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Young voters could decide the election — even while shunning partisan politics

Mock debaters sit onstage as preparations take place for the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Salt Lake City. The vice presidential debate is scheduled to take place Wednesday, Oct. 7.
Patrick Semansky, Associated pRess

SALT LAKE CITY — In an NBC Nightly News town hall Monday, a graduate student asked Joe Biden the same question thousands of young voters, myself included, were wondering.

“If you win in November, there will be a 56-year age gap between you and myself,” the student said. “How can someone like yourself — an older white male — represent my generation over the next four years?”

Biden’s response was a clear, unabashed ploy to Generation Z voters — including the 15 million who will be eligible to vote for the first time in this year’s election. “You’re the best educated,” he said. “You’re the most open. You’re the least prejudiced generation in American history. The future is yours, and I’m counting on you.”

Both Biden and President Trump know they need young voters. Like in most election cycles, experts predict this could be the year the young electorate is the deciding factor. The problem? Cater as the candidates may, the youthful electorate seems fed up with partisan politics — and neither candidate in this year’s election will restore that hope.

That isn’t to say young voters won’t cast ballots. An issue, however, would be to assume votes are a stamp of approval for either candidate or party. Rather, young voters are becoming increasingly disillusioned with party affiliation, as illustrated by this year’s edition of the annual Harvard Youth Poll. Unable to effectively sort 18-to-29-year-old Americans by political party, researchers instead resorted to five distinctive ideological segments: the “MAGA Gen” (11%), Multicultural Moderates (15%), the Center-Left (28%), Engaged Progressives (15%) and the largest group, the Disengaged (31%).

That last group — those largely unaffiliated with either political party — make up a growing share of young Americans. A New York Times report points to “disillusionment with (political) leaders” as the main culprit for such partisan indifference. A more accurate diagnosis, as David Brooks wrote in The Atlantic this week, might be an overarching deterioration of trust — in institutions, in politicians and even in each other.

Partisan affiliation or not, the young electorate largely favors Biden. Polls from NBC News/the Wall Street Journal show Biden with a 20-point cushion with both millennial and Gen Z voters, while the aforementioned Harvard poll tabs a 60%-30% Biden lead among 18-to-29-year-olds. Even so, support doesn’t equate to enthusiasm — more than half of college-aged voters view both candidates unfavorably.

As partisan support withers among young voters, common ideological threads have not disappeared. In fact, the 21st century’s tumultuous introductory decades have given rise to generations with distinct, and often contradictory, views than their predecessors. Brooks writes that “the values of the millennial and Gen Z generations that will dominate in the years ahead are the opposite of boomer values: not liberation, but security; not freedom, but equality; not individualism, but the safety of the collective; not sink-or-swim meritocracy, but promotion on the basis of social justice.”

Even while carving out a distinct ideological niche, Gen Z is differentiating itself as much more open and less dogmatic politically than older generations. Polarization has soured Gen Z’s view of politics; that distaste has led to an increased desire for civility and openness for others’ views.

For many young voters, participating in this year’s election looks more like activism than a civic duty. A deadly pandemic, economic collapse and social unrest have highlighted inequalities and injustices that abound in American society. What many older generations have labeled as reality is, to young eyes, opportunity for change. And after a summer of outspokenness and activism, the most obvious action to solidify that change is by voting.

Both candidates in Wednesday’s vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City could capitalize on that. Young voters — who are already disenfranchised by political tribalism — received little solace from last week’s presidential debate. To add to that, they left underwhelmed after both Trump and Biden squandered responses about the climate, and outraged about Trump’s failure to overtly denounce white supremacy.

The issue, though, is that neither candidate will easily cater to a majority. In Vice President Pence, young voters see a reflection of Trump’s Republicanism — a group that a mere 11% ascribe to. In Sen. Harris, they see the hopes of the left’s progressive movement — one that only 15% identify with.

To many young voters, the political dichotomy is not between right and left, Republican or Democrat. Instead, they envision a political and social climate that favors neither poor nor rich, provides equal opportunity and values our founding principles. Few young voters see that future reflected in either candidate.

Whatever the result of Wednesday’s debate — and November’s election — may be, America’s young voters are on the move, and one debate will not stop nor shift them. They could very well decide this election, and many to come.

Trying to sort them by party affiliation, though, is all but impossible. But in a nation splintering over partisan lines, that could be a welcome shift.