Let's Talk About Young Voters : The NPR Politics Podcast Young voters broke for Joe Biden in 2020, but are shirking party affiliations in greater numbers than older generations. And it remains to be seen how millennials and Gen Z legislators will fit into existing political power structures: many top Democrats have been at the helm in Washington for decades and recruiting young candidates can be a challenge.

This episode: White House reporter Asma Khalid, demographics and culture reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, and political correspondent Juana Summers.

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Let's Talk About Young Voters

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TESS: Hi, this is Tess (ph), an Ohio girl living in a little village in the south of France, and I'm heading out to my favorite Saturday morning market. This podcast was recorded at...


2:09 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, October 12.

TESS: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll still be drinking wine and eating cheese. Au revoir.


KHALID: I feel like she's trying to troll us (laughter).

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Yeah, it's a rough life.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: I am so jealous. Can we come?

KHALID: Hey, everyone. It's THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

SUMMERS: And I'm Juana Summers. I cover politics.

KHALID: Today on the show, how young folks are changing and framing politics in our country. But before we get to what they are doing, let's talk about who they are. Now, I know some of you 35-year-olds like to think that you are awfully young, but Juana, correct me if I'm wrong, that's not who you're talking about, right?

SUMMERS: Asma, not quite. In the reporting that I've been doing recently, I am mostly talking about people between the ages of 18 and 29-year-olds. So 30 and up, please keep listening, but this is not quite about you.

KHALID: (Laughter) So young people, when you're talking about that demographic, that age group, they are far more racially diverse also than the average voter. And in the last presidential election, they preferred Joe Biden, although a lot of them would say that they don't actually identify as a Republican or a Democrat. And so, Danielle, so it seems like they don't really like labels.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Yeah. I mean, there's a lot that's different about young people. I mean, to be clear, well before Gen Z, the younger cohort has been pretty regularly more democratic than older voters, at least in the last couple of decades, this is. They voted heavily for Barack Obama. They voted majority for Hillary Clinton. They voted very heavily Democratic in 2018 again now. So I mean, these young voters do tend to be more liberal, especially in recent years, than older voters.

KHALID: And, you know, when we talk about young voters, it seems like the population that we're talking about is really in stark contrast to the leadership of the current Democratic Party. You talk about President Biden. He's 78. The speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer are both in their 80s. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is 70. And the youngest of the bunch, the Vice President, Kamala Harris, is 56. And with the exception of the vice president, all of them are white. And it feels like there is this opposition between some of the priorities that we are hearing from younger voters around issues of racial justice and, you know, just who is in actual leadership positions within the current Democratic Party.

SUMMERS: Yeah, I think that's right. And that's something that I hear when I talked to young people back during the campaign - I think in particular is that they feel like there's this big gulf in between the people who are the leaders of the party and their experiences and the daily lived experiences of folks under the age of 30. Now, particularly on the left, many of them do point to folks like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who's one of the younger members of Congress, a progressive from New York, who has been a social media phenom in her own right. And other folks, like Congresswoman Cori Bush from Missouri, some younger progressive women who are in Congress now, as well as others, who are kind of changing the face of what Congress looks like - but there is still, I think, some dissonance between leadership and the things that young people say that they're living through right now.

KHALID: So Juana, you recently spoke to a woman, a woman who I would characterize as being one of the sharpest young voices in democratic politics - Sarah Audelo. I actually first met her during the 2016 presidential election cycle. She was the millennial vote director at that time for Hillary Clinton's campaign. But I was struck by the conversation you had with her because she said she's leaving her current job in some ways because she is no longer young, which feels really meta in the context of what we've been talking about.

SUMMERS: Yeah, so I first got to know Sarah Audelo a few years ago, too. She has been the head of the Alliance for Youth Action, which is this big network of local grassroots groups that are focused on mobilizing young voters. And she's been in leaderships there since 2017. And when I sat down with her in Washington, D.C., she told me that her departure had been in the works for a little while now, and this is why.

SARAH AUDELO: It's like totally bittersweet to step away, but absolutely the right time. I'm 37. This is a youth organization. It is time to make way for folks who are actually on TikTok to take the helm of the alliance.

SUMMERS: And it's so funny to hear her say that because, I mean, we've all been covering politics in some form for a long time, and we know that in these organizations, people kind of tend to stick around forever.

KHALID: Oh, of course. Yeah.

SUMMERS: But what I hear from Audelo and something that I hear echoed by a lot of youth organizers is that they believe this kind of turnover is actually a good thing because it helps their organization stay relevant. And also, so much of their work and their mission is about cultivating and mentoring the next generation of young leaders. And that means people have to get out of the way so that that next generation can step up and lead.

KHALID: And, Juana, Sarah's group was involved in helping set some of the record turnout for young people that we saw in this last presidential election.

SUMMERS: Yeah. And just to remind people, in 2020, more than half of 18- to 29-year-olds cast ballots, which is actually more than the previous high in 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama's campaign fueled a surge in young voter turnout. And Danielle pointed out that this is a continuation of a trend.

But in my conversation with Sarah, she said that she and others had seen signs since the 2018 midterms that turnout in 2020 might be up. But she also did mention that one of the things that made her think this could be a record-breaking year was the fact that civic engagement and political engagement among young people seemed to continue even when the coronavirus pandemic sort of shut everything down and, most importantly, when it stopped groups of hers from being able to go out in person in communities and on college campuses to do organizing person-to-person. And that was a sign that she said made her think it would be a big year.

AUDELO: Yeah. When we saw those numbers come out, it was amazing because we always knew that it was possible, right? We had 50% of young people who voted in 2020, and that's an 11-point increase from 2016. And now we're like, all right, let's show them what that voting gets you. Let's remind these elected officials that they owe these young voters for their seats. And so, you know, it's been so - the party's been so-so (laughter) ever since.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, Juana, this raises a question for me when I hear that - is that, yes, on the one hand, turnout was very much up among the youngest voters in 2020. But then again, it was up among everybody. And younger - the youngest voters still had a lower turnout rate than all the other older cohorts, which is what happens in every election. So what I'm wondering is, does she have a sense - do you have a sense of what - was there something particular that motivated young voters? Or were they motivated by the same things that motivated a lot of other people?

SUMMERS: So when I talk to her, she said she believed that there were a lot of things that led young people to turn out. Now, of course, her group is largely talking to young people on the left. But - so she talked about a response to then-President Trump and his campaign. She talked about the fact that young people were living through a pandemic that was impacting them disproportionately, particularly young people of color. And she talked about the fact that she believed that a lot of young people do not see systemic change happening that's been impacting their lives on a day-to-day basis. And so they turned out in response to the promise of that kind of change.

KHALID: Of course, that leads me to wonder, will they show up in the midterms? Will they show up in the next presidential election if they don't necessarily think Democratic lawmakers are delivering on some of those systemic change promises that motivated them in 2020?

SUMMERS: Yeah, that's a question I actually put to her. And if I remember correctly, the word that she used when I asked her how Democrats were doing when it comes to making good on their promises for young people - she said, math.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

SUMMERS: She said that (laughter) - not exactly a ringing endorsement. She said that she believes that the party's response to a whole host of issues has not been significant enough for young people to actually feel that change in their life. She brought up a lot of issues - things like student debt, climate change, paid leave, voting rights - all things that Congress in particular has not been able to act on as areas in which she fears, if there is not action, these young folks will not continue to show up at these record numbers.

Now, I should point out that I asked her a separate question about how she felt that President Biden and his administration were doing when it came to young people because, as we know because we all covered the campaign, Biden was not exactly the favored candidate of young voters during the Democratic primary. Audelo told me she feels like there's been quite a bit of eagerness from the White House, actually, to connect with youth-led organizations, to have them at these roundtables that the White House often has. But she said that she did hope that in the future, the president and vice president would actually sit down with - I guess, virtually, perhaps, or maybe in person - and actually engage with these young activists and give them face time in these meaty policy conversations about these topics that actually impact their lives.

KHALID: So it sounds like what you're saying is maybe some of these young voices are being listened to, but she's not necessarily sure if they're actually going to change policy that this administration is making.

SUMMERS: Yeah, you got it.

KHALID: All right. Well, we are going to take a quick break, and we'll talk more about young voters when we get back.

And we're back. And we've just been talking a lot about young people turning out to vote in elections. But, Juana, is that translating to actually running for elected office?

SUMMERS: You know, there's not a ton of great data, actually, about how many young people run for office in the United States each year, what levels of government they run at, whether or not they're successful. There just aren't groups that really track that. But I don't think it's too much of a leap to just point out that the ranks of elected officials in this country are much older than the generation that we're talking about, folks under the age of 30.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And one caveat I would add to that, though, is that from our perch in Washington and to those people who largely pay attention to national politics, it can be easy to think, man, it sure takes a while for people to work their way through the ranks - right? - which is true because millennials are just getting to the national level of leadership - Pete Buttigieg, a millennial who ran for president and got some level of national renown for it.

KHALID: Yeah, I mean, isn't he the first millennial cabinet secretary?

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. So, I mean, the first millennial just got to the cabinet. And furthermore, these people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Lauren Underwood, members of Congress who are younger - they're just getting into Congress or haven't been there that long. So one thing to keep in mind is that a lot of those Gen Zers who might run for office may still be at the city level or even the state level right now.

KHALID: And, Juana, you had a really interesting story about this all the other day. It was about one social media platform in particular, Snapchat, that thinks there's a real opportunity in this space.

SUMMERS: Yeah, Snapchat does. They launched earlier this month a big initiative to attempt to connect young people who might want to run for office themselves one day with resources and tools about what local offices they could run for in their communities, as well as resources. They have partnered with a number of campaign recruitment organizations across the political spectrum to try to give these young people more info.

And I think one big thing to point out here is who is on Snapchat. The company tells me that this app has a really wide reach among young people. Snap says the app reaches 90% of people in the U.S. between the ages of 13 and 24, which is pretty big.

KHALID: Juana, 90% is, like, a clear majority of young people in this country. And I was going to say there feels like there's this assumption that a lot of young voters skew left. And given those numbers that you're describing that Snapchat reaches, I mean, it makes me wonder - do Republicans see that also as an opportunity, a way that they can make inroads with this generation?

SUMMERS: Yeah, Asma, they do, actually. So Snapchat did partner with candidate recruitment organizations across the political spectrum for this effort. And one of the groups that I learned about is Run GenZ, which is working to recruit young conservatives. And I had a really interesting conversation with one of the group's co-founders. His name's Joe Mitchell. He is a state representative in Iowa, and he was first elected at age 21. He told me that he didn't feel like there's always been a platform for young conservatives like him to talk to other young people about the issues that they believe in. He believes that Snapchat, which he says he uses daily, is a place where those conversations can happen.

JOE MITCHELL: What I think is important about it, though, is that number one, the age demographic but then number two, it's going to be tailored and catered towards, you know, algorithms which can send folks that are interested in, you know, Ben Shapiro or some of these other conservative organizations on Snapchat our way.

KHALID: You know, listening to this all, Juana, I'm left with this question of, what does this mean for the political parties, the Republican Party or the Democratic Party? Because it sounds like a lot of these initiatives are happening on the outside. And you're hearing from younger voters who want a seat at the table, whether that means by increased voter participation, whether it means running for office. And it's not clear to me that the parties get that and that they know how to utilize that young voter potential.

But all right. Let's leave it there for today. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

SUMMERS: And I'm Juana Summers. I cover politics.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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