Dec 3, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Democrats wrestle with young voters' mixed messages

Students participate in a pro-Palestinian protest at Columbia University in New York on Nov. 14. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the past two months, young voters have shown President Biden and his Democrats that their anger over U.S. policy on Israel could help spoil his bid for re-election — but that their support for abortion rights could help him win in 2024.

Why it matters: Those mixed messages — delivered in polls on the war in Gaza and in several state elections last month — are partly why Democrats, with increasing urgency, are putting abortion rights front and center in aggressive campaigns to motivate voters under 30.

Zoom in: Ohio's vote in favor of abortion protections — along with Democratic wins in Kentucky and Virginia — has organizers in Arizona, Nevada and Florida rushing to get abortion-rights measures on the ballot in those key states, partly to try to boost Biden and down-ballot Democrats next November.

  • But many Democratic activists say their takeaway from last month's contests wasn't just the potency of abortion rights at the ballot box — it was the enthusiasm young voters showed in backing the cause.
  • In Virginia, for example, many university precincts reported particularly heavy turnout as Democrats took control of the legislature — and denied Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin a chance to pass his proposed 15-week abortion ban.
  • The overwhelming majority of Ohio voters age 18 to 40 — Generation Z and millennials — backed amendments protecting abortion rights and legalizing marijuana, according to CNN exit polls.
  • "In states like Virginia and Kentucky, we're seeing young voters continue to make a large difference," said Jack Lobel, national press secretary for Voters of Tomorrow, a nonprofit that aims to get Gen Z more involved in politics and is active on campuses.
  • "We're determined to mobilize them, and they show up as a result."

Yes, but: The Israel-Hamas war, sparked by the militant group's Oct. 7 attack on Israel, has complicated activists' efforts to rally under-30 voters to support Biden in 2024 — and capitalize on the momentum from last month's elections.

  • Leaders of several groups of young progressives warned Biden recently that he's risking "millions of young voters staying home or voting third party next year" because of his strong support of Israel, which resumed its military campaign in Gaza after a temporary ceasefire collapsed due to Hamas' refusal to release more hostages.
  • Palestinian health officials say that more than 15,000 people were killed in Gaza before the fighting was paused last week for hostage releases.
  • "It's incredibly clear that our generation is a huge anti-war generation," said Michele Weindling, political director of the Sunrise Movement, a group that believes U.S. aid to Israel should be directed toward the climate change crisis.

What to watch: It's unclear whether many young voters' interest in progressive ballot initiatives will be overrun by their dismay with a Middle East war that doesn't seem likely to end anytime soon.

  • "Having a ballot measure on a controversial issue is not always enough to result in higher engagement," said Alberto Medina, spokesperson for the Tufts University Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

The other side: For Republicans, Biden's struggles with young voters because of the war represents an opportunity to cut into Democrats' typical advantage with voters under 30.

  • Likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has been unpopular with young voters, but a New York Times/Siena College survey last month jolted Democrats when it showed Biden virtually tied with Trump among under-30s.

Republicans are signaling that their efforts to attract young voters in 2024 will focus particularly on the youngest male voters, whom the GOP sees more socially conservative than most millennials.

  • A recent survey by the American Enterprise Institute indicated the percentages of Gen Z men who identify as liberal and/or feminist, and who support same-sex marriage, are lower than the previous generation.
  • Brilyn Hollyhand, co-chair of the Republican National Committee's Youth Advisory Council, has been working with conservative student groups to get college students to attend and tune in to GOP debates.
  • And CJ Pearson, a 21-year-old conservative media personality, has proposed a town hall for presidential candidates moderated by Gen Z conservatives.
  • "It'd be historic and it would give conservatives the opportunity to reach my generation with ideas they aren't hearing on their college campuses," he said last month in a post on X.
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