Young voters may yet save America

The 2020 presidential election as “last stand” for the boomer generation
October 15, 2020

Combined pic of Cory Booker and AOC and Kamala Harris

“Only the young, only the young can run,” sings Taylor Swift on her political anthem released in early 2020. There is no doubt American youth have been hitting the pavement hard—in the Black Lives Matter resurgence, in protests over climate change, and in calls for economic justice in the wake of pandemic joblessness. The question is, will they show up to polls on November 3, or take advantage of mail-in ballots, to dump Trump?  

According to a study published in May by the Pew Research Center, Americans from the Gen-X and younger generations outvoted their elders in the 2018 U.S. midterm election. The study found that Gen Z (born between the mid-1990s and late 2010s) is largely pro-government, anti-Trump, and the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history, with 52% identifying as non-Hispanic white. In September, The Economist referred to 2020 as “the last stand of the baby-boomers,” who have dominated elections since the 1990s. 

The Joe Biden–Kamala Harris (pictured, right) campaign has been challenged for not engaging enough with this growing young cohort of potential supporters. In March, Biden’s main competition for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, warned the party establishment: “In order to win in the future, you need to win the voters who represent the future of our country. And you must speak to the issues concern to them. You cannot simply be satisfied by winning the votes of people who are older.”  

Timothy Ellis, a U.S. immigrant to Canada who worked on Sanders’s 2016 campaign, tells me the Democrats have to realize that the centre has shifted. 

“Young people have grown up watching a steadily worsening climate crisis unfold while our elders did nothing to address it,” says Ellis, now a senior organizer with “We’ve grown up watching the rich get richer while wages stagnate. Many lack health care entirely. In the U.S., life expectancy is actually going down. Democrats will need to offer real, bold, progressive solutions that match the scale of the daily crises we face if they want to win Millennial and Gen Z voters.”

Ellis offers up the example of the recent Senate primary in Massachusetts between Joe Kennedy, who ran as a “new voice” of youth with the right family connections, and the 70-year-old incumbent Ed Markey, a co-author of the Green New Deal resolution with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who endorsed him—pictured, centre). Polling had Markey down by double digits in the beginning of the campaign, “but he won handily in the end by running an unabashedly progressive campaign that energized and drew in Millennials and Gen Z while also retaining older suburban moderates,” says Ellis. 

“What [Democrats] used to consider ‘far left’ is the new centre. If Democrats embrace that, they can win landslides for two generations.”

This time around, if the Democrats do again lose to Trump, and with Sanders off the menu for future bids, the question becomes: what next? Erica Bronco, a University of Ottawa student who resides in Vermont and will be voting for Biden-Harris on November 3, says she thinks Harris or Cory Booker (pictured, left) look promising. 

“Booker’s compassion and thoughtfulness in the way he talked at the [Democratic primaries] debate and in interviews really reminded me of President Obama and I miss having a president who is so thoughtful about other people and the impact of making important speeches during times of division or tragedy and trying to unite the country,” she tells me. Bronco adds that she is glad to see Harris as the vice-presidential candidate, as she says it will bring a new perspective and representation of women and people of colour. 

Regardless of the results, the impact of younger voters will change political considerstions for Democrats and Republicans alike, says Paul Hamilton, an associate professor at Brock University. “The Democrats have been rebuilding since Clinton’s defeat in 2016. They have moved to the left and worked on policy that will appeal to younger voters. A new generation of Democrats will begin to take place after this election,” he tells me. 

“The near-term future for the Republican party is grim,” Hamilton adds. “The problem is that the party is very divided, and the primary system encourages extremist candidates. The electoral environment is also hostile to Republicans, as American society becomes increasingly diverse, and left-leaning Millennials and Gen Z voters make a larger impact on elections.”

Arushana Sunderaeson is a development assistant and events engagement officer at the CCPA National Office.