BLM protests in 2020 are far more diverse but predominantly young. Republicans, Woodbury asserts, are “positioning racism as a partisan issue.”
“As long as Democrats are on the right side of the No. 1 issue for young people, they have an opportunity to attract those young people into the coalition,” he said.
Transgender rights strike a chord
Deckman, the Washington College professor, sees a similar collision course between Republicans and youth like Generation Z on issues of LGBTQ rights, transgender rights and countering the traditional values of the religious right.
Deckman said her surveys reveal that though a majority of Generation Z identify as cis-male and cis-female — meaning their gender identities match their sex assigned at birth — roughly 1 in 4 identify as queer, either transgender or “genderqueer.” A third of Gen Zers say they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns to refer to themselves and nearly 6 in 10 say forms or online profiles should allow more options than “man” or “woman,” according to Pew Research Center.
Though Trump says he’s pro-LGTBQ, claiming that he’s the first president to enter office as a supporter of marriage equality, during his 2016 campaign he said he was for “traditional marriage.” Moreover, Trump has never backed that up by supporting LGBTQ rights in a court case. In office, Trump instituted a transgender ban in the military and revoked an Obama-era guidance protecting trans students in public schools. And days after a Supreme Court ruling in June provided workplace protections for gay, lesbian and transgender under federal civil rights law, the Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services moved to roll back health care protections for transgender people — a regulation blocked in August by a federal judge.
And many members of the religious right have made opposition to transgender rights a battle cry, opposing such policies in public schools across the country. Trump’s campaign didn’t announce an LGBTQ coalition until August and blamed the coronavirus as the reason for the delay.
Republicans’ idea of religious liberty, particularly as it relates to discrimination against LGBTQ people, Deckman said, “does not at all resonate with younger Americans.”
In the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, 49 percent of voting-age Gen Z respondents identified as agnostic or atheist.
A realignment isn’t destiny
Broadly, Gen Z also views Republicans in Congress more unfavorably (51 percent) than Democrats in Congress (34 percent), according to the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll of voting age members of the youngest generation.
But while survey after survey has found that members of Generation Z identify far more as left of center, Democrats and progressive outside groups warn that a realignment won’t just magically manifest without a targeted effort.
Linnea Stanton, 21, Midwest regional director for March for our Lives, plans to vote for Biden despite having preferred Elizabeth Warren in the primary. But Stanton offered a stinging critique of the Biden campaign’s efforts to appeal to younger, more diverse, voters, saying they smacked of pandering.
“Biden played [the wildly popular Spanish-language song] ‘Despacito’ off of his phone at a rally — and that’s the thing that went viral from his rally, not him talking about his policy points,” Stanton said. “I can tell you that [Kamala] Harris was wearing timbs [Timberland boots] off of the plane last week, but I can’t tell you what she actually stands for.”
Stanton wants to see more from Harris on the “bold and holistic approach” she outlined as a presidential candidate on gun violence. Though Stanton is a registered Democrat, many members of her generation register as independents or unaffiliated — a decision pollsters ascribe to young voters’ aversion to institutions rather than a marker of their political persuasions.
About half of the young Americans, primarily of Gen Z, who registered to vote through NextGen America, a progressive group founded by billionaire Tom Steyer, selected no party preference. According to data provided by NextGen, from 2019 to 2020 roughly 51 percent of those they registered chose to be unaffiliated, 41 percent selected a Democratic affiliation, and 8 percent Republican. The group noted that its results could lean more Democratic as it actively tried to register more people during the primaries, which in some states are closed to independents.
“The Democratic Party is going to have a lot of work to do over the next five, 10, 15 years to ensure they’re giving these young people, a reason to put a D next to their name,” said Ben Wessel, executive director of NextGen America.
Jeff Weaver is well aware of the opportunity Generation Z presents for Democrats. And that’s what he sees it as: an opportunity, not destiny. Weaver, former senior adviser to Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, saw the senator’s support among young Americans remain strong even as they aged from 2016 to 2020.
“Gen Zers [are] the most progressive generation in a long time,” Weaver said. But Democrats will have to bring in and empower them within the party structure, he said, something not all local party chairs are keen on doing.
Weaver also offered a word of caution to Democrats who think a realignment is foretold. Not long after Obama won the White House in 2008, a pollster briefed chiefs of staff in the Senate; Weaver was one of them at the time. The pollster said the 2008 election marked a major shift in the electorate and predicted Republicans wouldn’t win the White House “for the next 25 years.”
“That’s what they said, literally what they said,” Weaver recalled.
Obama’s strength with young voters, which propelled him over the edge in key states, undoubtedly “shows the power of being in coalitions with young people,” Weaver said. But “anyone who thinks it’s on autopilot is fooling themselves.”