The Democrats avoided the predicted “red wave”, and they have Generation Z to thank. Tuesday night’s big win can be attributed to young voters, who turned out in droves and overwhelmingly voted blue.
According to exit polls, one in eight midterm voters were under the age of 30, and 61% of 18- to 34-year-olds voted for Democrats. The results suggested Fox News pundits Jesse Watters and Laura Ingram should raise the voting age to 21.
Partly responsible for the high youth turnout was a new generation of political consultants who have been behind the scenes for months challenging the generalization that Gen Z is too lazy or disillusioned to bother voting.
Some of these strategists are essentially higher-level, more digitally savvy versions of their more entrenched Beltway peers. Like traditional consultants, Gen Z research firms are recruited through voter-targeted campaigns. But they are specifically responsible for reaching young voters, where they are. And often, that’s TikTok.
“Gen Z is aging into the electorate every day. It can be a formidable new audience for traditional candidates,” said Ashley Aylward, head of research at Hit Strategies, whose site boasts “ability to target audiences of color, women, LGBTQ+ and younger audiences.”
Democratic Gov. Mandela Barnes and Chris Jones tapped Hit Strategies to work on their campaigns. The Washington-based group has also worked with movements like Black Lives Matter and various chapters of the ACLU.
Aylward said Gen Z was more concerned with issues than aligning with a particular candidate. “Young people are a bit nervous about trusting politicians to keep their promises,” he said. If you want to speak to jaded youth, Aylward recommends sticking to a script that outlines their unique challenges: school shootings, the climate crisis, debt, and the return of Roe v Wade. “One thing that really helped [Democratic candidates] abortion was on the ballot, even though these measures exist in other states,” he said. “We advised our customers to make sure they talked about it.”
But candidates must also change the way they talk to young voters. One candidate who did this particularly well, according to Aylward, was John Fetterman, the next senator from Pennsylvania.
Fetterman, who spent $12 million on communications consultants, posted upbeat content online during his campaign. She jumped on the TikTok Teenage Dirtbag trend and invited Jersey Shore’s Snooki (AKA Nicole Polizzi) to poke fun at her opponent Mehmet Oz’s Garden State roots. “There were memes and humor, and that really got into the social media market for young people who feel overwhelmed by the amount of political issues they’re facing,” Aylward said. “He was able to use the language of young voters while still having a plan and being serious.”
Generation Z strategists aren’t working directly with candidates, but with political action groups and nonprofits. Antonio Arellano is the communications president for Next Gen America, an advocacy group founded in 2013. Ahead of the midterms, the 32-year-old Texan recruited 164 influencers to talk to his supporters about the issues that would bring them to the polls: climate, gun control, reproductive rights. The effort garnered an audience of 65 million. The operatives were paid and had to declare as such, but, crucially, Arellano gave them a lot of latitude in what they said.
“We gave influencers talking points about high-level topics and why they’re important, and then we said, ‘Incorporate this into your content however you want,'” Arellano said. “If you’re a comedian, make a joke about it. If you’re an actor, do a skit. We didn’t tell them what to say. We really relied on their voices and real life experiences to drive home the message. “If an actor is angry, frustrated, upset, we want them to use their voice and express themselves that way.”
Anger works, but Arellano suggests remembering at every opportunity how much their actions can shape the election. Gen Z “What we mostly saw when we went out on the campaign trail is that young people didn’t know that their contributions to 2020 led to big wins,” he said. “We have conversations about the Inflation Reduction Act, climate change investment, student debt relief, and marijuana reform. Let’s deliver these victories for Gen Z and claim them. It is better to be proud of our achievements, not only after the mandate, but also in view of the elections”.
Aylward conducts focus groups and surveys to remind young people of the times their bloc helped change election results “it helps them remember as individuals that they are part of a larger group that can make a difference”.
“It helps to overcome the high level of anxiety that young people feel because they are very overwhelmed by the sheer number of problems they have to deal with,” he said.
Not everyone in the field is convinced that these strategies are effective. Ziad Ahmed, CEO of Gen Z staffing firm JUV Consulting, still believes Gen Z needs to focus on more traditional on-the-ground voting tactics.
He says Beto O’Rourke and Val Demings were the two candidates who appeared the most on his TikTok #ForYouPage. But both lost the race. “I’m not necessarily convinced that content always turns into results. A lot of people’s content on TikTok is from people who are not in the states where I used to live. I loved those candidates, but they were thousands of miles away. Social networks are often not localized enough to influence voters.’
The State of Change project predicts that Gen Z and Millennials will be the largest voting bloc by age in 2024, responsible for 45% of all votes cast. Baby boomers will be 25%. Aylward hopes to consult with more candidates to target young people. He admits that some of his advice, like joining TikTok, is a little “obvious”.
“The reason is that we don’t have people interested in reaching young voters,” he said. “Sometimes the obvious answers are the right answers; people don’t use them. I hope people will try to get more involved in the future.”