Abortion fight strains Democratic alliance with Gen Z

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

A debate is raging inside the Democratic Party about whether it's giving its base — especially those under 30, the generation that most strongly supports abortion rights — enough motivation to keep voting for the party, as federal Democrats struggle to meaningfully push back against the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The fear is that an already deflated Democratic base won’t show up in November, particularly the youngest voters, who smashed participation records in the last two elections and backed President Joe Biden by a 25-point margin in 2020. Some Democrats stress that the Biden administration and Congress need to do more to show their rage — and willingness to take significant action — to mirror the passion seen among young people, three-quarters of whom support abortion being generally legal.

“There’s a fine line between the recent events pushing someone to never vote again or pushing someone to vote with that righteous anger and bring friends with them,” said Maxwell Frost, a 25-year-old Democrat who is running for a Florida congressional seat. “It’s up to our leaders to decide which direction that’s going to go in. When they show they’re in the fight, using all the resources to fight for the most vulnerable in our community … but we need more right now.”

That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted that Democrats “cannot make promises, hector people to vote, and then refuse to use our full power,” ticking through a list of potential actions the party could take, including moving to expand the Supreme Court, opening abortion clinics on federal lands and repealing the Hyde Amendment.

Days later, Vice President Kamala Harris pushed back on that frustration in front of a room full of donors, defending Biden's urging to vote in November: “I know some people are saying, ‘stop talking to us about the elections. We know.’ Don’t trivialize the significance. We can’t afford to,” because Democrats' margins in Congress are razor-thin.

A big step in defusing the disagreement came when Biden confirmed last week that he would support a carveout to the Senate filibuster rules in order to codify in federal law the same access to abortion that was previously protected by Roe v. Wade. That move was a “step in the right direction,” said Carmel Pryor, senior communications director of the Alliance for Youth Action.

“However, ensuring momentum in the fight for control of Congress requires more action,” Pryor continued. “There’s a lot of talk about Roe strengthening the multigenerational coalition and, sure, there’s potential, but we need to see action taken now. This is an emergency that can’t wait until November.”

To be clear, the chances of a filibuster exception actually coming to pass are slim. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) both indicated they don’t plan on backing such a carveout.

Even so, Democrats said this kind of “political theater” is what voters, especially Gen Z, need to see to “value signal” that they’re “willing to fight for them,” said Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster. He cited Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s effort to bus migrants from the Texas border to Washington, D.C., in the absence of federal action on immigration, calling it an example of a vivid action that effectively riles up the Republican base. Democrats, Woodbury continued, could be considering their own version of such attention-grabbing actions now.

“Can you imagine seeing hundreds of mobile clinics deployed from Washington to [the] states?” Woodbury added.

Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist who focuses on Latino voters, a demographic group that skews far younger than most racial groups, echoed those concerns, noting that he’s “found in focus groups that just saying, ‘[I'm] fighting for it,’ is not enough any more.”

“They are tired of us saying, ‘we’re fighting,’ but not delivering shit. What can you do tangibly to make a difference to do something about this?” Rocha continued. “We are good at bringing a policy book to a fist fight, and I worry about young people not showing up to vote because of it.”

This is a uniquely important challenge for Democrats hoping to mobilize voters under 30, who were a critical part of the party’s coalition that flipped the House in 2018 and retook the Senate and White House in 2020. Not only did three-quarters of them say abortion should be generally legal, 30 percent said it should be legal in all cases — which represents a yawning generational gap compared to other age groups, according to Pew Research. The organization's polling shows that 54 percent of voters over 65 said abortion should be legal, by contrast.

Woodbury pointed to last year’s Virginia elections as a warning to Democrats, if they fail to activate young voters. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won a state that backed Biden by a 10-point margin, in part, because “a bunch of Biden voters stayed home, and the electorate was 12 percent whiter and 8 percent older,” Woodbury said.

“In every battleground state in America, if on the day after Election Day in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona, the electorate is 12 percent whiter and 8 percent older, then we’ve lost all of them,” he continued. “I’m afraid [young voters are] growing so cynical that they’re just going to find other ways of expressing their discontent like protest, but not voting.”

But there are signs that voters under 30 will still show up in November, despite their frustration. They’ve already made a habit of it by showing up at historic levels in back-to-back national elections. In polling, they are still indicating a high level of interest in participating, according to the Harvard Youth poll, the biggest longitudinal study of young people.

“I think Gen Z participates [in 2022], period, and they can have an even greater impact than anyone ever considered if this righteous anger is properly channeled through a coordinated and localized strategy to make things right,” said John Della Volpe, director of the Harvard Youth poll, who advised Biden during the 2020 general election campaign. “Now, that’s a big if.”

Activists also argue that abortion is one of only several issues that has fostered disappointment with slow or less expansive executive responses from the Biden administration, including student loan debt and climate change.

“They need to get caught trying,” said Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run For Something, a Democratic organization that recruits and supports down-ballot candidates. “I think that is going to be really important for Gen Z. If the argument is, give us two more senators and we’ll pass and codify Roe v. Wade — give us a reason to trust you.”