Four young men with one holding sign that reads "Your vote matters" with a checkmark in place of the "v." Other text says LWV and

Analysis: Weighing the Issues, Gen Z Poised to Play Big Role in 2024 Election

Four young men with one holding sign that reads "Your vote matters" with a checkmark in place of the "v." Other text says LWV and
(League of Women Voters of California / Flickr / Creative Commons 2.0)

Editor’s note: This story was produced earlier this year for The Contra Costa Pulse as part of the California Youth Media Network’sOur Future” reporting project.

By Natasha Kaye

With an incumbent U.S. President Joe Biden vs. former President Donald Trump election rematch likely in November, it will soon be time for many young voters to make a decision they are not excited about. But how they vote and who becomes president in 2025 will have major consequences for them and the nation.

Gen Z and millennials will be the two largest generational voting blocs in the country. This time around, an estimated 41 million members of Gen Z will be eligible to vote. 

In a shift from previous generations, issues more so than candidates drive Gen Z voters, who have grown up with social media encouraging them to be politically active.

A study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University asked voters aged 18 to 29 in 2022 to rank the three issues most important to them. The following five issues came up in the most rankings among Gen Z respondents: inflation and gas prices, reproductive rights, jobs that pay a living wage, climate change and gun violence prevention.

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“Gun violence has scared the hell out of me my entire life,” said Matt Padilla, a 25-year-old Sacramento State graduate and Vallejo native. “I’ve seen more gun accidents than on-purpose incidents. But the lines are very blurry now when it comes to who is allowed to carry a gun, so I’d say it’s one of the biggest issues for me.”

Firearms surpassed car accidents in 2020 as the leading cause of death in children and teens in the U.S., and the Tufts report noted that many Gen Z voters “developed their political consciousness and aged into the electorate during years shaped by school shootings and movements for racial justice.”

Social media has shaped nearly every aspect of their lives as well. Few have memories of a time before the internet where news, technology and information weren’t omnipresent. Gen Z aged alongside major social, political and economic shifts as well as movements for racial justice, dire threats of climate change, a global pandemic — and even livestreamed mass shootings.

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A Pew research survey found that 61% of Gen Z voters in 2020 said they would vote Democratic while 22% said they would vote for Trump. Four years later, however, the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, in particular, has made many young would-be Biden supporters critical of him.

“A vote for Joe Biden feels like a selfish vote because I’m doing that to protect the integrity of democracy in my country while there are children being brutally killed in Gaza,” said Lucy Urbano, a 23-year-old actress who lives in Los Angeles. “So I feel like it’s a selfish choice, but then again, it’s really hard to be an American without being selfish like every second of the day.”

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A survey by Axios-Generation Lab released earlier this year found that Biden is beating Trump by a only 4 points among voters under 35 as opposed to his 20-point lead on Trump preceding the 2020 election among Gen Z and millennial voters.

“I feel like there’s no way for me to, like, participate in democracy in this country without hating myself at least a little bit,” Urbano said. “I am going to begrudgingly — but with absolute certainty — vote for Joseph Biden.”

Urbano, like many Gen Z members, is a progressive, educated, person of color who does not want to see Trump back in office, yet isn’t thrilled about another four years of Biden either. For Urbano, Trump’s reelection would be a threat to democracy and a threat to the most vulnerable populations.

Overall, Gen Z votes progressively, though key issues like inflation and immigration have motivated a small group of more conservative Gen Z voters to support Trump for reelection.

Utkarsh Jain, a 21-year-old UC Berkeley student who also ran for California State Assembly in the March 5 primary, is one of those individuals.

“I think Trump did a great job,” he said. “Economic factors are really key to us, because it’s very tough for us to buy a home. I mean we were pushed by this American Dream idea, and while that’s a great thing and we should strive towards it, in reality, (it) is becoming tough to make that come to fruition.”

Gen Z set a record youth voter turnout rate in 2020 suggesting this group is likely to be the most politically active generation thus far. And they’re not just casting ballots; like Jain, they’re on the ballot.

Jain, the lone Republican running for Assembly District 14, finished in third place behind incumbent Buffy Wicks and Margot Smith, both Democrats. Only the top two finishers advance to the general election in November. In the 2022 midterms, 27-year-old Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Florida, became the first member of Gen Z elected to Congress.

Despite this, a Harvard poll released last fall suggests that young Americans may actually be less likely to vote in 2024.

“The only way I feel like I would turn out is if there’s something local on the ballot that excites me enough to do so,” said Aj Alany, a 23-year-old paralegal and Middle Eastern immigrant raised in San Diego.

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Alany, like Urbano and Padilla, is progressive, though unlike his counterparts who plan to vote, Alany isn’t convinced his vote will make an impact.

“It would be a different story if I lived in a swing state, but living in a safe, Democratic state, the presidential election is not something that is particularly motivating me to turn out as a voter,” Alany said.

Though Alany’s choice may reflect polls like Harvard’s, previous Gen Z voter turnout data suggests the opposite.

“I think we’ve made a lot of advancements in learning to communicate with (one) another through social media and putting out voices out there,” Padilla said. “I think that’s what my optimism is rooted in — people actually talking, using their voices, and voting, you know, all those good things.”

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