December 1, 2022

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One of the first election stories that broke through the vote-counting chatter Tuesday night centered on Maxwell Alejandro Frost, who won election in Florida’s 10th Congressional District.

Frost’s victory wasn’t noteworthy because it was unexpected, necessarily. The district is heavily Democratic and Frost was the Democratic nominee. Instead, it was newsworthy because of Frost’s unique status: He will be the first member of Generation Z elected to Congress.

This helped set a tone that carried through the night’s coverage. Young people had, at long last, arrived! The midterms were being shaped by young voters showing up in force! The surprisingly poor Republican performance was a function of young voters!

This is hard to defend on the merits. But it, like the focus on Frost’s generation, also operates at a tangent from the real question about how generational changes are likely to affect American politics.

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Let’s start with Frost. He was born in January 1997, just inside the boundary of what constitutes Gen Z. He is, in fact, among the oldest members of the generation.

There’s an important caveat: This title is applied on the basis of a generational definition established by Pew Research Center — one established by Pew along lines defined less by demography than by cultural cohesion. The baby boom was a generation defined by clear changes in birthrates. Other generations are more nebulous, which is one reason that it’s often hard to determine what generation you belong to. So Frost’s status is a function of where Pew and others drew the line, not necessarily anything inherent to him.

What made Frost noteworthy, then, was really just his age. He’s only 25, the minimum age for election to the House. This is generally what happens when the first members of a generation arrive in Washington; they just happen to be the youngest people elected in a particular year. For example, the first millennial to join the House was former Illinois congressman Aaron Schock (R), elected at age 27. The first member of Gen X was former Rhode Island congressman Patrick J. Kennedy (D), elected at the same age. When Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) was elected in 2020, he was only 25 — but since he was born in late 1995, he didn’t get the generational flag Frost will carry.

Here we get to the point, the other reason that Frost and people like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) (elected in 2018 at 29) actually portend a shift in American politics. Frost and Ocasio-Cortez are more representative of younger Americans than Cawthorn was in that they are not White and they are very much not Republicans.

Before we dig into that further, let’s dispense with the idea that there is robust evidence that this was an unusual election for younger voters. There isn’t.

Consider this tweet from the activist David Hogg.

In it, Hogg uses exit polling reported by CNN (actually Edison Research data) to show that young Americans were much more likely to vote Democratic than older Americans were.

But what’s missing here is the density of younger voters in the electorate. If voters under the age of 30 were only 2 percent of the voter pool, their preferring Democrats by 28 points wouldn’t make much of a difference. Other commentary has pointed to meta-analysis of the exit polls to suggest that young voters turned out more than usual — a claim that may be true but is hard to assert definitively just on the basis of exit poll data. (This is in part because those exit polls have historically tended to overstate participation by young voters.)

If we look at the composition of the electorate according to the Associated Press’s VoteCast system (which The Washington Post uses) and compare it to Pew’s own analysis of the 2016 through 2020 elections (validating polling against the voter file), we see that the portion of the electorate under age 30 (about 13 percent this year, according to the AP) is in line with the past three elections (13, 11 and 15 percent, respectively, per Pew). Data expert David Shor, looking at county-level data, found much the same thing.

We also see that the gap in vote preference between younger and older voters is narrower than in Edison’s numbers, but that’s less important here. What is important is that younger voters have consistently been more supportive of Democrats than older voters.

This has markedly been the case since at least 2008. That year, the divide in presidential support between the oldest and youngest voters cracked open wide, in part because more young, left-leaning voters were motivated to come out and vote for Barack Obama. It has remained wide since.

Let’s now bring in Fox News’s Jesse Watters. On Wednesday morning, he offered up a bizarre strategy for the Republican Party moving forward: have single women get married.

“Single women are breaking for Democrats by 30 points. And this makes sense when you think about how Democrat policies are designed to keep women single. But once women get married, they vote Republican,” Watters said. Since “single women and voters under 40 have been captured by Democrats,” he added, “ … we need these ladies to get married.” He encouraged guys to “go put a ring on it.”

Of course, this is entirely backward. In 2021, the median age at which women first got married was almost 29. In other words, most young women are single — and since most young people including women are also heavily Democratic, it is much safer to assume that it is age or cohort that overlaps with politics rather than whether a woman has a husband.

Again, this is confounded by other factors. I have written a book that, among other things, delineates the wide social differences between younger and older Americans, from confidence in institutions to partisan identity to education. But a big gap is on race: Younger Americans are less likely to be White, and non-White Americans are less likely to be Republican. That, too, has nothing to do with marital status.

What’s interesting about the focus on young turnout in 2022 and on Frost is that it is a recreation of a debate that emerged in 2008. Then, Republicans worried about a new supermajority of young, diverse voters that would vote more and more heavily and more and more Democratic. But voters under the age of 30 who backed Obama by 34 points (per exit polls) that year are now voters aged 32 to 43 — members of an age bracket that preferred Democrats this year by a much, much narrower margin.

That’s the generational question at play here. Will this diverse, younger political generation — an amalgam of millennials, Gen Z and even younger — reshape American politics as it ages? Will Republicans moderate (as they largely did on same-sex marriage and other issues post-2008) to retain some appeal to them? Or will the GOP’s Donald Trump-era focus on amplifying White grievance further turn them away?

We can’t answer that question definitively yet. But we can say that there’s nothing about what happened this year — from that first Gen Z representative to the demonstrable composition of the electorate — to suggest that some new era has only just dawned.

correction

An earlier version of this story misstated Patrick J. Kennedy’s state. He is a former congressman from Rhode Island, and the story has been corrected..

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