Democrats at a primary campaign rally for Bernie Sanders, whose strong support among younger socialist voters may hurt Joe Biden's bid for the White House
Democrats at a primary campaign rally for Bernie Sanders, whose strong support among younger socialist voters may hurt Joe Biden's bid for the White House © Lucas Jackson/Reuters

America’s youngest voters could hold the key to whether the US elects its oldest president in history in November. But, as Democrats convene online for a pandemic-plagued convention this week, they must face the fact that Generation Z (loosely defined as those born between 1995-2010) — some of whom will be voting in their first presidential election — are far from thrilled with the choices before them. That could translate into fewer of the youngest Americans bothering to vote at all.

A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that among 18 to 29-year-olds, strong support for their presidential candidate was almost the same whether that person was the Republican president Donald Trump or his Democratic rival Joe Biden — and both figures were dismally low, at 10 per cent for Mr Trump and 11 per cent for Mr Biden.

William Frey, demographer at the Brookings Institution, wrote recently that over half of the US population was now in either the Generation Z or millennial age bracket, and they are more racially diverse than older generations. That should mean they are more likely to vote Democrat.

And in the Pew survey, 67 per cent of 18 to 29-year-olds do indeed put themselves in the Biden or “lean Biden” camp. But a surprisingly high 30 per cent said they would either surely or possibly vote for Mr Trump, defying the conventional wisdom that most Trump voters are older. Even worse news for the Democrats: a Harris Poll conducted days before the convention found that 59 per cent of 18 to 39-year-olds said they would rather live in a socialist country than a capitalist one, up 9 percentage points since last year. That could mean only tepid support for the centrist Mr Biden, who ousted Bernie Sanders, the favoured Democratic candidate among youthful socialists, in the primaries.

Speaking to Gen Zs from both ends of the political spectrum to find out how keen they are to vote, I learnt that some supporters of Mr Trump and the Democratic Socialists of America have serious doubts.

Olivia Litzenberg, a 23-year-old DSA member from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the Democratic convention is nominally being held, said the presumptive nominee “most definitely will demotivate young voters . . . you’re not going to see us knocking doors for Biden”. She added: “I am transgender, and living another four years under Trump will be directly deleterious to my standard of living . . . but Biden is the ‘back to normal’ choice, and normal sucked.”

Ms Litzenberg’s partner, Pamela Westphal, 21, says the fact that Mr Sanders did not become the candidate was a “wake-up call” for a lot of young people, who felt that “the system is failing us”. She thinks Democratic turnout will be suppressed. “I haven’t met too many young people who are too gung-ho for Biden. I’ve met young people who are gung-ho for Trump. I have to say, I would not be shocked if Trump won again.”

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls

Wisconsin native Ben Travis, 26, voted for Mr Trump in 2016 but is questioning whether to do so again. “I lean fiscally conservative but socially liberal,” he says — a profile that is common among young Trump supporters. But having studied public health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is critical of how the president has handled the pandemic and the largest anti-racism protests in half a century.

“I was really behind him,” he says. But with so many dead in the pandemic and protests having rocked the US, “the country was really at a moment when they needed a president, but he really failed at that”. “At that moment I really began to question, can I support him? And now I’m internally battling . . . I think I will vote for him, but I’m one more moment away from not.” 

Generation Z may only represent about 10 per cent of eligible voters, but that 10 per cent could make all the difference if the election is, as seems likely, closer than current polls suggest. “I think there will be a lower youth turnout in this election,” says Ms Westphal. “The young feel that politicians are not listening to them.”

Those who feel ignored should vote to change that — but they often don’t. America’s youngest voters could hold the balance of power in this election, but that power matters little unless they choose to wield it.

patti.waldmeir@ft.com

Letter in response to this column:

Young American voters will not swing this election / From Robert Hunter, Washington, DC, US

Get alerts on US presidential election 2020 when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article