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November’s midterms heralded a new force in American politics: Gen Z voters. Turnout for people ages 18 to 29 hit its second-highest level in the past 30 years — and those young voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Democrats. Given the narrow margins and the Democrats’ ability to retain the Senate despite historical precedent, commentators and analysts declared that Gen Z helped Democrats thwart a Republican wave.
But underneath this back-patting and sense of demographic inevitably is a flashing-red warning sign for Democrats. Recent polls suggest the young voters who helped turn the Democrats’ fortunes in 2022 are also growing disillusioned with a party that has failed to deliver major legislation on civil rights, income inequality, or abortion. And Gen Z has little loyalty to a Democratic Party that remains disorganized, internally ideologically conflicted, and full of varied ideas about change but little concrete action.
Gen Z isn’t sold on the whole ‘party’ thing
Americans are increasingly unhappy with the two-party system. They are frustrated by the partisan divisions that prevent progress on major policy issues. Nearly 40% of Americans surveyed by Pew last summer said they “wish there were more political parties to choose from in this country.” Young voters are especially fed up with the lack of options — 47% said they wished there were more political parties with viable candidates for elected office in the United States, compared with 23% of those 65 and older who said the same. Democratic voters were almost twice as likely to wish for more political parties as their Republican counterparts (38% to 21%). Young Democrats are particularly interested in a more progressive party that reflects their hopes for major policy reforms, which are continually stymied by mainstream Democrats and Republicans.
These responses partly explain why young citizens are less enthusiastic than their older counterparts about voting in contemporary elections. Despite the headlines heralding the power of Gen Z voters, only 27% of people ages 18 to 29 voted in November, well below the 47% turnout rate for all Americans and below the same cohort’s turnout rate in 2018. According to the latest Future of Politics Survey, a joint survey of 1,500 undergraduate students at 91 colleges and universities we helped craft for the University of Texas at Austin with the help of the youth-focused polling and data firm CollegePulse, these lower turnout rates reflect higher frustration with the limited choices of the two-party system.
The Democratic Party, which relies more heavily on younger supporters to make up razor-thin margins, shouldn’t assume Gen Z college students will support the party enthusiastically in elections. Any slip in turnout among Gen Z could have serious consequences for the party.
Gen Z is not impressed
Despite having a White House and Congress for the past two years whose control by Democrats allowed the party to pass major legislation, young people’s assessment of the Democratic Party hasn’t improved. In fact, it has gotten worse. About half of the college students we surveyed said they had a less favorable view of the Democratic Party than they did a year ago, and only 12% had a more favorable outlook for the party than in the recent past. While the GOP did only marginally better among young people — 43% had less favorable views of the party than they did a year ago, while 19% had more favorable views — Republicans haven’t been the party in power for the past two years and have had less opportunity to make good on their promises. And this worsening view of Democrats may be starting to show up in elections. While the party held a still-sizable 12-percentage-point advantage in November’s elections, according to the Associated Press’ VoteCast exit polls, that was down from their 25-point edge in 2020 and Democrats’ 30-point margin in 2018. But beyond the souring among Gen Z generally, the most worrying stat for Democrats is that students who are predisposed to support the party are much less enthusiastic than their more conservative counterparts.
While 68% of Republican-identifying students in the College Pulse survey said they believed the Republican Party was acting in the nation’s best interests, just 48% of Democratic-identifying students said the same about the Democratic Party. Most threatening for Democrats: A quarter of Democratic-identifying students asserted that the party was actually not acting in the nation’s best interests.
When asked about whether the parties were making progress, almost identical proportions of students said they believed that both the Republican Party (52%) and the Democratic Party (53%) were moving in the wrong direction. Predictably, 84% of Democratic students said they believed the Republican Party was moving in the wrong direction, while 84% of Republicans said they thought the Democratic Party was moving in the wrong direction. But while Republican students expressed faith in their own party — 62% of those surveyed said the GOP was moving in the correct direction — just 41% of Democratic students said the Democratic Party was moving in the correct direction, and 25% of Democratic students said the party was actually moving in the wrong direction.
Simply put, Democratic Party leaders should be worried: Many of their youngest and most progressive voters are unimpressed by their handling of the party.
Looking at the entire picture, a plurality of students (43%) said neither party was ready and capable to lead the country, while about a quarter of students said the Republican Party (24%) was best suited to lead, and another quarter said the Democratic Party (23%) was best suited to lead. Fifty-three percent of Democratic students said they believed their party could lead, compared with 63% among Republicans students who said the same of the GOP.
Trust and support within both parties are low, but the survey makes clear that the Democrats’ base of young voters is less allegiant to the party. These disaffected young people may be more willing to walk away from the party — or simply stay home in future elections.
Democrats can’t rest
The favorable results for Democrats in the midterm elections, especially among young people, should not encourage confidence or complacency among Democrats. If anything, the results are a rejection of Republican extremism, not an embrace of the Democratic Party’s positions and leadership. Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency and reelection campaign, Gen Z politically engaged to disrupt Trump and his various events, but they were not enthusiastic for nor supportive of the Democratic Party.
Given these circumstances, Democrats shouldn’t take the political loyalty of Gen Z voters for granted. It’s not as if a gradual generational shift hasn’t happened before. Baby boomers were once solidly Democratic, but over time the generation has shifted more and more toward the GOP. In 1979, when boomers were in their 20s and 30s, Democrats had a nearly 30-percentage-point advantage over the GOP among the cohort. By 2009 that had shrunk to just over 10 points, according to Gallup, and in 2022 it flipped, as more boomers identified as Republicans than Democrats.
What the Democratic Party needs is a serious soul-searching about how it can better address the needs of young voters, as well as various other groups in the party’s often unwieldy coalition. College affordability, the climate crisis, and civil rights are winning issues, but young voters want concrete progress, not continued platitudes. They are a pragmatic generation that accepts compromises, so long as they perceive real change in the process. Partisan gridlock, even if partially caused by Republicans, will not endear the Democratic Party to impatient young voters.
Leadership also matters. For the past four years the leaders of the Democratic Party have been even older than their Republican counterparts. A passing of party leadership generation is overdue, and that has begun in the House of Representatives with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that she’d step down from her longtime position as the most powerful Democrat in Congress. Her successors must show that their younger, more diverse faces mean a change in the behavior of the party. The issues and politicians that young people identify with must be more prominent in Democratic legislation and campaigns. The new leadership of the party must have a presence on college campuses and in the evolving workplaces and social spaces that Gen Z voters populate. The form and substance of Democratic politics must change fundamentally.
All these suggestions apply to the Republican Party as well. Our survey of young voters found similar weaknesses for Republicans, but they rely less on young voters than their Democratic counterparts. If, however, the Republican Party wishes to do better in future elections than they did in the midterms, it will have to not only escape the unpopular hold of Trump but appeal in new ways to voters who are less partisan. Both parties have incentives to find pragmatic compromises around the most controversial issues if they want to compete for votes in what is an emerging young majority.
Despite assumptions about their left leanings, members of Gen Z are not firmly behind the Democratic Party, President Joe Biden, or many other well-known Democrats. Many are disillusioned and frustrated. Many are uncertain and confused. This is an opportunity for fresh voices that can promise hope, reform, and real problem-solving, not more of the same stale ideology. The party must work harder to address their concerns and win their votes.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown distinguished chair for leadership in global affairs and a professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of the recent book “Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy.”