How Much Could Younger Voters Affect Future Election Outcomes?
Millennial and Gen Z Americans will be the majority of the electorate in 2028. But predicting which party will benefit will be challenging. These young voters care more about policy than party, according to experts.
Generation Z, comprised of Americans born since 1997, is the largest generation in American history. It’s also the most diverse, so much so that some have proposed that it be called the “plurals” to reflect the racial and ethnic pluralism that will make Gen Z the first majority nonwhite generation.
By 2028 Gen Z and its predecessor, the millennials (born 1981-1996), will make up over half of the voting population. They’ll come close (48.5 percent) by 2024.
Some see voting preferences in the midterm elections as a clear sign that political winds will shift significantly in coming years.
What’s in a Name?
Giving a group name to persons born within a certain time period may have functional value, but RAND Corporation sociologist Marek Posard cautions against assuming that members of these groups share “generational” characteristics. In fact, he notes, the baby boomers are the only cohort recognized as a "generation" by the Census Bureau.
The “baby boom” was a distinct and significant demographic event. American soldiers deployed overseas during World War II returned at about the same time, and the country experienced its largest ever year-over-year increase in birth rate. “When that rate came back down, that was the end of the baby boom generation,” Posard says.
Birth year is a one-dimensional data point. It does not take into account the differences in urban and rural attitudes and experiences. Posard’s research suggests that it is not a reliable predictor of future priorities. (As the graph above shows, baby boomers — once feared as rule breakers whose sexual freedom, drug use and mass protests would overturn the social order — were more likely to support Republican candidates for Congress in 2022.)
“Millennials who are in their thirties might be getting married, trying to have children, buying a home, paying off their student loans and that's going to be a whole new set of stressors," Posard says.
What it means to be a “Democrat” or a “Republican” is also changing continuously, he observes. Once a group of people united by at least a roughly common worldview, “Parties are [now] just patchworks of interest groups glued together, and they will shift and change to win votes — we have realignments every few decades.”
Even if grouping young voters into generational categories has limitations for forecasting behavior, there are some things that are different about Gen Z and millennial youth.
Diversity is the Baseline
The most clear-cut and immutable characteristic of Gen Z is its diversity. By 2026, it will be the first majority nonwhite generation in American history. Millennials are more than twice as diverse as boomers.
A survey published in February by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that more than 5 in 10 Republicans believe the U.S. should be “a strictly Christian" nation. Nearly as many Gen Zers and millennials say that they have no religious affiliation at all.
The Human Rights Campaign reported recently that it is tracking 340 anti-LBTQ+ bills currently in state legislatures. (Of the 315 “discriminatory” bills it says were introduced in 2022, 29 became law.) A broader range of sexual preference is another attribute of younger Americans, though it’s not possible to know if they are also more willing than previous generations to be honest about such things.
Millennials are the most-educated generation. Almost 40 percent have bachelor’s degrees or higher, something only 15 percent of baby boomers had attained by the same age.
Policy, Not Politics
Ruby Belle Booth is the elections coordinator for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning Engagement (CIRCLE), part of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. She oversees research efforts aimed at increasing understanding of how young people engage with elections and democracy itself.
Rather than a taking a “generational” approach, CIRCLE focuses its work on 18- to 29-year-olds, consistent with the Census Bureau’s definition of “young adults.” At present, this group is about evenly made up of Gen Zers and millennials.
“Starting with millennials we see a movement away from a lot of traditional institutions, both politically and otherwise, that has continued into Gen Z,” Booth says. “You see it with religion and marriage, and you also see it with political parties.”
One way this manifests is that these voters are loyal first to their policy priorities, not to any party. Young voters don't have high degrees of trust in either party, and are frustrated by the polarization and stagnation of recent years.
One of the big challenges CIRCLE has identified — and one of the big opportunities for candidates — is that many young people lack access and exposure to information about elections. They are aware of the power that the right to vote gives them, but unwilling to sign off on things they don’t understand.
The lack of infrastructure within schools, workplaces and the culture to foster this understanding is as much a barrier to participation as restrictive election laws, Booth believes.
Candidates and campaigns do a poor job of reaching beyond college campuses to engage young people and could learn from community-based organizations. Third parties are stepping up to fill the void. For example, BallotReady — an election-focused startup launched in 2015 by a pair of graduate students, attempts to fill the voter information gap — helps millions of constituents across the 50 states with data on hundreds of thousands of candidates and elected officials through a customized digital platform.
Climate is an imminent threat to younger voters in a way it has not been to previous generations. They see gun control through the eyes of survivors of an era of school shooting tragedies. “There are certain things that the youngest generation is not going to back down on,” Booth says. “Abortion is non-negotiable.”
Inflation was the top concern in a post-midterm survey conducted by CIRCLE. Unlike drag queens and anti-racism library books, the economic situation in the country is a real threat to the survival of millennial and Gen Z voters. The American dream of homeownership is farther away from them than it ever was for baby boomers.
Unsurprisingly, defending equality is a priority reflected in all of CIRCLE’s polling of young voters. “It's a belief that's so core to their approach to things that when they're thinking about economic issues or reproductive rights, they're thinking about how those things apply to people of all sorts of backgrounds,” Booth says.
A Culture Transforming
Does either party have a certain advantage in winning support from younger voters? “Both parties course correct eventually, and history proves that they tend to find that center,” says Posard. “That kind of throws a wrench into forecasting for generational changes.”
If economic stresses become great enough, realistic and honest economic solutions alone could win the day. (Some Gen Zers are secretly hoping for a recession that could give them a shot at homeownership.)
The safest prediction may be that the nature of the emerging electorate will inevitably transform politics. The first nonwhite majority will want to see candidates for office at every level who look like them, and the pool from which such candidates can be drawn will be bigger than ever.
“So many young people believe deeply in the power of their own voice,” says Booth, a member of Gen Z herself. “Hopefully, combining that with the beautiful diversity of this generation will lead to serious and much-needed change in our political and democratic systems.”