In the three years and four months since Joe Biden and Donald Trump last squared off electorally, nearly 16 million Americans reached voting age for the first time while 10 million others exited the electorate for the last time.
That demographic conveyor belt, or something like it, isn’t new. Every election cycle people come of age, people die and voting happens.
But routine doesn’t always equal stagnation. Voters entering the political scene at any given time bring a different set of values than the voters they’re replacing. Sometimes the differences are slight, and America’s political direction changes at the margins. Other times the differences are stark enough to reboot the entire electorate, with the shift typically lasting several election cycles.
A lot of experts, of varying political stripes, say 2024 could be the start of one of those other times.
Think of the voters that came of age when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president, and how they boosted Democrats until the late 1960s. Or of how Baby Boomer and Generation X voters, who came of age from the start of Richard Nixon’s administration to the end of Ronald Reagan’s, have a conservative tone that has included the Trump era.
This year’s new voters, Millennial and Generation Z types who have come of age during an era of whipsaw politics – the Great Recession, followed by Barack Obama, followed by Trump and the pandemic and, finally, Biden – could be similarly transformative.
No expert is saying the newcomers will instantly supplant older voters as the nation’s most influential. Numbers and voting patterns suggest that’s far off. But many suggest the attitudes, if not the behaviors, of younger voters could add some much-needed optimism to American politics.
A lot of young voters echo that belief.
“We matter,” said Henry Nguyen-Phuoc, a 21-year-old political science major at UC Riverside and president of the school’s tiny (“about 10, maybe 12 full-time members”) Democratic club.
“Now, I can’t say my vote in California, in this presidential election, will matter specifically. I could vote for Mickey Mouse and the state will go to whoever is the Democratic nominee,” he said.
“But younger voters matter a lot in other states,” he added. “And on a kind of different level, something is happening everywhere, I think, and a lot of people can kind of feel it without really knowing what it is.
“It’s some kind of big shift.”
That shift, if it happens, might be less about politics, specifically, and more about civics.
Like other young voters, Nguyen-Phuoc said he hoped – but wouldn’t predict – that his slice of the electorate might pull American voters out of the current doom loop of anger, inaction and misinformation.
“I’m a weirdo,” Nguyen-Phuoc said, laughing. “I mean, I like football and sports and stuff, but I love politics. Like, I have C-SPAN on right now, dude.
“So, I don’t think there are a lot of people like me,” he added.
“But I do think even a few people who care a lot could make a difference. It’s possible the big shift will be that everybody chills out.”
OK, Gen Z’ers
Or not. Research shows the youngest voting bloc – roughly 54 million first- and second-time voters between the ages 18 and 29 – is nearly as irate as older voters when it comes to how they view the current state of America’s political scene.
But unlike the Boomers and others who came of age when a political selling point was that government is the problem, younger voters are vexed because government isn’t – yet – a reliable solution.
They don’t want government to go away; they want government to live up to what they view as its potential to be a positive force in their lives.
“Politics, and government, are important. It’s the groundwork for how our society is laid out,” said Darious Abdollahi, a 24-year-old student and retail worker in Irvine.
“So it’s important to make changes,” he added. “It feels like politics and government have been muddied into serving corporations.
“But that doesn’t have to be the case. I believe we can do better.”
Research suggests a lot of younger voters agree, in part because they differ from older voters in several key ways.
They’re way less White and religious and wealthy than older voters. They’re also more influenced by specific issues, including the environment, gun control and racial justice. They’re less influenced by old media and their physical communities, and more swayed by social media feeds and even pop culture figures, like Taylor Swift.
And, yes, they’re more liberal – so far.
Over the past four national elections, slightly different versions of the youngest voting bloc have supported Democrats over Republicans at rates far higher than any other age group. Even when looking at how older voters behaved in their 20s, recent younger voters have been more liberal than their elders.
Still, experts say younger voters aren’t a finished product. Nearly one-third of people under age 30, including those who plan to vote in this election, are not registered with either major party. What’s more, experts believe this voting cohort could stay more fluid than older voters throughout their lives.
Above all, research suggests, the newest crop of American voters are something that hasn’t been on the scene in decades – pragmatists.
“They aren’t candidate voters, or even party voters,” said Sara Suzuki, chief researcher at Tuft University’s Center for Research and Information on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), which studies the politics of young Americans.
“They vote based on issues, and they even see how some issues affect others,” she added. “For example, younger voters of color see global warming as a racial justice issue, not just an environmental issue. That kind of thing matters.”
“But they are democracy voters, I’d say,” she added.
“They do believe, strongly, in the idea that government can and should work. That’s fundamental.”
But they don’t vote.
That’s what’s been said about younger voters, and their political influence, for decades. And it’s been true that voters under 30 consistently post the lowest turnout of all voting blocs.
It’s still true-ish, but it’s also changing quickly.
Between 2018 and 2022, voting turnout among people born between 1990 and ’94 jumped 144%, while turnout among slightly older voters (born in the 1980s) roughly doubled. Both were the biggest gains of any voting bloc in an era of rising turnout for all voters.
And it’s possible the gap is about to narrow even more. Suzuki said about 57% of people ages 18 to 34 say they’re “extremely likely” to vote in this election, a response that’s similar to forecasts for other age groups.
That said, younger voters punching below their weight at the ballot box has helped conservative candidates and causes. David Faris, an author and professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, has argued that Republican candidates and causes have been propped up in at least the past three elections by differences in turnout rate between younger and older voters.
And that basic idea – older people outvoting everybody else – figures to continue as America’s population gets older.
Numerically speaking, the politics of America’s aging trend looks like this: About 17% of all Americans currently are 65 or older, yet they’re expected to account for about 25% of all voters in this year’s election. By 2036, when the 65-and-older crowd is expected to account for about 21.5% of all Americans, they’re projected to account for 28% of the electorate.
Older voters, in the words of Nguyen-Phuoc, also will matter.
But what will change is the makeup of that older voting bloc.
Currently, the 65-and-up crowd are the most reliably conservative voters in the American electorate. In the 2022 midterms, for example, voters 65 and older favored GOP candidates over Democrats by about 12 percentage points.
But that group is dominated by Baby Boomers, the generational cohort that reshaped much of American culture and politics in the past half-century, and that group is on the way out. By 2050, they’ll account for less than 2.5% of America’s total population.
And any fade-out of Boomers could shift American politics.
In the ’22 midterms, the voting group of people age 45 to 64, made up of younger Boomers and Generation X cohorts, was slightly less conservative than the over-65 crowd, favoring GOP candidates by about 10 points. Younger voters – Millennials and Gen Z – were markedly liberal. The 30-to-44 voting bloc chose Democrats over Republicans by about 16 points, and the youngest voters, ages 18 to 29, favored Democrats by about 28 points.
The other issue that could change is about who people will be voting for.
Age currently has a vice grip on political power in America. Not only are the two likely candidates for president the oldest in history, Biden is 81 and Trump is 77, the average U.S. Senator is 65 and the average House member is 58 – that’s considerably older than the average American, median age 38.
To older voters, it’s a quirk. To younger ones, it’s a sign of profound inequity.
“Watching some of these guys, Biden and Trump, it’s like elder abuse at this point,” Abdollahi said. “They clearly aren’t up to the job, cognitively.”
Nguyen-Phuoc, who said he doesn’t see age as a political deal breaker – “Hey, Nancy Pelosi is older but she gets (stuff) done,” – believes older politicians, and the political parties they represent, fail to understand how to reach younger voters.
“I have more in common with a guy on his phone in Iowa than I do with the people I grew up with (in Orange),” Nguyen-Phuoc said. “That guy in Iowa follows the same streams, with the same hashtags, as me. So we get the same news and probably have more in common politically than people who happen to live next door.
“I don’t think the people issuing political messages quite understand that yet.”
As evidence, he and others pointed to the current uproar in some conservative circles over Taylor Swift and her boyfriend, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
The outcry essentially suggested that Swift and Kelce – both 34 – are liberal political operatives who’ll weaponize exposure from the Super Bowl and encourage young people to register as and vote for Democrats.
To some who identify as huge fans of Swift – presumably the group being courted – the outcry is both tone-deaf and flattering.
“Really? I’m going to vote for Biden because Taylor Swift told me to? That’s obnoxious. I’m going to vote for Biden because he doesn’t want to be a dictator,” said 27-year-old Holly Ramirez, a waitress and part-time student who lives in Long Beach.
“I like (Taylor Swift), but I don’t think she controls people’s minds or anything. And I don’t think she thinks she does, or would want to if she could,” Ramirez added.
“But it’s cool that the guys on Fox think I matter.”