Pre-Debate Election Analysis from OSU Prof. Chris Stout

Historically, voter turnout tends to be low among younger generations, many of whom are in college and face obstacles when casting their ballots: they may have scheduling conflicts, have trouble registering, or be unaware of details like polling place hours, or voting and registration days. Yet, after a record number of young voters turned out in the 2018 midterm elections, Dr. Christopher Stout, an associate professor of political science at Oregon State University, said he believes voter turnout among younger generations will be higher in 2020.   

Generation Z: The Emerging Voting Bloc   

In the 2018 midterm election, Generation Z, Millennials, and Generation X outvoted older generations, casting a total of 62.2 million votes, according to the Pew Research Center. That election saw the highest midterm turnout since 1978. Pew also reported that Gen Z’s impact will likely be felt to a greater degree in 2020, since they are now projected to make up ten percent of eligible voters in the U.S.  

Stout said politicians have traditionally avoided focusing on issues that impact young voters directly, such as college debt, the cost of tuition, minimum wage, and the environment. Instead, they have focused on topics that impact older generations, like social security and Medicare. In recent years, however, he believes the situation has changed.  

“As the Democratic Party has moved to the left, I think there’s been more of a discussion of these issues,” Stout said. “Democratic candidates, including Joe Biden, have some plan to address college debt, and I think a lot of people are really worried about racial inequality…with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the fact that this movement has been discussed partially within the Democratic Party—I think these are things that will really motivate young people to turnout.” 

The 2020 electorate also differs from previous elections in a number of ways: nonwhites now account for a third of eligible voters, and one-in-ten eligible voters are members of Gen Z, according to the Pew Research Center. As a result, only 23% of those voting will be 65 or older in the 2020 election.   

Gen Z is more racially and ethnically diverse than other generations: they are expected to be 55% white and 45% nonwhite, including 21% Hispanic, 14% Black, and 4% Asian or Pacific Islander, according to Pew. In contrast, the Baby Boomers and older electorate are projected to be 74% white.   

“Because the Democratic Party is talking so much about race and racial inequality, and because Generation Z tends to be much more racially and ethnically diverse, those voters are feeling like the politicians are reaching out to them. And particularly around Black Lives Matter, which is a movement surrounded by young people,” Stout said. “I think the combination of those factors should lead to high levels of youth turnout [in 2020] amongst people in Generation Z.”  

Stout said the fact that many college students are home, instead of moving and spending their first term at a university like a traditional school year, could also boost youth turnout.  

“I think people would be interested [in the election], but right now, if it was a normal school year, people would be moving into the dorms. You’d be living your first year of college, which is certainly a good distraction from thinking about politics,” Stout said. “When you’re at home, when you’re doing nothing, then you’re probably going to be paying more attention.”  

2016 vs. 2020  

The 2020 election is attracting high levels of interest from the electorate as a whole, with Pew reporting that “83% of voters say that it ‘really matters who wins’ the presidential election, higher than the share who said this at similar points in any presidential elections dating back to 2000.”   

Stout said some voters may also be less optimistic about what polling is showing in 2020, particularly after the 2016 election.  

“There was a study that came out last year that showed that one of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost was because a lot of her supporters overestimated her likelihood of winning, and if there was any barrier to turnout, they just thought, ‘oh, well she’s going to win anyway, why should I waste my time voting,’” Stout said. “I don’t think the same thing will happen in 2020.”  

Trump as the Incumbent  

2020 also differs from 2016 because of the candidates—particularly because Donald Trump is no longer the challenger.  

“I think most of the rhetoric that Trump could push when he was the challenger was ‘things are bad, and I’ll make them better’… I think he feels more comfortable in that position, but now he’s the person who’s responsible for all of this,” Stout said.   

Tied to that is the idea that many people saw Hillary Clinton as being similar to Donald Trump in 2016.  

“I don’t know if that sticks to Biden in the same way, even though he had a much more conservative record than Hilary Clinton did,” Stout said.   

Black Lives Matter  

Although some argue that a presidential candidate’s vice president pick doesn’t make a significant difference in the outcome of an election, Stout said Biden’s decision to select Kamala Harris as his running mate could help mobilize voters.   

“I think it does a couple of things. First, it inoculates the complaints that [Biden] doesn’t care about African-Americans, which was something used against Hilary Clinton a lot in 2016. It’s hard to say Biden doesn’t care about African-Americans because he’s conservative on these policies when he selected a Black female as his running mate,” Stout said. “I think Harris is also energizing to African-Americans, and to young people. She certainly has a past of being a prosecutor which people try to exploit, but I do think that to the general public, to the average person, she seems like an exciting pick. And, it’s a chance to make history, and people respond to this chance to make history, particularly in this moment.”  

While voting in 2020 could prove to be hectic due to the coronavirus pandemic, Stout said the fact that much of the electorate is spending more time at home consuming the news because of COVID-19 could ultimately increase voter turnout.  

“I’ve thought about this with the Black Lives Matter protests—the shootings and the police brutality didn’t stop between 2016, when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed, and there was a lot of interest in Black Lives Matter. In 2020, with George Floyd, it’s just that the context changed a bit. People were at home, they were consuming this information,” Stout said. “So, I think the same thing is true in the election.”  

Voting & Debate Information  

Oregonians can register to vote or update their voter registration information by visiting Oregon’s Online Voter Registration website. According to this state of Oregon website, “A new registrant must submit their online registration by 11:59:59 p.m. Pacific Time on the 21st calendar day before an election to be eligible to vote in that election.” Therefore, new voters have until midnight of Oct. 13 to register for the 2020 elections.  

The first presidential debate of 2020 will be held at 6:00 p.m. Pacific time (9:00 p.m. EST) on every network television station, as well as PBS, Telemundo, Univision, CNN, MSNBC, and CSPAN. It will also be broadcast on most streaming services.   

By Jada Krening