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Gary Pearce: Younger voters could reshape elections

Columnist

By Gary Pearce

A wave of new and young voters has come ashore in North Carolina – and could reshape politics in the state and nation in 2020 and beyond.

Political scientists have long said that millennials — born between 1981 and 1996 — are the biggest and fastest-growing bloc of potential voters. But will they vote?

Well, they did in Raleigh’s municipal elections this month, and they upended the City Council.

In 2020, millennials — bolstered by Gen Z (born after 1996) — could play a decisive role in the race for President and, in North Carolina, races for U.S. Senate, Congress, Governor and the General Assembly. Polls show these voters are more liberal and more Democratic than older voters. They could take politics in a sharply different direction.

In Raleigh, the wave has already hit. Two long-time City Council members, Russ Stephenson and Kay Crowder, were unseated in October by two young, first-time candidates. The winners, Jonathan Melton and Saige Martin, are the first openly gay members ever on Raleigh’s City Council.

Virginia Reed, Melton’s campaign manager, said their strategy was to reshape the electorate: “We knew he couldn’t win if the only people who voted were the people who always voted in municipal elections. We had to turn out new, younger voters.”

Those new voters helped Melton, who was elected city-wide, beat Stephenson by over 3,300 votes. They helped the new mayor, Mary-Ann Baldwin, beat her closest challenger by 3,800-plus votes.

David McLennan, political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, said, “When I talked to young people, it was clear they were energized about the City Council races.”

Reed said, “I believe that younger, more diverse people are more likely to vote if they see themselves in the candidates on the ballot.”

Reed and McLennan agreed that young voters, in Raleigh and across the county, have been energized by President Donald Trump.

“Under-30s didn’t think their votes mattered,” Reed said. “Then Trump won in 2016.” Young voters’ opposition to Trump contributed to Democratic gains in the Virginia legislature in 2017 and in mid-term elections in North Carolina and across the country in 2018, she said.

This fall’s Meredith Poll found that millennials and Gen Z in North Carolina are more negative about Trump than older voters. Trump’s job approval among all voters was 40-55 negative; with millennials and Gen Z it was 34-59 negative.

McLennan said national polling shows that millennials and Gen Z favor Democratic candidates and Democratic policies by a margin of two-to-one. They favor Medicare For All and gun-safety laws.

Millennials and Gen Z have the numbers to significantly impact future elections, McLennan said.

In North Carolina next year, Democrats will target congressional and legislative races in newly redrawn districts in metropolitan areas, where the population of young voters is growing fastest. Young voters also could swing the Democratic presidential primary here March 3 – and help the Democratic candidate in November.

Pearce is a former political consultant who was an adviser to former Gov. Jim Hunt.

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