Young black people are more likely than their peers to consider themselves Democrats—and “strong Democrats” at that—but nearly a third of them believe the Democratic Party doesn’t care about them, according to a recent poll.
A new study from Gen Forward, a University of Chicago-based polling initiative, takes a deeper look at the political attitudes and preferences of young people aged 18-36, a group that is comprising a growing share of the electorate. The nationally representative survey captures a wide range of young people’s attitudes—how they feel about the different parties, how they identify, which presidential candidates they support, and where they land on national issues like climate change, economic inequality, healthcare, and racism. The poll also breaks up respondents’ answers by race and ethnicity—black, Asian, Latinx, and white—and by party affiliation, revealing where different groups converge and break apart on key issues.
Collectively, the responses hint at dissatisfaction at the ways both Democratic and Republican Party leadership are speaking—or rather, not speaking—to young people, a feeling most evident in responses that consistently show a quarter of young people saying that “someone else” would be better at solving the issues dearest to them than either Donald Trump or the most prominent 11 Democratic presidential hopefuls. (The survey, taken well before the first presidential debates, also includes former Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder as possible presidential options).
As a wide field of Democratic presidential candidates continue to make their case to the nation, part of their political calculus will include making appeals to millennial and Gen Z voters. But the survey data shows they can’t take young black voters for granted. While young black people were most likely to say the Democratic Party cares about them, nearly a third said they didn’t find that to be true. The survey also shows just a little over half of black respondents identifying as Democrats, with more than a third saying they saw themselves as “independent” or “something else.”
Young black people who did align themselves with the party, however, were more likely than other groups to consider themselves “strong” Democrats, at 52 percent. Majorities of Asian American, Latinx, and white Democrats said they didn’t consider themselves strongly Democratic.
This is noteworthy because Democratic Party leaders know they need to tap into the black vote, though that focus tends to spotlight older black voters who have most reliably turned out to the polls. The question remains whether they’ll deliberately try to engage younger black voters, who represent the future of the party, including “unactivated” voters who may not have voted in previous elections.
According to the Gen Forward survey, young black people were most likely to have voted in 2016, but a substantial portion—nearly a quarter—reported that they stayed home (given the age range of the survey, some of that number would include people who were too young to vote at the time). The 2018 midterm elections also brought new high-water marks in voter engagement—a spike that was most dramatic among young voters.
So will young voters carry that same energy into 2020? And who, or what, will bring young black voters out in particular? The Gen Foward survey hints at some core issues affecting Democratic candidates as they try to sway black voters—and regain the White House.
It’s not who you’re with, it’s who you’re against.
If you’re already weary of the idea of relentless attack ads, brace yourselves: When it comes to the 2020 political races, opposition may be a stronger glue than vision, says Dr. Cathy Cohen, who heads up Gen Forward.
“We’re at a point where it is in fact one’s opposition—intense opposition to a party—that might be more important in terms of mobilizing than your attachment to a party,” Cohen told The Root.
This is visible among black voters in at least one area: Only one in four young black people said they felt very favorable towards Democrats, but nearly 50 percent said they felt very unfavorably towards the Republican Party.
Black millennials and Gen Zers were also more likely to feel the Republican Party didn’t care about them than they were to say the Democratic Party did. The poll found 80 percent of black respondents said Republicans didn’t care about them; they were trailed by young Latinx and Asian Americans at 70 percent and 68 percent. This was even true of young white voters, a majority—61 percent—of which said they didn’t believe Republicans cared about them. But white people were also the most evenly divided in how they felt about Democrats—41 percent said they believed the Democratic Party cared about them, while 59 percent said the party did not.
Cohen noted this data suggests organizing a campaign around inflaming voters—reminding them how much they hate or oppose the other party—could prove more effective than trying to unite voters under a common vision. But it could also reflect a lack of sincere and effective outreach to young voters on the issues they care most about.
Interestingly, most young people—55 percent overall—agree the country is headed in the wrong direction (black people, notably, were the most likely to hold this view).
Of the available presidential candidates, young black people choose Biden.
Of the candidates respondents say they’re most likely to support, former Vice President Joe Biden was the top choice of black millennials and Gen Zers, with 24 percent—but, as noted earlier, that same percentage of black survey participants said they’d prefer “someone else” for the job. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won over another 17 percent of respondents, with Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren rounding out the top four at 6 and 5 percent.
Sen. Cory Booker registered with just 3 percent of black millennials and Gen Zers as their top choice.
The survey was taken weeks before the first Democratic presidential debates, and before Biden’s history of opposing busing—a crucial tool for desegregating public schools throughout the country—was cast into the spotlight. It’s unclear, then, whether Biden still maintains the same hold on young black voters, or whether another candidate has surged ahead.
Cohen credits Biden’s early showing on his name recognition and his association with Barack Obama. Black voters also maintained their relatively high level of support for Biden on a number of issues, from growing the economy and addressing income inequality to bolstering national security and confronting climate change. But on each issue, the pull for “someone else” was nearly as strong—if not stronger—than support for Biden.
Racism is the most pressing issue facing the country, according to young black voters.
At this point in the presidential race, no one issue seems to dominate the landscape: The economy is doing well—even as the wealth gap between white and black households expands—and while immigration policy may dominate news cycles one week, Americans are citing reproductive rights, healthcare, and debt as core issues.
The top concerns of potential millennial and Gen Z voters are equally spread out.
Out of a sweeping, 20-plus list of political concerns (including crime, terrorism, women’s rights, and gay rights), a plurality of young black people (14 percent) listed racism as the biggest issue facing the country—they were also the only group to rank that concern the highest. Gun control and healthcare reform also factored as top issues. By comparison, Asian Americans were more likely to list healthcare as their top concern, at 12 percent, while young Latinx respondents said immigration was the biggest issue facing the country (14 percent). Young white people cited the environment and climate change as their top issue, with 13 percent.
Yet, when asked which potential candidates could best heal race relations, black respondents appeared underwhelmed: of the available candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were cited as best for the job (at 18 and 17 percent, respectively), but an even greater amount—24 percent—said “someone else” would be better.
Only young white people oppose studying reparations, but only young black people actually support paying them out.
As reparations—compensation, in the form of cash payments and/or investment, into black American communities for centuries of slavery and systemic discrimination—continues to come up in presidential debates, there is a clear divide between how young people of color and white people feel about the issue.
When asked whether they support or oppose a federal commission on studying the issue, most people of color said they supported such an initiative: 78 percent of black Americans, 63 percent of Asian Americans, and 58 percent of Latinx respondents. Young white people, however, tended to oppose even studying the issue, with 55 percent saying they were against a commission.
But when it comes to actually paying out reparations, the situation is inverted. Three out of four black millennials and Gen Zers support the notion that the U.S. should pay money to black descendants of slavery, while slim majorities of Asian Americans and Latinx (53 and 50 percent) are opposed to the idea. Meanwhile, 70 percent of young white people say they’re opposed to the federal government paying out cash reparations.
Young people want to cancel the Electoral College.
One area where young people agree is doing away with the Electoral College, though on this matter, young black Americans were most likely to support deciding presidential elections via a popular vote. While 62 percent of all young people said they’d support amending the Constitution so the presidential candidate with the highest total vote wins the election, 73 percent of black people felt this way. Compare that to young white people, who registered the lowest support for the idea (though it still represented the majority) at 58 percent.
The Electoral College has long been criticized for privileging the votes of a slim demographic of Americans—indeed, the entire system is rooted in preserving the voting power of slave-holding states. Despite or because of this, white people and Republicans were most inclined to want to keep the present system. Democrats—who have won the popular vote in every presidential election since 1992, with the exception of Bush’s 2004 re-election—strongly favor abolishing the Electoral College, at 79 percent, while independents are more split (55 percent say they support going by total votes). But 56 percent of young Republicans say they’d prefer to keep the Electoral College—the only group where a majority said so.