The Road to 2024: Youth Party Politics in America


The 2018 youth-led March For Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C.

The 2018 youth-led March For Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C.

On January 20th, 2017, Donald J. Trump became America’s oldest first-term president ever, taking the oath of office at age 70. By the time the 2020 presidential election is held, President Trump will be four years older and will have the chance to break the record for oldest president ever. And his opponents aren’t any younger. On Election Day 2020, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont will be 79. Former Vice President Joe Biden will be 77. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts will be 71. Washington Governor Jay Inslee will be 69. And former Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska will be 89.

But as the field of presidential hopefuls has gotten older than ever before, the electorate has gotten younger. In 2019, millennials are projected to overtake Baby Boomers as the largest generation in the US electorate. This raises the question, why aren’t there more young people in government? And why is the field of elected officials so unrepresentative of the people it represents?

A Focus on the Future

Young people are asking these same questions. According to data from a March poll conducted by the Harvard Public Opinion Project, young people overwhelmingly feel that the Baby Boomer generation does not care about them or their political interests. Only 18% of young people feel that Baby Boomer voters care about them, and even fewer, 16%, feel that Baby Boomer elected officials care about them.

One possible explanation for this sentiment is the deep ideological divide between Baby Boomers and young Americans. Young voters tend to be more liberal and more focused on long-term issues, like climate change and rising income inequality. These long-term issues are considered “ticking time bombs” because they will affect young voters down the line. Baby Boomers, on the other hand, have less of a stake in these issues, so it is easier for them to discount their importance. For example, President Trump reportedly dismissed the importance of the national debt crisis to senior officials by saying, “I won’t be here.”

The importance of these long-term issues to young voters reflects another important shift in political opinions. Because of the scale and magnitude of these issues, young voters tend to be more supportive of structural changes to economic and democratic institutions. Demands for a “green economy” or a “universal basic income” are now commonplace among young voters. Structural changes to the American system of government are being proposed as long-term solutions to the corruption and dysfunction of the current system; some popular solutions include ending gerrymandering, addressing voter suppression, ensuring automatic voter registration, fixing campaign finance laws, and extending statehood to Washington DC and Puerto Rico. Whether these solutions would be successful is complicated, but their existence in the mainstream political dialogue is indicative of young voters’ focus on the future and desire for fundamental changes to the American economy and government.

The HPOP poll also found that 51% of young voters believe today is too partisan. However, young voters are less worried about “electability” — a concept that traditionally includes at least moderate bipartisan appeal — than a candidate’s ideology. This seeming contrast could indicate support for an open and bipartisan debate of policy ideas, as opposed to today’s partisan jabs and name-calling. Young voters dislike both the “style” and the “substance” of modern politics.

The 2020 Candidates

Of the two major political parties, the Democratic Party has most embraced the youth vote. Democrats have shifted markedly to the left over the last few years, which has appealed to increasingly progressive young voters. The Democrats have also focused on the long-term issues that motivate young voters, by talking about potential solutions to climate change, income inequality, and automation.

Politicians who focus on the long-term issues that are on the minds of young voters garner the most support from this cohort. The HPOP poll found that Bernie Sanders topped the field of 2020 presidential candidates, with 31 percent support. Although this seems to clash with the large distrust that Millennials have towards Baby Boomer politicians, Sanders’s proposals address “youth” issues. In 2016, Sanders shifted the Overton Window of the Democratic Party by focusing on Medicare-for-All and wealth redistribution, which are now popular positions in the Democratic Party.

Another surging candidate is Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. Even though the 2020 field for president is older than ever before, it also has the first major millennial candidate for president in Buttigieg, who is thirty-seven. Buttigieg has centered his campaign around “winning an era” by calling for structural reforms to American democracy. Buttigieg, who announced his campaign on April 14, has made generational change a focus of his bid for the White House.

The Road to 2024 and Beyond

Young people aren’t afraid to express their political views, whether on Twitter or through a protest in Washington DC. The growing youth demographic is getting more motivated and more involved in politics as a way to ensure their voices are heard. The 2018 elections saw the highest youth turnout of any midterm in almost four decades, and HPOP found that 63% of young voters say they will definitely vote in the 2020 election, which if true would break youth turnout records going back to at least 1972. Young people feel underrepresented compared to their conservative elders, the Baby Boomers, and they are using their vote to demand change.

The 2018 elections also saw the widest partisan gap in the youth vote in recent history, as Democratic candidates gained traction with young voters by focusing on long-term issues that motivate youth turnout. If that trend continues, the inclusion of young voters into the tent of the Democratic Party will prove to be a significant strategic advantage, especially as they become a larger part of the electorate.  

As millennials continue to grow as a share of the American electorate, both parties will have to choose whether to embrace these young and ideological voters or risk losing one of the largest electoral groups in America. The road to 2020 may be well under way, but the road to 2024 and beyond has just begun.

This article is part of a series analyzing data from the Harvard Public Opinion Project’s Spring 2019 Youth Poll. Other articles in the series can be found here, and the poll data can be found here.

Image Credit: Flickr/Phil Roeder

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