'I-told-you-so moment': Young voter advocates urge parties to take them seriously after midterms

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Young people turned out in droves during the 2022 midterm elections — but not for Republicans.

Young voters had the second-highest level of youth participation in at least 30 years, according to Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). Some 63% of young voters cast ballots for Democrats in House races, with young voters of color voting blue at even greater rates.

And in key Senate races like Nevada and Georgia, youth voters narrowed margins and decided outcomes, dramatically swinging in favor of Democratic candidates.

"I don't think there's any doubt that unbelievably strong support from the youth age group was just a foundation for some of these candidates to win the races that they did and for Democrats to hold the Senate," said Abby Kiesa, deputy director of CIRCLE.

With nearly all 2022 races called, it's clear that young voters in part helped hold off the GOP's predicted “red wave."

In Nevada's razor-thin Senate race, which decided control of the upper chamber, young people cast a net 27,000 votes in favor of the Democratic candidate, incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto — three times Cortez Masto's margin of victory of 8,000 votes over Republican challenger Adam Laxalt.

Youth voter experts and advocates on both sides of the aisle say the 2022 midterm elections prove that political parties can't continue to discount the nation's youngest voters without risking the loss of a key voting bloc that could help decide future elections.

"Youth have felt underestimated for a very long time when it comes to politics, and in a sense, it was kind of their ‘I-told-you-so’ moment — their assertion of collective power," said Ioana Literat, a professor at the Teacher's College of Columbia University, who studies online political expression and participation. "And they really shut a lot of people up."

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GOP yielded digital battleground

From inviting influencers to the White House to spending big on modern digital advertising, Democrats more heavily invested in connecting with young voters by meeting them on their playing field than the GOP.

On platforms like Snapchat and TikTok, where the majority of young people spend time, Democrats spent more time and money than Republicans.

A USA TODAY analysis of Snapchat's public data determined that Democrats and liberal interest groups dominated the platform's 2022 political ad spending.

While the top-spending Democratic candidate, Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., dropped more than $306,000 on Snapchat political ads since the start of the year, the top-spending Republican candidate was a Missouri U.S. House race candidate and political unknown who placed $3,045 in political ads on the platform.

"You don't see Republican campaigns making an appearance (on Snapchat), so it's almost as if they yielded that platform entirely to one side," said Tatenda Musapatike, CEO of the Voter Formation Project, which works to increase participation in elections via digital efforts.

Snapchat political ads: Democrats sought young voter support via Snapchat, but Republicans steered clear

Though TikTok doesn't allow political advertising, the Democratic Party and many of its 2022 candidates utilized the platform to connect with young people.

Conservative influencers are active on TikTok, generating hundreds of thousands of interactions on videos about Republican issues like inflation and traditional values. But Republican candidates and the GOP itself have steered clear of the platform, citing national security concerns.

Those concerns are shared by FBI Director Christopher Wray, who told Congress last week he is “extremely concerned” China could weaponize data collected through the popular app. TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.

But that disparity could continue to hurt the GOP in future elections, Literat said.

"Young people want to connect with their candidates and their elected leaders; they want to have that direct communication channel," Literat said. "If you're a politician and if you can ... be in that space authentically and in a creative way and in a way that doesn't feel fake or disingenuous or cringe, then you’re also showing that you can connect to young people."

Gen Z wants authentic engagement on issues

Gen Z easily sniffs out inauthenticity on social media — and in political candidates.

Connor Gibson, 18, voted for the first time in the 2022 election. The Mississippi Republican believes the GOP did a "terrible job" fielding candidates, opting for polarizing nominees over tested ones.

"I see a difference between candidates who are two-faced, and I see a difference with candidates and elected officials who are authentic. And I definitely see a surge in popularity with candidates who are tried and true, that are genuine," Gibson said. "Voters recognize that, especially young voters."

Gibson suggested he'd like to see more candidates like Mississippi state Rep. Kent McCarty, a 29-year-old Republican and coffee shop owner who he described as a "conservative who works across the aisle whenever it is necessary."

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"When candidates run races and govern in ways that are focused on the issues that matter to them on a day-to-day basis, young people appreciate that, and they will reward them as voters," Gibson said.

In a mid-May survey of 3,200 respondents across 50 states, half ofwhom belong to Gen Z, the nonprofit IGNITE found that young voters' top issues — like mass shootings, abortion and inflation — were just a few percentage points apart in importance, indicating that Gen Z voters vote based on a mix of many issues.

"Midterms (are) such a great way to see if people are gonna vote along party lines," said Sara Guillermo, CEO of IGNITE, which encourages and trains young women to run for office. "It was a big demonstration; (Gen Z) voted based on the issues that they care most about."

The leading issue for young voters was abortion, spurred by the summer reversal of Roe v. Wade, the landmark reproductive rights case, according to CIRCLE's analysis of exit poll data. Four in five young voters who believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases cast blue ballots in House races, CIRCLE also found.

"The Roe v. Wade repeal and the whole abortion debate have really just brought things into focus," Literat said. "That was a huge boon to the Democrats ... how much it meant to young people. It really emphasized the urgency of going out there to vote."

Mobilizing young voters

Both the Democratic and Republican parties have long ignored young voters, focusing their attention and money on more reliable voting blocs like older Americans.

Brendan Steinhauser, chief strategy officer for the conservative student activism group Young Americans for Liberty, told USA TODAY that the parties struggle to see beyond what's "immediately in front of them."

"The party activists, the donors care very much about this," Steinhauser said of finding a way to connect with young voters. "It's just that I think the party leadership – the Kevin McCarthy's of the world and the Mitch McConnell's of the world, the Republican National Committee – they just are not quite there."

Steinhauser said that Young Americans for Liberty has seen success at the polls just by mobilizing the "low hanging fruit" — young voters who already align with the group's political mission. The group's Hazlitt Coalition, a network of conservative legislators supported by Young Americans for Liberty, doubled in size this year to include some 325 state legislators, many of them under 40, he said.

"We focus on just plugging those folks into the system," he said.

That's most of the battle, Kiesa, the deputy director of CIRCLE, said. "(Gen Z) is a pretty engaged generation, but it is not something that, as a country, we can just leave up to the whims of a generation," Kiesa said.

For political parties, that means reaching out to young people early on and equipping them with the tools to understand their platforms and how to participate in the democratic process, Kiesa said. Schools, news media and community leaders can also help young people get civically involved, she added.

"We need to invest in early democratic participation so we have long term strong democratic participation across a wide diversity of communities," Kiesa said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gen Z at the polls: After midterms, advocates urge for more engagement