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Top: Dawson Crisman, Kati Yau, Jonathan Boer, Bottom: Issy Kagan, Ryan Kachnowski, Sarah McCall

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Compiled by NPR/Dawson Crisman, Kati Yau, Jonathan Boer, Issy Kagan, Ryan Kachnowski, Sarah McCall

Top: Dawson Crisman, Kati Yau, Jonathan Boer, Bottom: Issy Kagan, Ryan Kachnowski, Sarah McCall

Compiled by NPR/Dawson Crisman, Kati Yau, Jonathan Boer, Issy Kagan, Ryan Kachnowski, Sarah McCall

Voters under 30 tend to lean left of center overall and could make a major difference for Democratic candidates. But it’s unclear if they will turn out in strong enough numbers to help President Biden win reelection, according to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, which has conducted in-depth research on what’s driving young voters.

Dozens of youths shared their biggest concerns at the ballot box with NPR. Here’s what they said:

Dawson Crisman (23, urban planner, Chicago, Ill.) “When my parents were 23, they owned a home. And I feel like Gen Z has just been completely blocked out of homeownership.”

Kati Yau (24, therapist and actor, Skokie, Ill.) “I’m trying to pay my loans off, but it’s insurmountable.”

Jonathan Boer (26, technical design engineer, Chicago, Ill.) “Lowering the taxes, reducing regulations, doing a lot more manufacturing in America, that would be the best thing for the economy.”

Issy Kagan (20, student, Bronxville, N.Y.) “Student debt relief is great, but what about ensuring we have a planet to leave behind?”

Ryan Kachnowski (22, student, Wixom, Mich.) “We desperately need mass transit investment and high-speed rail if we want to become more sustainable and combat climate change.”

Sarah McCall (27, nonprofit associate, Washington, D.C.) “I want to see stricter gun control, I want to see [the] banning of assault rifles.”

As campaign season for the 2024 election gets into full swing, many young voters — meaning people under 30 — say they’re disillusioned with politics and plan to sit out. However, it remains to be seen whether that will happen.

“What we know from research is that it is really too early to tell exactly how young people would respond, whether by not voting, voting in certain directions and parties or opposing certain parties and candidates,” Kawashima-Ginsberg told NPR’s Leila Fadel.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Interview highlights

Leila Fadel: I wanted to start by asking you about what your research is finding to be the top issues for young voters this election season.

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg: Young people have always cared deeply about social issues. But this election and before this, too, [they] have actually cared more about the economy, jobs, affordable living, living wage-paying jobs being available to them.

Fadel: How much of an issue is Gaza? I know that a lot of young voters have told us they care about it. Here are some of the answers we heard from young voters about the 2024 presidential election.

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Oscar Gillette, Jonathan Boer, Cordelia Longo and Jeffrey Sun.

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Oscar Gillette (18, student, Andover Mass. and Washington, D.C.) “Would you call for a ceasefire in Gaza?”

Jonathan Boer (26, technical design engineer, Chicago, Ill.) “If Hezbollah or Iran were to attack Israel now, would you send American soldiers to defend Israel?”

Cordelia Longo (21, student, Seattle, Wash.) “What things are most important to you? Are they humanitarian aid or condemning the antisemitism that’s running rampant these days?”

Jeffrey Sun (23, student, Chicago, Ill. and Mendham, N.J.) “I will not be voting for Joe Biden despite voting for him in 2020 because of his support for the ongoing genocide.”

Fadel: What does your research say about how much this is going to impact young voters at the polls?

Kawashima-Ginsberg: So what we just heard is actually pretty wide ranging opinions about what should be happening. And our research generally suggests that is the case, meaning that young people are diverse in both their opinions, how politically engaged they are today and in relation to the Israeli-Palestine issues. So what we know from research is that it is really too early to tell exactly how young people would respond, whether by not voting, voting in certain directions and parties or opposing certain parties and candidates. What we are hearing, though we did not exactly ask this question in the survey we fielded in late last year, is that the young people, about 30, 35% are still deciding whom to vote for.

Fadel: We saw an enthusiasm among young voters in 2022, in the midterms, in which we saw Democrats turn some of those seats. But we’re also anecdotally hearing some disillusionment with Biden, some disappointment and young people saying they’re not going to vote for Biden on principle, even if his competitor is worse in their view. Is this something that your research is showing?

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Here’s what we heard from some voters:

Amea Wadsworth (22, climate communication, San Diego, Calif.) “I have no idea what’s left to do to get the Democrats to hear the voice of the young left, other than just not voting.”

Matthew Phelps (23, retail, Dallas, Texas) “I’m tired of being told to go to the polls and make your voice heard. We went to the polls in droves in 2020 to get Donald Trump out of office. And here we are, it feels as if nothing has changed.”

Zahra Schenck (19, student, Rockland County, N.Y.) “I feel quite pessimistic about any potential outcome. I disagree with the ‘vote for Biden no matter what’ movement.”

Rae Ettenger (23, conservation policy specialist, Boston, Mass.) “I know many people want a third-party option and sometimes I feel that way as well. But I know in policy that that doesn’t usually work.”

Abigail Tadesse (18, student, Alexandria, Va.) “For my first time voting, there isn’t a good option and it’s just making me sad to have a voice in this democracy because does it really mean anything if these are my two options?”

Kawashima-Ginsberg: Young people have not been as enthusiastic supporters of the Biden administration [even] before President Biden was elected. So what’s different about Gen Z generation in particular, who’s known to be politically active, also very diverse and caring about a variety of social issues, is that when they’re disappointed in what the government is doing or what the leaders are showing them, they’re willing to take the issue in their own hand and try to intervene, try to get involved sometimes by speaking up by their vote.

But by and large, they have voted more than other generations have as youth, regardless of how disappointed they say they are in the government. So if the past couple of elections’ trends hold, young people have been disappointed in the government and their elected leaders, but they voted.

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Fadel: Is there a candidate that young people are turning toward?

Kawashima-Ginsberg: What we know from research is that young people do support issues first and foremost, and do not necessarily show sort of a… (Fadel) party loyalty? (Kawashima-Ginsberg) Yeah, correct.

Young people really want to hear from candidates who understand where they are in life and understand how they would support their priorities. Economy, housing, cost of living are some of the top issues.

But another issue that is not considered a social issue per se but [looms] large on young people’s mind, is mental health issues. Almost half of young people named mental health challenges as being part of their daily lives. So understanding where young people are as one of the generations most politically active on one hand, but also struggling mightily with mental health issues and the economy, is a really important point to understand beyond social and controversial issues. Young people are like everybody else. They’re trying to get through each day. And I think candidates who can be on their level in understanding how to listen to them are really, really going to win their support.

Fadel: But what young voters did do in 2022 is show that they do have power at the polls through the participation they gave. It was seen as a major reason that Democrats won in battleground states. Are candidates respecting the vote of young people like they should now?

Kawashima-Ginsberg: I think many young people would say they’re not respected enough. We hear that in some surveys, too, where young people are really starting to, and have always, to a certain extent, doubted how effective their votes will be, how much they would respond when they elect leaders they think will have their priorities. I think [it] continues to be important that the elected leaders show that they heard their priorities in conversation with the young people so that they can come to an agreement or at least a solution that both parties can say is one step forward.

There’s no perfect solution for many issues that young people care about, and there are limits to what governments can do. But what young people have shown is that they are willing to give government and elected leaders a chance by coming out to vote. But if they continue to feel disrespected and unheard, they could, in fact, show that they really need to have that respect by not voting.

This story was edited for radio by Olivia Hampton and edited for digital by Treye Green.