Young Voters Made the Difference in Democratic Victory

By Ben Wessel, Executive Director, NextGen America

Every election brings with it questions about young voter turnout: namely, will they or won’t they? Headlines about “lazy” and “apathetic” Gen Z’ers and millennials are par for the course in political commentary.

In 2020, uncertainty over youth turnout was even more rampant than usual. The coronavirus pandemic shut down tried and true methods of voter engagement, like clipboarding for voter registrations on campuses and canvassing in neighborhoods. What’s more, after a historically diverse Democratic primary, we entered the general election with a Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, who had a dismal -22 favorability rating with young Americans. For youth vote organizers like the team at NextGen America, the situation appeared quite bleak.

Yet young people not only rose to the occasion in the face of obstacles, they voted in record numbers and delivered victory for President-elect Biden and Vice Presidential-elect Kamala Harris. This year, between 53% to 56% of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29 cast ballots, per the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. The previous high-water mark for turnout was 51%, accomplished during Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008. 2020 broke records.

The margins in battleground states that flipped from red to blue tell an even clearer story. Take, for instance, Arizona. According to CIRCLE, the gap between Biden and Donald Trump in the Grand Canyon State stands at around 10,000 votes. Meanwhile, the margin between 18 to 29-year-old Biden voters and 18 to 29-year-old Trump voters is 126,000. The trend is replicated across other key states, including where NextGen America was active.

Across our 11 target states, we adjusted to the voter contact limitations imposed by a pandemic, doubling down on phone calls and text messages, social media outreach, and digital advertising. Rather than simply tell young people what they already knew about Trump, we emphasized the upside of a Biden administration. As a result, we were able to reach and convince hundreds of thousands of “low-turnout progressives,” who are not regulars when it comes to casting ballots, and first-time voters. In Nevada, where the race ended up closer than expected, Biden’s winning margin hovers around 36,000 votes. 38,055 of the low-turnout progressives in NextGen’s audience voted early.

Emboldened by concerns over the coronavirus, racial justice, climate change, and more, young people — especially young people of color — declared with resounding authority that the current administration’s inaction on the defining issues of our time simply won’t cut it. 18 to 29-year-old Black voters supported the Biden-Harris ticket at a 77% margin, young Asian American voters at 69%, and young Latinx voters at 49%.

While Biden and Harris deserve credit for listening to the needs of young voters, they would be wise to continue to incorporate the ideas of America’s largest eligible voting bloc into their plans for governing. After all, millennials and Gen Z represent not only the largest, but the most diverse and progressive group of potential voters in the nation.

Winning young voters simply means winning, and the record-setting 2018 midterms and 2020 general election are proof positive. If Democrats carry the momentum from the past couple elections into Georgia’s January 2021 runoffs, a Senate majority is attainable. Close to home, young people are already flexing their muscle locally with the passage of Oakland’s Measure QQ, which allows 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections.

And that’s far from the end of what’s attainable if the record turnout from 2018 and 2020 becomes the norm. With Gen Z only beginning to come of voting age, a major electoral realignment is in the offing — especially considering that young people are staying progressive as they grow older. As Ronald Brownstein writes in The Atlantic, “The electorate is beginning its most profound generational transition since the early 1980s, when Baby Boomers became the largest voting bloc, dislodging the Greatest Generation of Americans, who came of age during the Depression and World War II.”

Rather than malign young voters, it’s time to recognize their capability to transform American politics for decades to come.

Ben Wessel is the Executive Director of NextGen America, the nation’s largest young voter turnout organization, which has registered over 1.6 million young voters since 2014. He previously worked on Cory Booker’s 2013 Senate campaign and Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.