The 2020 election shows Gen Z's voting power for years to come

How Gen Z shaped the 2020 election
How Gen Z shaped the 2020 election

A record-breaking 159.8 million Americans voted in the 2020 election.

And a record-breaking number of those votes went to President-elect Joe Biden, who received over 78 million votes — roughly 5.5 million more than Donald Trump.

Generation Z, who are currently between the ages of 8 and 23, played a significant role in both of these records. NBC exit polls suggest that 65% of those between the ages of 18 and 24 voted for Biden — 11% more than any other age group. 

And in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania, young voters proved to be key to Biden's success. 

"I've been doing demographic analysis about the changing American electorate for two decades," says Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN (previously known as the New Democrat Network) and the New Policy Institute. "53% to 55% of registered 18 to 29-year-olds appear to have voted. That may be the highest ever recorded in the modern era of politics."

"Both Generation Z and millennials are voting generations," says Brent Cohen, executive director of Generation Progress. "The preliminary data says, in fact, this was the election with the highest turnout rate of young people that we've ever seen."

"Gen Z voters were very enthusiastic about this election," says Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "A number of things appeared to be driving young people's level of participation and level of excitement about the campaign and it wasn't Joe Biden, though they certainly like Joe Biden overall. They were voting more against Donald Trump than they were for Joe Biden."

"I think that this election was a referendum on the last four years," says Nickoli Benkert, a 19-year-old sophomore studying political communications at the University of Texas at Austin.

Benkert is also a first-time voter and like the majority of his cohort, he voted for Biden. Having grown up in Texas, Benkert has excitedly watched his home state turn from staunchly red, to ambiguously purple. He volunteers with Young Invincibles, a young adult research & advocacy group and hopes to run for office one day. 

"I think that it's a privilege to vote in a deep red state like this," he says. "Especially when turning Texas blue is within our grasp."

Not long ago, the suggestion of Texas going blue would have seemed implausible. But as Gen Z enters the political arena, such suggestions seem increasingly plausible. 

CNBC Make It spoke with political analysts and most importantly, Gen Z voters, to learn how young people made their mark on the 2020 election — and how they might impact elections ahead. 

NBC News exit poll data

"A perfect storm"

Rosenberg says this year's historic turnout of young voters was caused by "a perfect storm" of motivating factors

"It wasn't any one thing. It was a whole series of things. It was the economic and physical dislocation of Covid. It was climate change, which is a major issue for young people. It was the protests that we saw this spring and summer which really turned huge numbers of young people into political activism for the first time," lists Rosenberg. "And it was the gun violence movement that came out of Parkland that I think also brought a lot of young people [into politics]. I mean, kids getting killed in schools, now that's a motivator."

Cohen says young voters' biggest concerns were the public health and economic implications of the coronavirus pandemic. 

"But we also know that racial justice and systemic racism was a top, top issue for young people," he adds. "And this is reflected in the fact that more than 80% of young people supported the racial justice movement that happened earlier this year."

The Black Lives Matter movement has been credited for inspiring vast numbers of young Democratic voters to register. In early June, millions of protesters took to the streets to speak out against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

During the first half of that month, 1.1 million Americans registered to vote — a majority of them Democrats. 

"Upwards of three-quarters of young people, regardless of party affiliation, supported Black Lives Matter protests. So for this particular demographic, that was hugely important," says Cohen. 

What makes Gen Z unique

Bill McClain, research director for Clean and Prosperous America has spent significant time analyzing the political attitudes of Gen Z voters. He says the issues most important to these young voters are "defeating the coronavirus, jobs and the economy and climate change."

But he adds that what makes this generation unique, is how they approach issues as interconnected. 

"What's interesting to me in reviewing all of our research and listening to younger voters is that they recognize the intersectionality of all of these issues," says McClain. "All of these issues are interwoven and young voters tend to take a more progressive attitude towards addressing each one of these issues."

Gen Z's racial demographics also make them unique. 

"The Millennial generation was the most diverse generation in the history of the United States. And then Generation Z came. And Generation Z is the most diverse generation in the history of the United States and I think you're seeing that play out in voter preference," says Cohen. "When you start to disaggregate the young vote based on race, you see different voting trends."

Exit polling suggests that young White voters disproportionately supported Trump, with 53% of White 18-to-29-year-olds voted for him. 

But much greater percentages of young Black and Latino voters, who make up larger shares of America's youngest generations than ever before, voted for Biden.

"The demographic makeup of the electorate is changing, and you see that most notably among the young, who are much more racially and ethnically diverse," says Bowman. "African-Americans and Hispanics tend to be more Democratic than White Americans overall. And the White share of the population is declining."

NBC News exit poll data

What young voters have to say

Many young first-time voters tell CNBC Make It that racial justice is among their top concerns. 

"Black Lives Matter, police reform, that stuff right now is at the forefront of my mind," says Jada Martin, a 21-year-old student at Strausberg University, originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 

"From racial justice to health care to the state of our planet, there's a lot at stake right now and climate change really incorporates it all into one single issue that we really have a timestamp to tackle within the next 10 years," says John Paul Mejia, an 18-year organizer with Sunrise Movement from Miami, Florida. "And knowing that we can't face four more years of a Trump presidency is what really galvanized me to not only bring myself out to vote, but my communities as well."

John Paul Mejia, an 18-year organizer with Sunrise Movement from Miami, Florida and a first-time voter.
Photo courtesy of Oliver Zel

Unsurprisingly, young voters on the left and right say that the communities they were raised in have significantly impacted their political opinions. 

"The issues that my age group and I most care about are issues that include immigration, reproductive rights, climate change, health care [and] unemployment among so many others," says Adela Aguirre, a 20-year-old college student from Boulder, Colorado. "The biggest issue for me that I focused on while voting was immigration, for sure. I have friends and family that are undocumented. So my vote definitely represented them."

"I voted for Trump because basically everyone from Monroe County, we're real big Trump fans," says Mackenzie Walden, 20 who works as a bank teller in Monroe County, Kentucky. 

While Walden says she stands by most of Trump's views, particularly on taxes and abortion issues, she says wishes he had handled the pandemic differently. 

"That's one thing I wish I could change about Trump," she says. "I wish he was more of that professional type and more caring as far as this Covid goes."

Walden's sister is currently battling coronavirus. 

Not a passing phase

While young people have long had a reputation for leaning left, Rosenberg says Gen Z's political preference is not a passing phase. 

"There's a great myth in life that young people are liberal when they're young and then they're more conservative when they get older. And that's actually not true," says Rosenberg. "Twenty years ago, 18 to 29-year-olds were 50/50 for Bush and Gore. It was dead even. There wasn't a Democratic lean to young people in that era. And now, there's sort of a substantial democratic lean in every election by between 10, 15 and then up to 35 points."

He continues, "There's been a structural shift where young people are much more Democratic than they used to be."

The question is, how permanent is this shift? 

"I think the real question for younger millennials and Gen Z is will the Republican Party ever be able to re-establish itself as a legitimate option?" asks Rosenberg. "Of course, the opportunity is there, but the combination of racial intolerance and sort of backwardness on climate, the way that Trump handled the protests and the rallies this spring and summer, I mean, Trump really was the sort of the antithesis of a lot of Gen Z and younger millennial values."

"I think there's still a lot of opportunity for competition for the Republicans going forward. They have a lot of attractive candidates who may run in 2024," says Bowman, also noting that Republicans have an opportunity to appeal to young Hispanic voters given Trump's success in Florida. "That being said, I still think the group will lean heavily Democratic."

McClain emphasizes that this election should indicate to politicians the importance of reaching out to young voters. 

"Younger voters are not contacted at the rate that old guys like me are contacted. So if we don't invite them to the party, we cannot expect them to turn out. I think candidates and campaigns are waking up now to the fact that young voters are engaged," he says. "And they're the future of the country."

James Williams, an 18-year-old senior at Durant High School and a member of the YMCA's Youth & Government Program from Plant City, Florida, chose to volunteer as a poll worker during his first election as an eligible voter. He says he sees similar political enthusiasm among his peers. 

"I signed up to be a poll worker because I think it's extremely important that as a youth, we not only have a say in our democracy, but we aid it," says Williams. "Young people are finally realizing that in order to see change for whatever change you want to see, you have to vote." 

And Mejia says his generation's political enthusiasm extends beyond voting. 

"Throughout all of American history, from the civil rights [movement] to anti-Vietnam War protests, we've seen that young people have led the charge on every key social movement that has garnished and cemented institutional change in American society. And I think that's what young people are really bringing to light now," he says. "They're saying, 'You know what? Yeah, sure, this election is pretty high stakes, but we're not going back to brunch once this is all over.'"

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