By Martin Dolan
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That young people consist of an important, even election-deciding voting block is not a new concept by any means, but after the incredibly competitive and polarizing elections of 2018 and 2020, anticipating the voting patterns of Generation Z is proving to be an essential part of 2022 as well—on both sides of the ballot.
The teenagers and twenty-somethings that collectively make up the somewhat-vague categorization of “Gen Z”—between roughly 18 and 25 years old, more diverse and politically-minded than those of older generations—were raised side by side with internet technology, not quite remembering the early-Obama years of economic recession but coming of age in the post-Trump culture war. It’s largely understood that Gen Z, as young people historically have, lean disproportionately left in their voting habits, and whether or not Democrats can win key 2022 midterm seats will end up being a function of, among other factors, how well they’re able to mobilize young people.
While many characteristics of Gen Z’s demographics—they’re generally more racially diverse, higher educated, and less religious—seem to align more with the values of solidly blue, urban states, it’s going to be in Southern swing districts throughout Georgia, Texas, and Arizona that their presence will have the power to make the most tangible differences. Demographer William Frey has written extensively about a disconnect between the “brown and the grey” in these districts, where younger, diverse voters seem to be politically at odds with the older, conservative whites (Brownstein 2022). Younger voters have been particularly mobilized by the growing issues of access to abortion and restrictive voting policies, which have sprung up throughout red states in the south and midwest over the past election cycle.
So, while Gen Z has its share of issues with current policies on both the left and right (a September NPR poll found that only 37 percent of Millennials and Gen Z believe Biden has improved the economy), they’ve proven themselves to be a powerful group that has only been partially tapped into by establishment politicians (Montanaro 2022). On the other side of the ballot box, though, a small but loud wave of young House candidates have stepped up to try and cater to this increasingly-slippery voter demographic.
Maxwell Frost is a twenty-five-year-old musician from South Florida who, despite his youth, is being pointed at by many leading Democrats as the man who will likely be the first Gen Z congressman. Running in Florida’s 10th district, which consists of Orange County and the western half of Orlando, Frost came from a background of activism and organization before eventually winning the contentious Democratic primary in the reliably blue district. Frost had no real political experience and didn’t finish his college degree, yet due to his grassroots mobilization of voters and personal story that connected to voters, he was able to come away from the primary in August 2022 with an unlikely win (Sotomayor 2022). Frost identifies as a strong, young liberal—his campaign webpage focuses on issues like access to healthcare, ending gun violence, and an attention to environmental causes—but he also wants to keep everything he does in the context of helping the working-class, which he came from and still feels an obligation towards, in a system that is increasingly stacked against them (Frost).
In a September profile with the Washington Post, Frost opened up about the feelings of excitement but also of unbelonging that comes with being a young member of Congress. He reflected, somewhat jadedly, on a phone call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after his primary win, yet was promoted by established left-wing figures of the party like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as a candidate who had the ambition, story, and grassroots supporters to make a splash at a young age. After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, Frost became involved in activist movements fighting against gun violence throughout Florida and the US, lasting all the way to the March for Our Lives protests after another shooting in Parkland, Florida. It was his work on these campaigns that put him on the map of party figures on both sides of the aisle; Frost credits this organic platform to his success more than any presence on TikTok or the internet, which he leaves for his team to handle. And when opponents on the right criticized Frost as being too extreme—a socialist, an insult slung at many a young, progressive candidate—he waved them aside as not caring enough to know his story. He comes from a line of Cuban immigrants and refugees—working-class people who resettled in Florida to escape the authoritarian policies of their home country (Sotomayor 2022).
So while technology and social media have certainly helped Frost in his ten-year journey from local activist to likely Congressman, it’s not fair to write him off as merely a product of Twitter or TikTok. Rather, like many in Gen Z, Frost has been able to use social media as just another outreach tool in his already strong repertoire of grassroots organization and campaigning, gaining support from voters young and old alike.
That’s not to say the GOP hasn’t been effective in mobilizing its own generation of young Republicans—quite the opposite. Karoline Leavitt, a twenty-five-year-old from Rockingham County, New Hampshire, has been growing a following among Republican voters in much the same way that Frost did in Florida. With experience working as both a staff member in the Trump White House and as a Director of Communications under New York Congressmember Elise Stefanik, Leavitt has built a reputation as a leader of a growing number of young Republicans rallying against the party “establishment.” Leavitt’s first political race, the primary earlier this year against Matt Nowers—himself only thirty-three and with a resume that includes working under Trump—found her winning with a slight 35 percent plurality, thanks in part to endorsements from a series of MAGA-aligned GOP figureheads like Stefanik and Ted Cruz (Sexton 2022). Leavitt’s whole platform aligns with the politics of those politicians as well, running a provocative campaign that called for, among other things, a re-evaluation of the integrity of elections following what she views as Donald Trump wrongly losing the 2020 presidential election (Leavitt). The theme of being against an establishment—the media, the Democratic Party, or the Republicans in power who didn’t do anything to stop Biden’s election—runs throughout the rhetoric of Leavitt’s campaign, with the implication that in her youth is a promise to be above the “politicking” of Washington’s corruption.
While Leavitt’s politics may be the opposite of Frost’s, her campaign has suffered many of the same criticisms, often based around her youth and perceived inexperience. An article from Washington Post reporter Amy Yang investigated some of these attacks on Leavitt’s campaign—ones that focused more on her platform than her politics. “She’s just a woke Gen Z-er,” says one attack ad, “[who] wants to bring her generation’s new vision to Congress. You know, mooching off her parents, running up huge credit card debt. Woke, immature and irresponsible” (Wang 2022). Leavitt, to her credit, has turned the negative press against her—harnessing these sorts of attacks from both the left and right and writing both off as attacks from the “establishment” she has been continuously campaigning against. And like Frost, while Leavitt’s social media platform has been both a benefit and harmful for her career (videos have surfaced on Twitter of her making crass jokes), the fact is that her campaign has relied on the internet more as a tool for spreading her message than a gimmick. Endorsements from older, more experienced GOP figures, as well as her own lengthy work experience, have benefitted Leavitt more than any TikTok video ever has.
When critics of young politicians on both the left and right try to write off younger candidates gaining momentum as gimmicks, that their progress has only come because of viral moments and the novelty of youth, it’s clear that there’s a large disconnect between the establishment and the young populations which are increasing in size in our country. And while young people on both sides of the aisle have used tools like social media to spread their grassroots activism and policy advocacy, dismissing their work as merely because of the internet is oversimplifying the way that political parties are beginning to tap into the cultural moment that is Gen Z. The internet helps—as it has helped campaigns for the past twenty-odd years, including Obama, Trump, and Biden—but in the current polarized political state of the country, it is even more clear than ever that success in politics requires friends in high places. Whether its Frost with Warren and Sanders or Leavitt with Stefanik and Cruz, getting elected in a House race is always a question of being connected to the right people, even when said campaigns are running on a platform of anti-establishment rhetoric that criticizes that sort of system in the first place. So in the future of elections, when Gen Z and subsequent generations undoubtedly become more and more of a force, it’s important to look towards young people for the future of leadership, but at the same time, to keep an eye on the older politicians who will be, in a way, choosing them.
Martin Dolan is a senior double-majoring in English and political science. He’s planning on pursuing a Master’s in English and working in publishing or journalism. He has also written for Pipe Dream and has published stories, essays, and reviews in literary journals, including a recent article in Alpenglow: Binghamton University Undergraduate Journal of Research.
Brownstein, Ronald. 2022. “What Will Happen in Georgia?” The Atlantic, October 7. www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2022/10/democrat-gen-z-voters-georgia-2022-midterm-elections/671676/.
Frost, Maxwell. “About.” 2022. Maxwell Frost for Congress. www.frostforcongress.com/meet-maxwell.
“Home.” 2022. Karoline for Congress. www.karolineforcongress.com.
Montanaro, Domenico. 2022. “NPR Poll Shows Biden’s Approval Rating Is up but There Are Warning Signs for Democrats.” NPR, October 6. www.npr.org/2022/10/06/1126935638/poll-biden-improvement-voting-midterms-2022.
Sexton, Adam. 2022. “US House Republican Leaders Endorse Matt Mowers in 1st District Race.” WMUR, June 6. www.wmur.com/article/kevin-mccarthy-house-gop-matt-mowers-endorsement/40204163#.
Sotomayor, Marianna. 2022. “Maxwell Frost Is Figuring out How to Be Gen Z’s Likely First Congressman.” The Washington Post, September 3. www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/09/03/maxwell-frost-congress-generation/.
Wang, Amy. 2022. “Who Is Karoline Leavitt, GOP Nominee for U.S. House in N.H.?” The Washington Post, September 14. www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/09/14/leavitt-new-hampshire-republicans-trump/.