Amid concerns surrounding high inflation and President Biden’s low approval ratings, many pollsters predicted that the midterm elections would bring in a “red wave,” leading to a sizable Republican majority in both the House and the Senate. However, these predictions did not come true: Democrats held onto the Senate and nearly held onto the House. So, why did so many of these “red wave” predictions miss the mark? Youth voters have been hailed as one of the catalysts that turned the predicted “red wave” into a diluted “pink splash.” The midterm elections demonstrated that when young people turn out to vote, they strongly favor Democrats—establishing them as a decisive voting bloc able to swing who wins in key races across the country.
Despite the challenges young voters face, including a rise of restrictive voter ID laws and escalated efforts to remove polling sites from college campuses, young people navigated these obstacles to show up and make their voices heard this midterm election season. According to data collected by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, 50 percent of young people aged 18 to 29 voted in the 2020 presidential election, marking an 11-point increase from 2016. The election’s youth turnout rate is “likely one of the highest rates of youth electoral participation since the voting age was lowered to 18.” Furthermore, many of these young voters are progressive and have shown a pattern of voting for Democrats. The statistics compiled by Tufts University further estimated that 27 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 cast ballots in midterm elections and that 63 percent of them voted for Democrats in elections for the House of Representatives. Political analysts reported that young people were attracted to the Democratic party generally because of its positions on issues they consider crucial, including abortion, climate change, and gun rights.
Data compiled after this year’s midterm elections reveal that Democrats in swing states were among the biggest beneficiaries of the strong turnout of young voters. For example, in the highly contested Pennsylvania Senate midterm race, where Republican Mehmet Oz ran against Democrat John Fetterman, Fetterman defeated Oz by just over four percentage points. The victory has been partly accredited to youth voters in the state, with Tufts University finding that 70 percent of youth voters turned out for Fetterman—a historically high percentage.
Social media usage has become an indispensable advantage for candidates targeting Gen Z voters. Fetterman ran a particularly strong social media campaign aimed at engaging youth voters. In several viral Twitter ads produced by the Fetterman campaign, reality TV star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi from the MTV show “Jersey Shore,” Steven Van Zandt from “The Sopranos,” and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band all recorded videos telling Oz to return to his home state of New Jersey. The videos portrayed Oz as an outsider and out of touch with his constituents’ needs, in comparison to Fetterman who grew up in Pennsylvania. The Fetterman campaign alsio onboarded younger organizers to help with his social media strategy, which also included numerous videos posted to TikTok. By meeting young people where they’re at, namely on social media, John Fetterman was able to effectively garner Gen Z support. Fetterman’s campaign strategies can be a model for future campaigns seeking to generate support from young voters.
Young people are eager to get more involved in civic life. This sentiment was quite apparent in Florida’s 10th district, where constituents elected the first Gen Z member of Congress: 25-year-old Maxwell Frost. There was even another Gen Z candidate on the ballot, Republican Karoline Leavitt, who ultimately lost the race. This midterm election also saw Sam Lawrence, a 19-year-old sophomore political science student at Miami University, running in Ohio’s 47th District against Republican incumbent Sara Carruthers. Though Lawrence and every other Gen Z candidate besides Frost ultimately lost their campaigns, their crusades proved that youth are becoming increasingly more involved in civic life, and even aspiring to hold positions in political office.
Frost campaigned on progressive issues, including Medicare for all, gun policy reform, transforming the criminal justice system, and climate crisis remission. Journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who teaches at the University of Florida, explained that “here in Florida, young people are especially motivated by threats to LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights and by inaction on climate change and gun violence.” Frost’s willingness to prioritize these issues—and use social media to get the word out—may have been what motivated young voters to turn out in such astounding numbers.
There are a multitude of youth-led social change organizations that employ similar social media strategies, such as Sunrise, a climate advocacy organization, March for Our Lives, a gun control organization, and Gen-Z for Change, a Tik-Tok-based coalition of progressive social media influencers. Gen-Z for Change boasts a following of 500 million, a number that exceeds the average monthly viewerships of popular news channels Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC combined by a factor of one-hundred. Not only has Gen-Z for Change made an impact among fellow Gen-Zers, but in early March of this year, the Biden administration even contacted the organization to help organize a briefing between administration officials and well-known social media influencers about the war in Ukraine. Director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics John Della Volpe predicts that if the youth hadn’t shown up as they did in these midterm elections, Republicans would have won the House by an even greater margin and would likely have taken the Senate. The youth’s turnout in the midterm elections has made national headlines, affirming their reputation as a politically animated generation. Now, as the nation gears up for the next presidential election in 2024, will they again show up as a decisive voting bloc? According to Rock the Vote, millennials and Gen-Zers combined will comprise 44 percent of American voters by 2024. With former president Donald Trump having recently announced his campaign for the presidency, the youth vote will matter more than ever. When Trump ran for re-election in 2020, the former president performed poorly among youth voters compared to 2016, with his youth voter support declining in key swing states such as Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. It is certainly possible that youth voters will carry Democrats to victory in 2024, just as they did in this year’s midterms.