In 2016, Gen Z and Millennial voters accounted for just 23% of the vote in the presidential election, compared to 51% from Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation, according to an analysis from political agency Catalyst.
So it’s no surprise politicians don’t often prioritize young voters — and those voters’ priorities.
But youth voter turnout surged in 2018, largely fueled by concerns about gun violence following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Gen Z’s share of the electorate nearly quadrupled from four years earlier, with Millennials’ share growing by 27%.
That’s getting the attention of more politicians, as well as the experts they hire to craft policy and manage campaigns. Here is how it’s changing politics:
1) Authenticity above all
Gen Z adults, who consume far more politics via TikTok and YouTube than they do via broadcast television, are forcing campaigns to rethink everything from stump speeches to online strategy.
“I don't agree with AOC on anything, but I respect her ability to get out and drive a message and drive a brand,” Ethan Zorfas, conservative consultant at Axiom Strategies, said of progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Zorfas complimented Ocasio-Cortez’ authenticity online, as well as her ability to drive a consistent message. He now encourages his conservative clients to take similar approaches on social media, tapping into their personalities for quick, pithy posts on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
“I think the jury's still out on how TikTok actually plays a role, in terms of political campaigns,” Zorfas added. “But whether it’s Instagram or Twitter, it's more about showing a natural, unscripted, 'here's who I am; here's how I spend my free time,' kind of relatability/likability.”
Candidates are also rethinking how they advertise to young voters, who very well may not even own a television.
“Top Democrats have to invest in on-the-ground micro-influencers,” said Krishana Davis, a progressive consultant with A/B Partners.
“Who is the Black micro-creator in a place who understands local culture? Who is making jokes at the local mall, who understands the subculture in a place?" Davis said. "Because those are the folks who are going to be able to reach thousands of voters who are going to be the deciding factor in a lot of these elections.”
2) More focus on progressive policies; less on bipartisanship
President Joe Biden was elected to office largely on a platform of fixing Washington’s toxic partisanship.
But young voters, for as much as they preferred a change in November 2020, may not be as interested in bipartisanship — or party politics whatsoever — as their president or their parents.
“Gen Z voters…are feeling very disillusioned by the political process,” Davis said, pointing out that young voters are less likely than older generations to identify with either major party.
According to a Morning Consult/Politico poll just before the 2020 general election, 42% of Gen Z adults identified as independents, compared to just 24% of all U.S. adults.
But that doesn’t mean the generation craves moderate politicians.
“What is interesting to Gen Z voters is being able to push forward subversive legislation,” Davis added. “So yes, it might not pass, but I know, as a voter, this candidate (or) person who's been in office has at least tried to move for some piece of legislation that I care about - reparations, or canceling student debt or…police reform. All of those things are part of the conversation.
3) Younger candidates, more representation
The constitution prohibits Gen Z’ers from running for president in 2024 (one must be 35 years old - firmly in the middle of the Millennial generation right now). But one needs be just 25 years old to run for the U.S. House, which has inspired a new crop of Gen Z candidates seeking Congressional seats.
A number of groups have formed in recent years to recruit - and aid - young candidates to run for political office, including the right-leaning Run GenZ, the left-leaning Run For Something, and the non-partisan Run For Office platform operated by Snapchat.
“Anyone that says identity politics doesn't play a role in our political system is lying to you,” Zorfas said, stressing the need for candidates who look and talk like the voters they are trying to connect with.
And no party knows that more than the Republican party, which has struggled to lure young voters for decades.
“The Republican Party, in general, has to take a cold, hard look in the mirror and realize that we are losing big time with my generation of voters,” said Karoline Leavitt, a Republican candidate for Congress in New Hampshire, who turns 25 just before the state’s September primary.
“The most powerful and effective way to do it is by putting up candidates who can really resonate with these voters.”
Leavitt believes Republicans can win over Gen Z voters with their economic plans, but they need to listen to young adults’ priorities, like climate, too.
Some of her fellow Republicans hear that message — many are starting to shift on the issue of climate change, recognizing it as a political liability with the country’s youngest voters.
4) Less reliance on social media?!?
Young adults, 18-29, are more than twice as politically engaged as they were during President Obama’s first midterm election year in 2010, according to a study done by the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
But that engagement doesn’t just come in the form of voting; activism takes many shapes these days, both online and in-person.
And one of Congress’ youngest members, 34-year-old Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.), says it’s hard to translate that energy into votes via social media.
“I think we need to delete the apps and go knock on doors,” Auchincloss said. “The social media engagements are outlets for very real anxiety...but it's superficial engagement.”
Auchincloss said interactions with Gen Z voters in and around Boston, a college mecca, convinced him young adults have a real appetite for genuine, authentic in-person interactions.
“(With) in-person interactions,” Auchincloss said, “you're forced to confront opposing viewpoints in a way that does not immediately denigrate the character of someone who disagrees with you. You're forced to recognize areas of common ground.”
And nowhere may that be more important, Auchincloss said, than local races, where it may only take a small number of votes to swing an election. It’s also those races, he said, where politicians can more easily put in face time with young voters, and help restore their ever-eroding faith in politics.
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.