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Who will American millennials and Gen Z vote for in the US presidential election?

By Helen M. Flores Published Oct 31, 2020 10:47 pm

This year marks the first time many Gen Z Americans—those born from 1997 onwards—will be able to participate in a US presidential election.

According to Pew Research Center projections, one in 10 eligible voters this year is a Gen Z, up from just four percent in 2016, when Donald Trump became president.

“One thing that's really interesting and exciting about Generation Z, people about 22 years old and younger, is that they have a stark interest, a very dramatic interest in politics and political participation,” said Elizabeth Matto, associate research professor and director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"We don't have that much research yet on Generation Z. They're only just starting to assert themselves," she said in a recent briefing with journalists participating in the virtual reporting tour on the 2020 US elections organized by the State Department's Foreign Press Center.

"But the reason they matter from a political standpoint is that there’s a lot of them," she added.

Americans choose between Joe Biden and current President Donald Trump on Nov. 3.

She said surveys conducted by Harvard University's Institute of Politics show there really is a “historic” interest among young adults to vote this year.

"Just by size alone, young adults stand to impact the political process significantly, dramatically," she said.

According to Matto, there are 88 million millennials in the US. Millennials are those who were born between 1981 and 1996. While “one-in-ten eligible voters in the 2020 electorate will be part of a new generation of Americans—Generation Z,” says a Pew Social Trends report.

Millennials and Gen Z are less inclined to identify with one political party and are more likely to align with or declare themselves as independents.

She said millennials are looking at volunteering and philanthropy, while the Gen Z are looking at political engagement.

 As of Oct. 21, more than three million young Americans have already cast their ballots, Matto said.

Millennials and Gen Z, often referred to as “digital natives,” “are highly educated at this stage of their life more than the previous generations were.”

What are young American voters looking for in a candidate?

Called “digital natives,” millennials and Gen Z care about issues that affect them, such as the cost of college education.

Matto said millennials and Gen Z are less inclined to identify with one political party and are more likely to align with or declare themselves as independents.

"That being said, when it comes to ideology, certainly, young adults today lean much more left than right. We have, for the most part, young adults who would identify themselves as progressive as opposed to conservative. Although they might identify with one ideology or another, that doesn't always translate to political participation," she explained.

She cited the young Americans’ strong support for Bernie Sanders' candidacy in 2016. "A number of democratic campaign consultants assumed young adults would automatically vote for the democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. That didn't turn out to be the case. It didn't naturally translate to support for a political party."

According to Pew Research Center projections, one in 10 eligible voters this year is a Gen Z, up from just four percent in 2016, when Donald Trump became president.

"Now, I would say that's different this year…I think they recognize how not turning out on election day can have a real impact. We certainly know that young adults today are more progressive than conservative, and have very strong negative feelings about President Trump, or will most likely turn out in large numbers, even if the Biden candidacy wasn't their first choice," she said.

Matto said young adults are supporting Democrat Joe Biden based on a recent Harvard poll. "They are not only supporting the democratic candidate but are showing more positive support for Joe Biden specifically. In general, young adults, certainly today, very much lean progressive."

Matto, however, noted that in 2016, the US recorded a lot of new young Republicans. "In many ways, in 2016, much like young adults really supported the Sanders candidacy, there was a lot that about the Trump candidacy that appealed to millennials," she said.

"(They) really liked the fact that he was not a traditional candidate, that he spoke his mind, that he wasn't confined by the labels of the Republican party, much like Bernie Sanders was not confined by the labels of the democratic party."

Voter mobilization 

Young people at a polling station in Arlington, Virginia . Photo courtesy of the US State Department.

An effective way to encourage young people to vote is through voter mobilization initiatives, Matto said.

“There was enough research and evidence that suggest when you do reach out to young adults, they vote. The 2008 Barack Obama campaign is a perfect example of that. The Obama campaign had a really extensive texting mobilization campaign among young adults and that made a difference. That was a campaign that spoke to them, that used tools that young people had a facility with.”

"Apart form being digital natives, millennials tend to be a generation that can spot can spot authenticity too. They know when someone is using social media naturally or whether or not it seems like it's a difficult thing to do for them," she said.

Matto believes the three factors that would encourage young adults to vote this year are significant mobilization, the realization about how much politics affects their day-to-day life, and the realization that they can affect the political process.

Matto said social media apps such as TikTok are being used to walk young people through the voter registration process. "TikTok is really big among college-age students."

A number of her students, she said, have made TikTok videos on how to update voter registration and how to fill out ballots correctly. 

"I think we're starting to see millennials, and in particular Gen Z, getting more politically interested, more politically engaged. Also, campuses such as mine and colleges around the United States have played a much more proactive role in supporting college students, encouraging them, helping them get registered to vote—and voting on election day," she said.

Youth support

Social media apps such as TikTok are being used to walk young people through the voter registration process.

Matto, however, clarified that young people do not simply throw their support behind young candidates.

“The Bernie Sanders candidacy is a great example. I think there's often been questions about what is it about someone who is so much older than they are? I really think it's not enough to be young. You have to speak to young adults. You have to speak about public policies as they relate to young adults," she said.

"For example, the cost of college education and student loan debt. There were very few candidates, Republican or Democrat, talking about issues that mattered to young adults except for Bernie Sanders.” 

Banner photo courtesy of the US State Department