In This Episode
Are young voters the key to the midterms? We hear from disillusioned Gen-Z voters in Orange County, California as well as their Member of Congress, Katie Porter. Then Data For Progress’ Evangel Penumaka, organizer and former Texas Democratic Senate candidate Cristina Tzintzún-Ramirez, and John Della Volpe of Harvard Kennedy School join Jon to dig into what the voters had to say.
If you want to learn more about how you can take action in the fight for our democracy, head over to Vote Save America and Next Gen America: https://votesaveamerica.com/midterm-madness/
Rep. Katie Porter: Democrats like to point the finger at the Republicans and say, those are the, you know, the old, the white, the rich, the dudes, right? We are the diverse party. When it comes to age. I wouldn’t point that finger so fast at the other side, because we actually have a big problem with that, in Congress.
Jon Favreau: That’s Katie Porter, a Member of Congress from Orange County, California, talking about the Democratic Party’s relationship with younger voters.
Rep. Katie Porter: It’s not like the Democrats are, you know, running around on Bird and Lyft scooters, and the Republicans are in those I’ve fallen and I can’t get up things. I mean, come on. Like it’s pretty much all old. I’m 48. I am in the future forum. For young people. I’m not young. I’ve had Botox multiple times. I am not young.
Jon Favreau: As you can tell, Congresswoman Porter is a bit different from most of her colleagues – in the best possible way. She’s funny. Doesn’t take herself too seriously. Talks like a normal human being. And she’s repeatedly gone viral for one of the most low-tech forms of communication imaginable: A whiteboard.
[clip of Rep. Katie Porter]: Do you know what this number is?
Jon Favreau: This is Katie at a 2020 Congressional hearing about drug companies’ price gouging. She’s questioning big pharma CEO Mark Alles while using a dry erase marker to write the number 13 million on a whiteboard.
[clip of Rep. Katie Porter]: This was your compensation in 2017 for being CEO of Celgene. And that’s a lot of money. It’s 200 times the average American’s income. And 360 times what the average senior gets on social security.
Jon Favreau: In just a day, the C-SPAN clip of this grilling is viewed more than 15 million times on Twitter – and that’s just one of many Katie Porter whiteboard moments that’s broken through. Her most popular TikTok videos have up to 5 million views, and she’s got over 150,000 followers on Instagram – many of them as young as her three children.
Rep. Katie Porter: My children constantly tell me mom, like your stuff is so sus, which is short for suspicious and so I’m like, I don’t feel very hip cause they’re constantly telling me that I’m not. But when we looked at our social media accounts, whether it’s TikTok, whether it’s Instagram, even on Twitter. I have a lot of younger followers. There’s a little bit of a puzzle to me. I mean, I do have a minivan, like I’m, I’m not the coolest.
Jon Favreau: She must be doing something right. Katie Porter was probably the most progressive candidate to flip a Republican House seat in 2018 – a race she won again in 2020. She’s the first Democrat to ever represent California’s 45th, a district which has become more diverse over the years, with an electorate that’s looking more like UC Irvine, the school where Katie used to teach law. In two close elections, young voters helped put her over the top. And that’s been true for Democratic candidates all over the country. Between the 2014 and 2018 midterms, youth turnout more than doubled, and Democrats won more than two-thirds of voters between the ages of 18 and 29.
[news clip]: Massive Turnout Coast to Coast.
[news clip]: Generation Z did show up to the polls.
[news clip]: We are seeing a surge of first-time voters.
Jon Favreau: Between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, youth turnout jumped from just under 40% to 50%, and Joe Biden won three-fifths of these voters. Gen Z is now the most diverse generation in history – nearly half are young people of color, and in a Gallup poll earlier this year, 1 out of every 5 identified as LGBTQ. There are now more young people registered to vote than ever before, and by 2028, Gen Z and Millennials combined will make up just about half of all eligible voters in America. But that doesn’t mean they’ll always show up for Democrats – or show up at all. Joe Biden actually did slightly worse with young voters in 2020 than Democrats did in 2018, and there are plenty of reasons for these voters to feel disconnected from politics right now. This is a generation that’s come of age during multiple wars, the Great Recession, the Trump presidency, the pandemic, police brutality, climate change – it’s been a brutal few decades. And a lot of young people have never had the experience of interacting with a government that actually cares about them.
Rep. Katie Porter: So when things go wrong in some of my seniors lives, they pick up the phone and they call my office. Some of them. Almost every day, some of them call once or twice young people, when things go wrong in their lives, they get frustrated. They lose confidence. And that’s because for a long time in this area is a good example. There haven’t been responsive representatives.
Jon Favreau: Katie also recognizes that because the way young people get their news has changed, they’re also a bit harder to reach.
Rep. Katie Porter: This is why I spend time. You know, along with dealing with insomnia on Twitter or on Instagram, like reading things. And if they’re my constituent, we’ll DM them. We’ll reach out. We just introduced a bill based on something that happened to a constituent. I saw it on Twitter. She didn’t call my office. She took to Twitter to describe what had happened to her, how government had wronged her. And we reached out to her, and we were able to create a bell and introduce it. It’s bipartisan with bipartisan Senate, like. But I found her and that’s part of my job.
Jon Favreau: Of course, Katie Porter can’t DM with all the hundreds of thousands of young people she represents. And she’s got another very competitive race in 2022. Thanks to the redistricting process, she’s also got a new district, and hundreds of thousands of new voters to meet. As do Democratic candidates all over the country in purple House districts just like Katie’s. The question is, how do Democrats actually reach young people who might be disillusioned with politics and get them to show up in November? Because their votes could mean the difference between a Democratic Congress and one controlled by MAGA crazies. I drove down to Orange County to find out. I went to Irvine – the one city in both Katie Porter’s old and new district – and sat down with a diverse group of nine 20-something voters who all identify as Democrats and voted for Joe Biden in 2020. But they don’t follow politics too closely, and they’re not too happy with many politicians in either party. Afterwards, I gathered another group of experts to help unpack what we heard from the voters.
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez: My name is Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, and I run NextGen America, which is the country’s largest youth voter mobilization group. Um, last election, we helped mobilize one in nine of the young folks that turned out.
Evangel Penumaka: I’m Evangel Penumaka. I’m a lead analyst at Data for Progress. Data for Progress is a progressive think tank and polling firm.
John Della Volpe: My name is John Della Volpe. I am the director of polling at the Institute of politics, the Harvard Kennedy school. I was a Biden pollster in the 2020 campaign, focusing on the youth vote. And I am the author of Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America.
Jon Favreau: We’ll hear from Cristina, Evangel, John, and nine Orange County voters after the break.
Jon Favreau: I sat down with nine pretty disillusioned Gen Z voters in Irvine, California about a week after the Supreme Court released the Dobbs decision, which ended the constitutional right to an abortion. And as you’ll hear, these young voters were outraged. In fact, there was an interesting anecdote from our recruitment process for this focus group. One of the things we screened for was whether the participant was likely to vote in the midterms – we wanted young Biden voters who weren’t yet sure if they’d vote in November. Those kind of voters were fairly easy to find before Dobbs. After the decision, though, they actually became more difficult to find, at least in Orange County. Instead, we found more potential participants who told us they were very likely to vote. It’s just one anecdote, and as you’ll hear from these voters, Democrats still have to do a lot of work to make sure they cast their ballots in November. But clearly, something is happening out there. I talked about what it might be and what we heard from this focus group with youth voter mobilization expert Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, as well as pollsters John Della Volpe and Evangel Penumaka. Okay. So, uh, I started asking the group, uh, what issues affect them personally, what they care about and what doesn’t get enough attention. Um, we’ll get to the opening clip in a minute. But, uh, first I would love to hear from the three of you on this question what are some of the most common misconceptions that pundits and politicians have about Gen Z voters. And, and what should the rest of us know about what they believe and want out of politics? Cristina, let’s start with you.
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez: When people think about young people, I think they exclusively think of college kids and what we have to remember is that the majority of Americans under age 25 actually don’t have a college degree. So there are a lot of working class, young people, um, and that this is one of the most diverse generations in American history. When you add Gen Z plus millennials, this is the largest generational voting block that is the most diverse and the most progressive. And that while they are voting for Democrats, they overwhelmingly, they are not just trying to make changes on the margins. They want a disruption of the status quo. And so that’s what you see young people voting for. And the last thing I would say is I think that people think of young people as apathetic. And I don’t find that at all, especially in Gen Z, you find. A generation that’s very tuned in that cares a lot about the future of the country that’s participating, whether it’s in protests or voting at higher rates than we’ve seen in a long time in American history.
John Della Volpe: We have Donald Trump, if not for young voters, specifically in Arizona and Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Georgia. We don’t have a Democrat Senate. We don’t have our first African American woman on the Supreme court and so many other things. So without young people, it’s a very different country today. That’s number one. Number two, I think unlike every other generation that preceded them. All generations have dealt with their fair share of chaos and trauma. This generation has uniquely been, uh, dealt a set of cards that have been incredibly traumatic from their first memories in school, hiding under a desk for red alert, shooter drills, or their parents concerned about their great reception. They’ve dealt with so many of those issues at the same time, Jon, they don’t remember a time when America was truly united.
Evangel Penumaka: There really are key issues that motivate this group of voters. climate change is definitely a huge one that they wanna see action on for future generations, student debt cancellation, they are motivated by issues. And so really honing in on, you know, on what’s going to mobilize them. And what they’re interested in, I think is key.
Jon Favreau: Well, that’s a great segue to, uh, the first couple of clips I asked the group, what issues most affected them and what issues they cared about the most. Uh, and here’s what they said.
[clip of Voter 1]: I should say that minimum wage should increase a a bit because they’re living here in, uh, Orange County is very expensive.
[clip of Voter 2]: Yeah, definitely like rent and like places to live. Yes.
Jon Favreau: How many people have, been affected by inflation? Rising costs? Rising costs? Gas? [various voices]
[clip of Voter 2]: Why did no one say gas? I was like, pretty much, pretty much everyone. Well, no one said it, but like it’s it’s right there. So I don’t know.
Jon Favreau: Um, does anyone have student debt? How many people have student debt here right now? Three. Okay How concerned are you about paying off student debt?
[clip of Voter 3]: Not that worried, not that worried.
Jon Favreau: What are some of the issues that are most important to you personally?
[clip of Voter 2]: I just wanna have somewhere to live and not have to be able to share with other people. [various voices] Yeah. I wanna be able to live on my own. Yeah. Okay. It’s really, really hard. I have a pretty decent paying job and I see lots of stuff and I still can’t afford to live on my own.
[clip of Voter 4]: Homelessness.
Jon Favreau: Homelessness.
[clip of Voter 4]: Yeah.
Jon Favreau: Okay.
[clip of Voter 5]: When she said, uh, homelessness, I really like, I really felt that one, cause you know, you see a lot of homeless people and we’re pushing them. The city is pushing them to different areas, but you know, at, at some point there’s not gonna be a place for them to go.
[clip of Voter 6]: Um, yeah, I, I was gonna say like cost of living too. Like, it’s basically like, almost impossible for people to buy a house like in California.
[clip of Voter 7]: I think the living situation being able to afford buying a house on your own is a big concern of mine and also school.
[clip of Voter 8]: Um, definitely the student loan. I wanna be a lawyer, so I know that that’s gonna be really costly.
[clip of Voter 3]: Kind of ties in with everyone else, but poverty, having more resources for those living in poverty.
Jon Favreau: How concerned are all of you about climate change? Is that something that you think about often?
[various voices]: I feel like that I should / Eleven out of ten.
Jon Favreau: Eleven outta ten for you?
[clip of Voter 5]: Self-consciously I do, cause you know, it’s, it’s pretty hot right now to me.
[clip of Voter 7]: Yeah, I do, because it can affect our food, our water, um, our environment, our atmosphere, you know, little things that maybe we don’t think about that can really affect our living situation or like our health as well. Yeah.
[clip of Voter 2]: To be honest. I don’t really think about it. I feel like right now it’s not too bad. I’m by the pool, like in the summer and I’m fine you know.
Jon Favreau: If you had asked me before this group, uh, which issues would come up most frequently, I’d have said what Evangel did in the last answer, with student debt and climate, uh, both of those did come up, but were any of you surprised. Uh, by how much these voters talked about cost-of-living issues, especially housing, uh, Evangel. Does this track with your data?
Evangel Penumaka: Yeah, I will say nationally inflation, you know, cost of living is definitely top on voters’ minds, across demographics. It’s kind of, you know, overwhelming to see. it’s even on the minds of, you know, younger voters, as some of the ones that we just listened to pointed out, especially in California.
Jon Favreau: Cristina and John, have you, uh, have you heard similar things too from, from young voters?
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez: I mean, I think that this is the first generation in American history to be worse off than their parents. So they look around at grotesque and runaway income inequality, and then they feel it in their own lives. They feel the fact that rent is going up that they can’t afford a house. So that doesn’t surprise me at all.
Jon Favreau: John. I know you’ve done a lot of pulling around student debt relief. Uh, how important and motivating is that issue to young voters?
John Della Volpe: The definition of the American dream for young people is what your respondent said is to literally move out of their parents’ house and feel some sense of independence, you know, in a job that they aspire to, and not have to search on the back pages of the internet for seven roommates that they don’t know. Okay. That’s their definition of kind of happiness. And I think understanding that then we can put student debt into context in a couple different places. One is the degree to which that’s a barrier to achieving that dream one, but also, I think in this cycle that student debt is almost shorthand for first time voters’ commitment to voting for President Biden in 2020.
Jon Favreau: Cristina, um, NextGen organizes around climate. What’s the most effective way to talk about this issue and get young people mobilized around it, um, in your experience.
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez: I think with climate, it can feel so big and so impossible that can turn off a lot of young people. I think especially with young people, the messaging is often negative about like, you don’t vote, you don’t show up and that has proven not to work. The messaging has to be honor people’s pain. Paint a vision of the future that they can build and tell them about the power they have to make it happen.
Jon Favreau: I mentioned earlier that I did this focus group the week after, uh, the Supreme Court came down with the Dobbs decision and when I asked about the decision, uh, this group, everyone was pretty angry let’s listen. Um, how do you all feel about. Uh, the Supreme Court’s decision, uh, last week to overturn Roe versus Wade, which, uh, ends the constitutional right to an abortion.
[various voices]: It’s awful. Sounds awful. That’s terrible. Like what the fuck bro?
[clip of Voter 2]: I’ve been saying so many just everywhere, like all over the news, all over TikTok, all over social media. Yeah. Um, I just, I’ve heard so many horror stories. There’s people who. You know, raped and abused. And, you know, I saw this one story. This girl was, uh, sexually assaulted by her brother and got pregnant by her brother and she had to get an abortion for that. So I think it’s a huge setback to how far we’ve come already for sure.
[clip of Voter 6]: It’s gonna ruin a lot of lives.
Jon Favreau: John and Evangel are there consequences of this decision? Do you think enough to convince young people to vote who might have planned on staying home? Evangel.
Evangel Penumaka: So we had pulled this pre and post the Dobbs decision, So pre inflation, you know, across the board was the top issue. Post Dobbs we actually see about a 13-point shift in younger voters viewing abortion rights with greater importance, selecting this as our most important issue for 2022. It’s important to think about how this can mobilize younger voters in giving them a reason. You know, we don’t have Trump in this election to mobilize them. But I think having these rights taken away that they thought was guaranteed for them, I think can serve that purpose for why they should turn out to vote.
Jon Favreau: John, what, uh, what are you seeing in the data?
John Della Volpe: I don’t think there’s a question that this will further energize young people to turn out, I also think it taps into this broader theme that we’ve been hearing, um, through qualitative as well as quantitative about this concern. And Evangel just mentioned it about losing individual rights and freedoms. This was in the air well before, frankly, the Dobbs decision. And it’s something that wasn’t just reflective as talking to conservatives as it normally would be but now with talking to independents and democrats.
Jon Favreau: Cristina, how are, how are you all at NextGen mobilizing young people around protecting abortion access ahead of the midterms?
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez: The day, the Dobbs decision came out. We had 10,000 young people sign up and say, I wanna take action on this issue. It was one of the largest days we’ve seen young people I wanna stand up and do something and I’ll pledge to vote. I’ll do whatever I can. Um, and that it’s gonna be a huge issue for this electorate. And, you know, I’m sure many of us were at the rallies that happened the day after row. I was in Austin, Texas, where there was it was just young people. It was thousands of young people, and they were shouting, vote them out, vote them out.
[news clip]: One, two, three, four, abortion is worth fighting for. One, two, three, four, abortion is worth fighting for.
Jon Favreau: So, you know, as I mentioned, these were all first-time voters in 2020, they all voted for Joe Biden. I asked them why. Every single person said that the primary reason they voted for Joe Biden was to get Donald Trump out of office. I then asked them for words and phrases to describe the Republican party. Uh, and here’s what I got mean. Entitled, racist, greedy, closed-minded, self-centered, so no Trump fans in the group, no Republican fans in the group. But none of them thought that things were going well in the country today. And when I asked why, here’s what they had to say.
[clip of Voter 5]: For sure, uh, the abortion thing, like racism and stuff like that, that’s still alive and well, I still see cops and all that and you know, being unfair to civilians and that, that still bothers me a lot.
[clip of Voter 3]: Yeah. I say concerned because after Roe versus Wade was overturned, the Supreme Court now wants to go to a gay marriage. Mm-hmm they wanna do, um, birth control. So I don’t know what, when they’re gonna. Stop like, what more rights can they take away from us? That’s why I’m concerned.
[clip of Voter 9]: Like, I kind of just felt super sick at this country. It is not going in a good direction a majority of people. Mm-hmm, uh, but it seems like nothing is really being done about it.
[clip of Voter 6]: The world is changing really fast. And there’s a lot of people that are like, especially the ones that are in power, like of the older generation that are basically stuck in their ways. And like, thinking that this is the only way that things should be slash have to be mm-hmm to be quote unquote “right and so of course, they’re gonna press their ideals on a new and changing world, which don’t make sense nowadays.
[clip of Voter 4]: Um, I have to agree with him, we do have like a big issue with like different generations. Politically we have older, an older generation in power or just getting new people like AOC and like Beto O’Rourke, coming up and there’s gonna be a clash. There’s gonna be disagreements.
[clip of Voter 2]: So I just think considering like ever since just pandemic 2020, BLM, this is just like a huge step back, considering everything that we’ve been through. I think it’s also really messed up that they’re also, I’ve heard talk of them trying to go back on the LGBTQ community and trying to like, you know, put laws against gay marriage and everything. Like they were saying too. The fact that we have a lot of older people who are from a completely different generation with different thoughts and opinions and different ways that they were raised, that they’re in office. I just, I don’t agree. I think their mindset is completely different than ours. And they’re not seeing what’s changing.
Jon Favreau: So, this is probably one of the most frustrated and disappointed groups of voters I’ve spoken to. Um, and, and it does seem like they’re central problem with politics isn’t necessarily partisan, but generational, um, Cristina, as an organizer, how do you keep these kinds of voters from giving up on politics altogether?
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez: I’ve always said that voting is the most basic thing you must do, but it is not the only thing you should do. And I think that young people understand that that is simply one tool for change. I think where young people get frustrated is when they’re told that it’s the only tool to make change. Um, and what I heard. You know and see from young people is that they’re repulsed by the Republican party. But they’re also determined to remake the democratic party. I remember the democratic party when it was in the same place that the Republicans were on criminal justice reform. I remember the time when the democratic party was where Republicans were on tax policy. So, we have come a long way in pushing the democratic party to answer better to the diverse and changing demographics of this country. And it’s, deep-rooted working-class elements. I think we have to keep hitting those messages and tell that to young people.
Jon Favreau: Evangel. How do you think the democratic party should bridge what is clearly a generational gap?
Evangel Penumaka: I think another thing that we can look to is ways that local issues and state politics and voting down ballot, really does make an impact where, you know, nationally the structural changes that need to be need to take place you know, are so deep rooted, and I can understand why voters feel, you know, disillusioned about the change that can take place. But there are local races and state-based races that really can have an impact, um, on these voters’ lives as well.
Jon Favreau: John, what do you think?
John Della Volpe: The challenge for Democrats, specifically, they need to throw out the old playbook to, to, to encourage a young person to participate. You need to do two things. The first thing you need to do is as you mentioned, you need to build some trust and some faith. In the system in politics that it’s actually worth their time to participate. So it doesn’t mean they’re apathetic it’s that they don’t always see the tangible difference that politics can make. Once you do that, then you need to position to the messenger to be the, kind of the agent of change or progress.
Jon Favreau: Well, let’s talk about the messenger. In that last clip you heard a young woman named Alejandra mentioned AOC and Beto O’Rourke. I wanted to know more about what kind of political leaders and candidates, this group liked, uh, who their dream presidential candidates would be, especially since the group’s unanimous opinion was that Joe Biden is too old to run for president again. Here’s what they said.
[clip of Voter 9]: Uh, so, you know, Bernie Sanders mm-hmm, him, that’s it.
[various voices]: Bernie Sanders, nothing else / Bernie Sanders / Couple for Bernie Sanders? / He’s perfect.
Jon Favreau: And his age would not be a concern?
[clip of Voter 5]: No, it would. It would.
Jon Favreau: It would, for?
[clip of Voter 6]: Bernie, type of Bernie Sanders kind of person at like 50.
[clip of Voter 1]: AOC. The AOC.
Jon Favreau: AOC?
[clip of Voter 1]: Yeah. Yeah. She’s I like how determined and passionate she is when she speaks. There’s a lot of things I like about AOC.
[clip of Voter 2]: Michelle Obama was great. Very smart woman. I feel like she has a good mind and probably brings some peace, but who knows?
[clip of Voter 7]: I think our Gavin Newsome has been doing a good job. He makes a lot of things happen.
Jon Favreau: Yeah. How many of you think Gavin Newsom is doing a good job at governing?
[clip of Voter 2]: Yes, but he just did for all the people, like for Roe versus Wade, he’s making California like a safe haven for people to come over here and get abortions without any consequences from the other state.
[clip of Voter 8]: He also, um, he signed that every like household that makes like combined like 150 K or if you’re an individual and you make 75 K or under, they give you like a gas card and you can use it like for gas or food. So—
Jon Favreau: A 50-year-old, Bernie Sanders, AOC, Gavin Newsom, and Michelle Obama. Uh, does anyone wanna take a shot at what those political figures all have in common or why they all have qualities or records that this group of voters admires, John?
John Della Volpe: Often, I think. Around those, those qualities of trust and values and getting things done and having some urgency. This is not a normal time when I talk to younger people, young activists, that’s the first thing they say, these are not normal times. They appreciate that, but they believe that Washington is acting like they always ask without the urgency that perhaps Gavin Newsom on the west coast is, uh, is showing as, uh, as brought up by that young woman.
Jon Favreau: Evangel. What do you think?
Evangel Penumaka: I think they all are showing voters that they will take action on the issues that impact all of our lives. And they really center the struggles that voters face, in giving tangible solutions. I think the other thing too is just how they communicate to voters. And I think AOC, I think it has really nailed this in, you know, the Instagram post she does after, um, these major events that happen taking the time to answer voter’s concerns, build that trust and show how you can be impactful.
Jon Favreau: Yeah, Cristina. I was sort of surprised by the specificity, with which she remembered Gavin Newsom’s actions, both on, on Roe and on the gas rebate card because this is also a group of voters that doesn’t pay super close attention to, to politics in the news. What do you think all those, those figures have in common that were cited?
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez: Ultimately what young people care about is delivery of the policy issues that they care about. I saw people that they mentioned that they felt like were fighting and standing up for ordinary people. That it feels like a lot of times in politics, people are not standing up for ordinary people. Like Bernie Sanders had a villain and you always need the villain in the story, which was just billionaires. I think what Republicans made clear and what the Supreme court, the ultra-right made clear to young people is yes, many of them went and voted against Trump. Because they saw fascism on the ballot and they just made clear that fascism is on the ballot again in 2022, and that they have the power to stop it. And I think that young people are gonna turn out to stop it again.
Jon Favreau: After the break, we’ll find out what Gen Z voters in Orange County think about the upcoming midterms and where they actually get their news. Plus, more Katie Porter.
Jon Favreau: Welcome back – after the voters in Orange County talked about which issues mattered most to them, I wanted to find out what they thought about the upcoming election, and whether they’d actually vote. All right, let’s get to the midterms. So, we’ve talked about how one challenge for Democrats with young voters in 2022 is inspiring them. but I found out with this group that another challenge is simply educating them about the election itself. Uh, take a listen. How many of you planned on voting in the midterm elections this November?
[clip of Voter 2]: What is that?
Jon Favreau: Got three here. Four.
[clip of Voter 6]: I could—
[clip of Voter 9]: I filled out a ballot like a couple weeks ago. I was that for the November election. I don’t even know.
Jon Favreau: Um, I think there was, I believe there was a primary so, okay. There was a primary election.
[clip of Voter 9]: I’ll just do the, do what I did do that again.
Jon Favreau: Um, who is your member of Congress? And do you think they’re doing a good job?
[clip of Voter 2]: I don’t know anyone in Congress. [laughter]
Jon Favreau: Yeah. okay. That’s that’s totally fine. Does any, does anyone know who their member of Congress is? No? Can you help people understand uh, who are listening like why a group people challenge who were politically engaged uh, enough to vote for Joe Biden in 2020 might not know what a midterm election is or, or who their member of Congress is?
Jon Favreau: John, what do you think?
John Della Volpe: Number one, I hope every single Democrat within the sound of our voice listens to that focus group, John and, uh, appreciates, um, all the votes that are being left on the table. Cause this is a unique opportunity that may not come again. Right that you have a, uh, an opposition party that is not just not making an effort, but openly hostile to the values of which we’ve been talking about for this entire conversation. And yet you had nine good people who could articulate the issues, what mattered to them and what mattered to their community. And they’re unsure, frankly, because a lack of a civics education. We talk often about the role of social media and the internet. And one of the ways in which, um, dozens of young people tell me personally, and we can see in our surveys that they’re trying to create some measure of self-care is to turn away from the daily repetition of the negativity of the news, rather than watching our day base day to day basis, they choose to check in when it’s comfortable for them. They are not checking in now during the summer they know what’s happening with the Supreme Court. I think they will check in, um as the fall approaches.
Jon Favreau: Yeah, Cristina, clearly these, these voters care deeply about important political issues. Um, but they, they couldn’t be more disconnected from politics itself. What are some strategies that you all use at NextGen to, to bridge this gap?
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez: There’s a cyclical problem with young voters, which is most candidates look at who are my regular midterm voters. And that’s all they focus on and where Republicans and right-wing strategists are so much stronger than progressives. They look at the map and say, where can we expand? And with young voters, we can only expand and grow. But the number one reason they will not go vote is because they’ll say, I don’t know who to vote for, or no one contacted me. I can’t tell you how many young voters say, and it’s, they’re super competitive race that they live in, in their district. And, and they’re registered to vote. They’re eligible to vote and no campaign or candidate uh, has come and spoken to them.
Jon Favreau: You know, you both, uh, brought up media. So, I want to end on that because Getting through to these voters, you know, we have to, we have to go through the media. So, I asked questions about their media habits and their reviews of the media and, uh, and here’s what they said.
Jon Favreau: I wanna talk a little bit about media. Uh, how often do you follow the news?
[clip of Voter 2]: Pretty often. Every day.
[clip of Voter 1]: A lot.
[clip of Voter 2]: It just follows you.
[clip of Voter 9]: I’m like Serena, the news finds me.
[clip of Voter 8]: Yeah, I agree. It just follows you, especially like, I think I get most of it from from like TikTok, like I don’t like specifically like go like on news, like channels.
Jon Favreau: What’s your, um, what’s your primary source of news.
[clip of Voter 4]: Um, usually I’ll go on Twitter. If not, I’ll go through like OC register for like local news. Um, CNN.
[clip of Voter 2]: TikTok, Snapchat, Daily Mail, um, Instagram, any informal social media, but mostly like Daily Mail, for some reason Daily Mail. I feel like they post a lot on there. That’s how I keep up.
[clip of Voter 1]: Uh, I like Associated Press and The Guardian.
[clip of Voter 9]: Just Twitter and TikTok. Pretty much.
Jon Favreau: Anyone on Facebook? [laughter] Uh TikTok?
[various voices]: Yes.
Jon Favreau: What, um, what makes you more likely to trust something you see on social media?
[clip of Voter 5]: The more you see it? Yeah. Yeah. Repetition.
[clip of Voter 2]: Yeah. I guess like the amount of people that interact with it and stuff too. Like you just, if it’s on your for you page, obviously it’s important.
Jon Favreau: Uh, what frustrates you most about the media?
[clip of Voter 2]: Too much Kardashians. [laughter]
Jon Favreau: Too much Kardashians.
[clip of Voter 2]: I Feel like media doesn’t cover a lot of like, who’s like in the Senate or Congress I could vote. I could look at that paper and I could see a bunch of names. I’m like, who is this? What? Like, I don’t know. I need to see like put a face to it, see what they’ve done, who they are. Like, I feel like we don’t have like the tools to like, I mean, I guess we do, but like it’s not put in front of me. Like, you know what I mean?
Jon Favreau: Yeah.
[clip of Voter 2]: I feel like I don’t know enough about them.
Jon Favreau: How do you think the different ways that young people consume political media, which is primarily through social media, particularly TikTok and Instagram and Twitter affects their views about politics, John?
John Della Volpe: I was trying to think somewhere, there’s gotta be a, like a sweet spot in the spectrum between too much Kardashians. Right. And a perfectly curated, uh, political Twitter sphere.
Jon Favreau: Not there yet.
John Della Volpe: Right. We’re not that we’re not there yet, but what they’re asking for is I think it said that news finds them. I think they’re getting more news than they may appreciate because they’re talking about these issues. I think, you know, multiple times a day or multiple times a week, um, homelessness, the cost of living, et cetera, what we collectively need to find are the more, more AOCs, you know, who can figure out. How to check in appropriately through Snap, through Instagram, who everything she does, isn’t a fully slick produced piece.
Jon Favreau: Can I ask you all because we’ve all mentioned AOC, a number of times as an example of a really effective communicator.
[clip of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]: Let me tell you a secret. Most people don’t really know what capitalism is. Most people don’t even know what socialism is. But most people are not capitalists because they don’t have capitalist money. They’re not billionaires.
Jon Favreau: Like what, what is it about how AOC communicates via social media that makes her so effective?
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez: I mean, I think that she’s authentic. I think that she helps people follow her because She helps them understand policy in layman terms and what it means to their lives. And also one thing, I think she’s also really good about answering people’s questions on all different kinds of topics and opening and, and that authenticity speaks to young people, you look at Gen Z for change. These young TikTokers that have organized and coalesced, and now have a reach of like, 500 million young people that they can reach at a, you know, one video post that they can all do on a certain topic. So I don’t think that candidates have to go recreate. They just have to go work with the authentic voices of young people that are already online and have huge followings.
Jon Favreau: Um, Cristina, Evangel, John, thank you so much for, uh, for your time. This was great.
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez: Thanks.
Evangel Penumaka: Thank you.
John Della Volpe: Great to be with you. Such an important subject. Thanks.
Jon Favreau: A lot has happened since our Orange County focus group and panel discussion that might have an impact on what young voters do this November – Republican politicians proposing abortion bans, Democrats passing the most sweeping climate bill in history, and Joe Biden forgiving up to $20,000 of student debt. So, a few weeks ago, I checked in with one more political expert you heard from at the beginning of the episode who actually represents the young voters we heard from.
Rep. Katie Porter: I’m uh, Katie Porter. I’m a Congresswoman from Orange County, California. Um, I’m a single mom of three lightly supervised children and I love oversight.
Jon Favreau: I didn’t interview many politicians this season because usually they’re not allowed to be that interesting, especially when they’re in a tough race, but again – Katie Porter’s different. And instead of just chatting with her, I thought I might be useful to play Katie a few clips from the focus group and get her reaction in real time. I started with the clip where the young voters talked about why they thought the country is going in the wrong direction, and which issues matter most to them. She of course immediately started taking notes.
Jon Favreau: Um, what’s your first reaction listening to all that?
Rep. Katie Porter: I think young people are paying attention to what’s going on in this country. That was a very good list of things that are on people’s minds, at all ages. SO things like inflation, things like concern about rising hatred and extremism, things about rights being taken away. That actually is some of the important things happening in this country. So, my first reaction is kudos to these young people for paying attention. I think they do know what’s going on. Some of what’s going on is not good, and it’s okay for us to acknowledge that we can’t be credible, unless we’re honest about some of the things that are going wrong. The Dobbs decision and losing a fundamental right. That is a terrible, scary thing. And so what we’re hearing from these young people is that, that they think that that’s a terrible, scary thing. And I would say, good, let’s listen to those voices and let’s respond to them politically.
Jon Favreau: Do those responses track with what you’ve been hearing from young people in your district?
Rep. Katie Porter: Yes, definitely. I mean, I obviously meet with a lot of different kinds of young people. Um, I have my own three children who are my three worst constituents, I just wanna say. But I think that that largely tracks, I mean, they’re not the only concerns, but I think all of those are things that I have heard before. And then the one I would like to talk a little more with you about which I think is so important is the cost of living and the ability to have a home. The inability to afford a home and to build the solid financial footing that comes with home ownership is one of the biggest anxieties facing people around this country. Not just in high cost of living areas like here, but in every part in pocket of this country. So I’m thrilled that you heard this and I hope everybody in Washington and every political consultant is listening because housing is a defining issue. The party that figures out how to solve this problem and talk about this problem is gonna be the party with the enduring majority for the next 20 years.
Jon Favreau: So I obviously did this, uh, before Biden’s student loan announcement. What’s the reaction been in, in your district from your constituents over the last week? Like, do you think this is something that will motivate young people to vote? Who might otherwise have stayed home?
Rep. Katie Porter: So I would say that student loans are probably one of the most divisive issues, student loan forgiveness, one of the most divisive issues right now in Orange County, I get a lot of strong reactions, one way or the other, um, and a lot of powerful, compelling stories, frankly, in, in both directions. So when I get a question from somebody who’s hostile to student loan forgiveness, I try to say let me give you some facts that might help you. You said you think students should be pay off what they got. They got a degree. They ought to pay that off. 40% of people with student loan debt didn’t graduate. That’s a problem. So, who you think of as a student loan debtor actually isn’t necessarily who’s a student loan debtor. Oh, you worked your way through school. You, you flip burgers? So did my dad at his state university. You cannot flip enough burgers. You can’t forego enough lattes to afford state university today because the costs are so much different. And so today about half of public school, public university graduates have student loans. So that’s actually a lot of what we’re talking about here. And so they’re the same people who say like, we should forgive it all ten thousand’s not enough. I try to back that out and say, look, the 10,000 is gonna go a long ways toward helping the people with the lowest incomes. They actually tend to hassle have the lowest loans, the people with the highest incomes, generally there’s exceptions. But generally, if you have a lot of loans, some of those people, not all, but some also got graduate degrees and tend to have higher income. So the $10,000 does a lot to address some of the racial wealth gap. It does a lot to try to correct that. So. I would say, as I’ve explained and given facts to people, I don’t think I’ve convinced everybody one way or the other, but I do think I’ve slowed them down a little bit. I’ve taken the temperature down a little bit and they thought maybe I’m not as right as I thought I was. So maybe I shouldn’t be as righteous one way or the other. And that I think is part of how we build policy conversations on difficult topics like this.
Jon Favreau: So the clip I really wanted to play for Katie is the one where some of the young voters didn’t know what or when the midterms were, and none of them could identify their Member of Congress, who of course is Katie Porter. I realize this would probably offend or at least surprise most politicians, but I figured Katie would have a more insightful reaction. And she didn’t disappoint. So granted, we intentionally selected a group of people that doesn’t pay close attention to politics, but they did vote for Biden. So like, how do we get them to turn out for you? This is, these are, these are mostly your constituents, and other Democrats.
Rep. Katie Porter: So, you know, I think that this reflects, um, one of the real challenges that we have with younger voters, which is partly because of housing costs, partly because of school, they move a lot. Um, and then redistricting added a whole bunch of confusion to this. So I’m spending a lot of my time getting to know the roughly half a million new humans that Santa Claus brought me for Christmas. You know, I asked for diamonds, Jon, and I got half a million new potential constituents. So it, it didn’t really, it wasn’t the best Christmas I’ve ever had, but I’m excited to meet these new folks, um, you know, there’s also a timing issue here, which is. You know, whenever people say, oh, nobody knows what’s going on. Nobody knows. These students, they’re trying to get through their day. They’re they’re trying to go to their job. They’re trying to get to class on time. They’re trying to pay off their loans. They’re trying to save up for a house. This is one of a bajillion things that it means to be a successful American and the person who said my ballot comes, I fill it out. I mail it in. A plus that’s the entire project buddy. Like if you’re doing that, I give that an A, okay. Maybe you’re not a volunteer. So, I give you an A, not an, A plus, but that’s a pretty good answer. So, I think it’s really incumbent on me to make sure we reach these voters. I think what’s been wrong with politics too long is my colleagues think they’re too important. We’re not that important to most people. It’s our job to, to find these folks and to connect with them. It’s not their job to find us, their job is just to find their ballot. It’s my job to make sure I find them.
Jon Favreau: I mean, one way that you have broken through certainly as a member of Congress. Is, uh, we should talk about the whiteboard, right? why do you think that in this very noisy political environment that you hauling out a whiteboard breaks through all the noise?
Rep. Katie Porter: I, and I’ve thought about this a lot and I’ve asked some young people and basically the answer is you get that we don’t have confidence and you’re actively you’re, you’re trying to show us that government doesn’t always work. You’re not assuming that we all believe in you. And so I think this goes to this kind of disillusion point, which is, you know, is anyone really gonna fix anything? What difference does that make who my congressperson is? So. The whiteboard is just a tool. But the point is to really show people in an accessible way, what I’m doing in Washington, what do Congress people do? What questions are we asking? Are we asking the questions that you have on your mind? So I think the, the visuals help, particularly in a world where people are watching things on their phone with the sound turned off, they help invite people into the dialogue. But I think at the end of the day, it’s the willingness to kind of hold power to account. And those whiteboard moments are just evidence of something happening that they think should happen a lot more.
Jon Favreau: Yeah, that’s so interesting because, so there were other parts of this group where I got into to politics and I heard a couple times from different participants, they would talk about people in Washington or the people in politics. They’re just an older generation and they don’t get it.
Rep. Katie Porter: I, I don’t think young people necessarily only want young representatives, young people want representatives who are willing to look hard at the realities of the economy and the society they’re living in. And you know, I’m not just elected to, to represent the people who vote for me. I’m also elected to represent the 12-year-olds who can’t vote. And the two-year-olds who are coming down the pike and the 22-year-olds, who changed addresses twice and therefore doesn’t ever get their ballot in time. I represent all those people and I need to be thinking about all of those people. So when we talk about diverse leadership, multi-generational has to be one of the things. We’re talking about diverse leadership based on race, based on life experience based on class, based on generation is part of that. But it’s not just being of the generation. It’s also seeing the experiences of people whose life experiences are different than yours.
Jon Favreau: There’s obviously a lot to worry us about the state of democracy. What, what is making you hopeful right now? Um, about the state of democracy and, and about the fact that hopefully this generation of people that, that I was just talking to will, uh, will lead us to a better place.
Rep. Katie Porter: This is a very nerdy answer. I’m guessing this is not what, what people usually say ready for this it’s Biden’s competition policy. So, let me connect the dots for you. President Biden and his team are fundamentally tackling the problem of monopoly in virtually every part and pocket of this, of this economy, whether that’s technology, whether that’s agriculture, whether that’s banking. He has put people in office who understand that in order to have a healthy democracy, here’s the democracy connection in a capitalist society, you have to have a healthy economy. If you don’t give people means and opportunities to buy houses, to have wealth, to contribute, to go out in their lives to, to get degrees. You’re not gonna have a vibrant democracy because people are gonna feel like what’s the point I’m oppressed. I’m oppressed, economically. I’m oppressed, politically. They’re connected for most people in their daily lives.
Jon Favreau: It’s so important that you made the connection between the healthy democracy and the healthy economy. Because again, I think one of the big divides that keeps coming up in all these focus groups is you’ve got Democrats in the media and we’re focusing on January 6th as we should. And the threats of democracy and, and Republicans are going to overturn democracy and all that’s very scary. And then you talk to voters and they’re like, well, I just, I, I need to live. I need to, um, I’m worried about the cost of housing. And I, and I do think like if you want people to get into the work of saving democracy, you have to convince them that democracy is worth saving and to convince them democracy is worth saving. You have to convince them that it works for them, that it actually makes their lives better.
Rep. Katie Porter: So here is democracy by electing a president, willing to stand up to corporate power, actually creating more economic opportunity. And as these people see their economic opportunities multiply, they think. How did this happen? Oh, it’s because we voted for this guy Biden, who cares about working people as opposed to Trump, who only cares about himself. Like, look, maybe I’ll vote again. Things got better in my life. And so, I do think they are intertwined. They get that. And we as Democrats better figure it.
Jon Favreau: Katie Porter, you are the best.
Rep. Katie Porter: Oh, thank you.
Jon Favreau: I like made a rule. I don’t think we wanna talk to politicians cause we bring politicians on. They do a lot of talking points, but I kept telling the team, I was like, Katie Porter will be perfect for this episode.
Rep. Katie Porter: I have to say my team did give me talking points. I just didn’t use them. Um, instead I did what I think elected officials need to do a lot more, which is I listened. To what the voters said, what these folks said. And then I tried to be responsive to it. I mean, it, that actually is the job. It’s not talking. It’s listening.
Jon Favreau: Katie talked about how a vibrant democracy requires a healthy economy – how Democrats need to prove they’re the party of working people by standing up to corporate power on behalf of voters who struggle to pay for basic necessities like housing.
[clip of Latino Voter]: We were one of those people where the owner sold right from under us. And I had a. There was no weekly’s for us to go to. We were hotel hopping. Wow. And that’s 70 to a hundred and something dollars for us to go to a decent hotel. Mm-hmm and I had to do that for three months before we got our house.
Jon Favreau: Next week, we’ll talk to some people who know that struggle well when I sit down with seven working-class Latino voters in Las Vegas, Nevada – voters who may have supported Democrats in the past but are much more up for grabs in November. I’ll see you there.
Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is an original podcast from Crooked Media. Season 3 is produced by Dustlight Productions. I’m your host, Jon Favreau. From Crooked Media, our executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Katie Long and me. Special thanks to Alison Falzetta and Andie Taft for production support, and to Mike Kulisheck from Benenson Strategy Group who helped us with our focus groups. From Dustlight, our executive producer is Misha Euceph. Arwen Nicks is our executive editor. Stephanie Cohn is the senior producer. Tamika Adams is the producer and Franchesca Diaz is the Assistant Producer. This episode was sound designed by Franchesca Diaz with help from Stephanie Cohn. Valentino Rivera is our senior engineer. Martin Fowler is the composer. Thanks to our development and operations coordinator at Dustlight, Rachael Garcia and to Chrissy Maron for archival legal review. If you want to learn more about how you can take action in the fight for our democracy, head over to votesaveamerica.com/midterms.