One week after the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans want to know: what happened? Why were expectations about the midterms so completely wrong? How could a deeply dishonest and unpopular president score one of the best midterm outcomes in recent history?
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Like a great many Republicans, I am deeply disappointed, having hoped to see Americans deliver a well-deserved rebuke to a party in charge of all three branches of government – a party that set inflation soaring and sowed the seeds of recession.
There is much finger-pointing underway; many blame former President Trump for endorsing flawed candidates, prioritizing personal fealty over GOP victories. Some have dumped on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for failing to support Trump-endorsed candidates. There is lots of chatter on social media about the need to get out ahead of the ballot harvesting and mail-in voting which helps Democrats.
All those complaints are valid, but another reason that the polling was so inaccurate and that so many critical races swung to Democrats is the growing importance of Gen Z voters, which appears to have been completely ignored by the GOP.
An estimated 27% of eligible voters aged 18-29 turned out to vote, compared to roughly 20% of young voters who typically participated in elections in the 1990s.
Not only did Gen Z show up in force, they overwhelmingly picked Democrats, by a 28-point margin. That preference was close to their vote in 2020, which went 62% Democrat and only 32% GOP.
This is important, especially because this group, which now accounts for about 10% of eligible voters, will continue to grow. In 2020, their votes totaled almost three times the number cast just four years earlier, when they reached voting age.
Pollsters discounted young voter turnout, as has been their custom, even though the Gen Z crowd also showed up in 2018 and 2020 in history-making numbers. An Insider Poll, for instance, had Dr. Mehmet Oz leading John Fetterman in Pennsylvania’s critical senate race by 3 points in late October; they had assumed only 10% of voters under 40 would participate, despite that group constituting 25% of the electorate in 2018 and 28% in 2020. In other words, two prior elections showed Gen Z is different; pollsters should have known better.
More important, it would also seem that Republican leaders ignored the youth vote, which, it turned out, was pivotal to Democrats winning key races. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Gen Z voters backed John Fetterman by a 46-point margin. Gretchen Whitmer won the race for governor of Michigan in part because Gen Z backed her by 29 points.
Can Republicans do better in the 2024 election?
First, we have to understand what drives Gen Z voters. In his press conference celebrating his unexpected success in the midterms, President Biden thanked young people and said: “They voted to continue addressing the climate crisis, gun violence, their personal rights and freedoms, and the student debt relief.” That is probably a fair summary.
Republicans rail about the “indoctrination” that young people are receiving from woke universities and schools, and they are right, but we will not fix left-wing academia anytime soon. GOP candidates must develop positions on gun violence and climate change that show them tackling those concerns, rather than dismissing them out of hand.
Republicans need to realize, as I recently did by talking to a young mom, that the horrific school shooting massacres at Uvalde, Parkland or Sandy Hook terrify parents. Kids are taught what to do in the event of a school lockdown; parents say they don’t want their children in first-floor classrooms because they are so vulnerable. This is real; the GOP must have a plan to keep our schools safe.
On climate, Republican candidates could learn a lot from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has embraced a pragmatic approach to protecting his state from the ravages of warming and rising sea levels.
More broadly, the GOP must develop policy solutions on climate that are thoughtful and don’t clobber our economy, as Democrats’ approach will do. Gradual changes in our energy mix make sense; virtue-signaling moves that drive electricity costs through the roof are not.
On abortion, Republicans need to respect the will of voters. Most Americans think abortion should be legal and available, with some limits. That’s where the GOP needs to be. Few people agree with extremist laws, like one passed in New York, that allow abortions in the third trimester; that’s what Democrats hope to enable nationwide. But passing laws that ban abortion altogether is also extreme; even voters in blood-red Kentucky showed they do not approve of that approach.
If the GOP hopes to win elections in the future, party leaders and candidates have to broaden their appeal, including reaching out to young voters via social media. They need to become TikTok savvy, and tuned into what Gen Z is talking about.
There is an opportunity here. Young voters will soon become disillusioned. They will discover that Joe Biden’s blatant attempt to buy their vote through student loan handouts was a sham; he knew – everyone knew – that the president does not have the authority to spend as much as a trillion dollars without Congressional approval.
They will also soon recognize that Biden’s reckless climate agenda will push their cost of living higher; they will understand the link between Democrats’ wanton spending and higher interest rates, which have put home purchases out of reach for millions.
Gen Z has come of age at a peculiar time, characterized by a brilliant tech revolution and a profound labor shortage. Currently, many are being laid off at Meta, Twitter, and other tech firms. This may begin the maturing of a generation that demanded perks from desperate employers and from school administrations too cowardly to confront social media warriors.
Meanwhile, the GOP has to work on informing and persuading these voters if they want to win in 2024.
Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company. Follow her on Twitter @lizpeek.