Reaching out to young voters with a message of ‘incremental change’

Wisconsin's young people overwhelmingly supported Sen. Bernie Sanders and his calls for "political revolution" but that's not the message coming from the DNC or its youth council.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also known by her initials AOC (D-New York) nominating Bernie Sanders. Photo courtesy of the 2020 Democratic National Convention Committee (“DNCC”), all rights reserved.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also known by her initials AOC (D-New York) nominating Bernie Sanders. Photo courtesy of the 2020 Democratic National Convention Committee (“DNCC”), all rights reserved.

Many young voters watched, powerless to do anything, as Donald Trump was elected president before they turned 18. This year, members of Gen Z are ready to exercise their right to vote for the first time, but they’re more motivated by removing Trump from office than excitement for Democratic nominee Joe Biden

Gen Z, young people born after 1996, are more politically active, more diverse, more educated and more left-leaning than generations before them, polling shows

They grew up in a world shaped by 9/11. Their country has been at war in the Middle East for their entire lives. They watched their parents lose jobs in the 2008 recession and they have had school days interrupted by active shooter drills. 

They stood by helplessly as their country’s leaders failed to address climate change.

Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald and Trayvon Martin, all members of this generation, were killed because of the color of their skin. Not to mention the kids killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and so many others. 

In 2016, a president that only 22% of them support was elected and, just as they were reaching adulthood, a pandemic spread unchecked across the country, creating the second once-in-a-generation financial crisis of their young lives — closing college campuses and crushing job opportunities.

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To be sure, most of this generation sees Trump as a specific threat and is motivated to vote because of that, but young voters are not excited about Biden. 

“I think there’s definitely an excitement gap,” Max Prestigiacomo, a Madison common council member and UW-Madison student, says. 

Wisconsin’s young people overwhelmingly supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary. In a Marquette Law School poll released in February, 68% of people ages 18-29 said they planned to vote for Sanders in the primary. 

The message of Sanders’ campaign was a call for a “political revolution.” 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a 29-year-old millennial and the youngest woman ever elected to Congress — called for “deep, systemic solutions” in her speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) as she nominated Sanders as a candidate for president.

Yet the day before, in a meeting of the DNC’s Youth Council, a body meant to discuss the policies, issues and strategies necessary to excite and engage young voters in the political process, the message was different. 

Reggie Love, former personal aide to President Barack Obama,  is on the oldest edge of the millennial generation at 39. Speaking on a youth council panel about Black leaders in government, Love said the country needs “systematic, consistent incremental change.” 

“Consistent incremental change” is a far cry from Sanders’ political revolution or Elizabeth Warren’s “big, structural change,” and young voters know the difference.  

“The DNC has this narrative that they’re with young people but they don’t get us where we need to be,” Prestigiacomo says. “The mental health crisis in schools, mass shootings, two economic recessions, mass extinction. [There’s] compounded frustration that leaves that apathy and I don’t think they recognize it.”

“That rhetoric doesn’t surprise me, that’s typical of what we’re going to see this week, he continues. “The DNC needs to get through its brain, they cannot be afraid to embrace systemic change and bold ideas. We’re not accepting the excuse we can’t radically transform society.” 

Catalina Grimm, 19, says she’s going to vote for Biden this fall but supported Sanders in the spring. When asked if she’s excited to vote for Biden she says no, but she gushes over Rep. Ocasio-Cortez.

“When I think of young voters or I’m thinking about myself and what I want in a candidate and what I want to see and what I want to see this country doing, I don’t necessarily see [Biden] embodying all those characteristics, qualities or traits,” Grimm says. “It’s more so a vote out of necessity.” 

Grimm is clear-eyed about the political process and the often glacial pace of change, but says Democrats aren’t pushing hard enough for big solutions. 

“I don’t think you’re going to get overnight systemic change,” she says. “It’s what needs to happen … a lot faster than most Democrats will push for.” 

Malgy Blue, a 19-year-old UW-Madison student registered to vote in California, says he’s excited to vote — just not especially excited to vote for Biden. Echoing Grimm, he says the bigger concern is removing Trump. 

“[I’m] not necessarily excited to vote for Joe Biden but more excited to not have Trump in office,” Blue says.

While these students are alarmed by the specter of a second Trump term, there are still issues they care deeply about. 

“With most problems, incremental change leads to more problems in the future,” Blue says. “I think we need to take more care of our environment, the minimum wage should be changed.” 

Blue also says he’s interested in ideas like a universal basic income and passionate about protecting abortion rights. 

Daniel Ledin, a junior political science major at UW-Madison, interned this summer for the campaign of State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and wants to work in government.

Ledin, 21, says he’s enjoyed watching the DNC, even though his views are more progressive than parts of the Democratic platform, there are plans from the Biden campaign that excite him. 

“I would like to see strong, massive amounts of systemic change in terms of different things — affordable housing, healthcare, education, expanding and fully funding social services,” he says. “Issues around clean energy have been important to me, free pre-K, that empowers a lot of different people.” 

Ledin voted for Sanders in the primary, but doesn’t hold any “disdain” for the two candidates on the Democratic ticket. He says he’s especially a fan of vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris. Ledin is excited to vote for the first time and, unlike Grimm or Blue, says he’s willing to volunteer for the campaign because there are urgent issues to take on. 

“Like many people, I am ready and eager to volunteer my time towards an administration change that is much needed,” Ledin says. “It goes beyond the candidates, it goes toward understanding we need to get a new Supreme Court justice, expand Social Security, protect the USPS, join the Paris climate accord but expand upon it and make it accountable. A lot of long-term things to change our trajectory towards something more positive and more reassuring for the future.”

The question, as the Biden campaign attempts to build enthusiasm among the newest members of its base, is how to get young people excited about a candidate who is older than 27 presidents were when they died. 

“How can we hurdle these obstacles of students being apathetic to voting or feeling apathetic toward this candidate we have?” Ledin asks. 

Prestigiacomo says it’s about bringing the ideas and voices of young people to the table. 

“I think young people get excited about results,” he says. “It’s easy for politicians to go out there and virtue signal. Being honest and hiring young people, talking to young people and actually listening. There’s always going to be a culture difference there … they need to start opening up and thinking outside of the box. They can have a 16-year-old on the campaign. The point is, no one is reaching out to them … [it’s a] culture of treating young people as if they don’t have anything to offer.”

In his speech at the DNC, former President Obama said he understands why young Americans might feel disengaged, but that their voices, their votes and their activism are important forces toward shaping a better country. 

“I understand … why a young person might look at politics right now, the circus of it all, the meanness and the lies and conspiracy theories and think, what is the point?” Obama said. “To the young people who led us this summer, telling us we need to be better— in so many ways, you are this country’s dreams fulfilled. Earlier generations had to be persuaded that everyone has equal worth. For you, it’s a given — a conviction. And what I want you to know is that for all its messiness and frustrations, your system of self-government can be harnessed to help you realize those convictions. For all of us.”