outspoken progressive young voters will undoubtedly capture the nation’s attention this election cycle. Only they have the raw numbers and an activist class able to make a measurable impact on the outcome. But that doesn’t make young Republicans inconsequential – far from it. These voters, many of whom recognize the need to address racial inequality, embrace science, and endorse moderation, are uniquely positioned to help the GOP compete in the elections of the future.
Mileah Kromer is Associate Professor and Director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College
Melissa Deckman is the Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College
The survey cited in this opinion piece was generously funded by Washington College, the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, IGNITE, and the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland. The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the authors and do not reflect the funding sources. Please contact the authors for a statement on the survey methodology.