Don't Assume Gen Z Will Show Up

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Don't Assume Gen Z Will Show Up
(Andree Kehn/Sun Journal via AP)
Don't Assume Gen Z Will Show Up
(Andree Kehn/Sun Journal via AP)
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As the November presidential election approaches, stories abound showing overwhelming support among Generation Z for former Vice President Joe Biden over President Trump, with claims like “Young voters backing Biden by 2-to-1 margin.”

While many may assume widespread electoral support for Biden among younger voters is a fait accompli, a surprising number of Gen Z voters may have already chosen to opt out of voting come November.

The idea that these voters would essentially “stay home” on Election Day is counterintuitive, given their heightened interest in our polarized times, but my ideas changed once the fall school year reopened and I had a chance to speak with scores of students around the country. Their stories were consistent: Gen Zers were having trouble accepting Joe Biden as their candidate of choice and staying home and opting out was appealing to them. Despite my comments that this could lead to a second Trump term, students consistently said that Biden did not inspire them. New survey data suggests that Gen Z’s turnout may be overstated. Politicos should take note.

First, the fall youth poll from Harvard’s Institute of Politics finds a significant enthusiasm gap between the candidates: 56% of America’s 18-to-29-year-old likely voters who support Trump are "very enthusiastic" about voting for him. This stands in stark contrast to just 35% of likely voters who back Biden. Those in Gen Z are generally not excited about the Democratic nominee and tell me that they were deflated when more progressive candidates dropped out of the race. Such low levels of enthusiasm may not translate to actually casting a ballot.

Second, as the American Enterprise Institute’s new “Socially Distant: How Our Divided Social Networks Explain Our Politics” survey reveals, just 7% of Gen Zers have a very favorable view of Biden while another 40% have a favorable view – making for a 47% overall favorability rating. While this is appreciably higher than Trump’s 20% favorability rating, it is anything but a landslide of support from younger Americans for Biden. My students regularly share the fact that they have trouble getting behind Biden given his  history of inappropriately touching women and his less than consistent left-of-center positions. This fact, along with the Harvard enthusiasm data, again suggests that the drive to vote for Biden may indeed be lower than many narratives assert; candidates need to inspire voters to drive turnout.

Relatedly, the survey asks if it has been easy or hard to make a decision about who to vote for this year (2020). Given the polarized climate and the overall disdain for the Trump administration among young people, one would think that making a decision about voting in a few weeks should be fairly easy. However, 30% of Gen Zers and Millennials state that their decision was hard – this is significantly higher than their parents (21%) and grandparents (14% for Boomers and 10% of Silents) – and again provides a hint of evidence that Gen Zers may opt out of voting entirely.

Going further, when asked who they’d vote for if the election were held today, Gen Z is not uniformly in support of Biden: 57% would vote for Biden and 18% for Trump. But 6% state someone else and another 19% say that they will sit this election out. And compared to the older cohorts, this intention to sit out is very different: Just 8% of Gen Xers and 5% of Boomers do not intend to vote.

Moreover, when asked about how certain they are about their choice, those in Gen Z are less certain compared to older cohorts. Just 51% of those in Gen Z state that they are absolutely certain that they will vote in the 2020 election; this shows that Biden’s support in large numbers is not assured. In contrast, 71% of those in Gen X and 80% of the Boomers state that they are absolutely certain that they will vote.

Finally, the survey data makes it clear that those in Gen Z are politically engaged, but not necessarily with the election. Two-thirds (67%) have been following the election fairly or very closely, notably lower than the 88% who have been paying attention to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 80% who are following the BLM protests. Gen Zers are not ignoring current events, but they may be increasingly disinterested in the election itself.

Collectively, these data points confirm a story that my students have been sharing with me for the past month: Do not assume that Gen Zers will vote this fall. Excitement for Biden is low and large numbers of Gen Zers already report that they do not intend to vote in November. Given the fact that survey data on vote intentions often over-report turnout intention, it is quite possible that participation will be far lower among our youngest cohort of voting-aged Americans. The electoral implications could be significant and help swing the nation back to Trump for another four years.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.



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