If voter turnout in 2018 is any indication, young women age 18-24 will decide the 2020 Presidential election. Candidates who ignore this group – and the issues they care about – do so at their own peril.
Historically 18-24-year-olds are highly unreliable voters, and so conventional political wisdom posits that it isn’t worth addressing their concerns or mobilizing them as a voting bloc. Yet results from the 2018 midterms suggests there is a massive sea change afoot. Eighteen to twenty-four-year-old women voted at a rate of 35% in the 2018 midterms, a twofold increase from 2014. Historical trends show that midterm voting rates tend to double (or more) in the succeeding general election. If those trends persist, the 2020 voting rate for Gen Z women is likely to be 70% or higher. What about young men? Well they vote at 7% lower than their female peers - a gender difference mirrored at every age bracket but the oldest.
So who are these young women and what do they care about? Gen Z is the most diverse generation in our nation’s history: only 52% are non-Hispanic White. The disproportionate incarceration of black and brown people, as well as the internment of immigrants (and especially immigrant children) at the border, is hitting closer to home, for both young women of color and white women. Environmental issues have become all too real, especially for students on college campuses impacted by wildfires, floods, and the like. The increased rate of school shootings means that gun violence has hit this generation more personally than ever before. And here’s where gender matters most: a generation of young women who never believed their reproductive choices would be limited just woke up to the fact that a miscarriage could be grounds for prosecution, depending on where they live. Yes, young women differ by political party affiliation on these issues, but the gulf is not nearly as large as it is for Generation X and older.
So how will these young women vote? Well if what we know about them is right, all signs point to support for any candidate who is not Donald Trump, be it a Democrat, Independent or Republican challenger. Party politics are wholly unappealing to Gen Z and they are registering Independent at a rate of almost 25%. This category represents an amalgamation of women: those who think the Democratic party isn’t progressive enough, conservative young women who view policies coming out of the current administration as out of touch and out of step with their personal reality, and women who simply detest the two-party system. The remaining 75%? Two-thirds lean Democratic and one-third lean Republican.
To be sure, this assessment could be upended, most likely by the nomination of a Democratic candidate who makes no compelling case that s/he will address the issues that most concern young women. The inordinate Democratic debate focus on health care – an issue young people we have surveyed do not rank as critically important and time-sensitive – could dim young women’s excitement around supporting any candidate. In that case, the worst thing that could happen is that young women stay home: the strength of their voice will be muted during this election.
Why aren’t pollsters and candidates nicknaming and talking to this group of voters? Historically their turnout has been low, and there is no easy way to poll them, leaving them ignored by candidates and campaigns to prioritize older, more reliable voters. But whoever the challenger candidate is, s/he and President Trump would have to be tone-deaf to not realize that a generation of young women is more politically engaged than ever before, and the fate of their campaigns - and the country - rest in Gen Z hands.
Dr. Anne Moses is the Founder and President of IGNITE, a nonpartisan 501c3 that is the largest and most diverse young women’s political leadership program in the United States, building political ambition in 10,000+ young women a year across 30 states.