Welcome to Political Outliers, a column that explores groups often portrayed as all voting the same way. In today’s climate, it’s easy to focus on how a group identifies politically, but that’s never the full story. Blocs of voters are rarely uniform in their beliefs, which is why this column will dive into undercovered parts of the electorate, showing how diverse and atypical most voters are.
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Mack Bair, 24, supports same-sex marriage. Matthew C., 22, backs marijuana legalization, and Luke T., 22, is solidly pro-abortion rights. (Both asked not to use their last names out of fear of retribution for their political views.) John Henke, 20, says he believes climate change is happening — and that humans are playing a role.
At first blush, these young men might seem like progressive voters. But they’re not: All four voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020 and, for those old enough, in 2016 as well.
They’re all also part of Generation Z, America’s youngest adult generation, which is more ethnically and racially diverse than any generation before it.1 And similar to millennials, who are now in their mid-20s to early 40s, members of Gen Z are more liberal on a number of key social issues than older generations. According to Pew’s 2020 verified voter survey, millennials and Gen Zers also backed Biden over Trump in that year’s election, by a 20-point margin.2
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But despite the generation’s overall progressive bent, this hasn’t translated into overwhelming Democratic support. In fact, some research suggests that Gen Zers are no more likely to identify as members of the Democratic Party than registered voters in the overall electorate, and a plurality is unwilling to identify with either political party. That means that, despite their overwhelming support of Biden in the presidential election, there is also a small — but, so far, solid — chunk of Gen Z that identifies as Republican.
To better understand who these voters are and what motivates them to align with a party that has remained conservative on many issues important to Gen Z, I looked at polling data and political science for clues. I also spoke with six Gen Zers who voted for Trump and either identify as Republican or lean Republican. What I learned is that most of them break with the mainstream of the Republican Party on many social and cultural issues but solidly agree with the GOP’s stances on the economy. They also think the Democratic Party, as it is now, has veered too far left, specifically with its stances on immigration, gun control and race.
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“When it comes to Gen-Z Republicans, I think folks need to understand that we don’t fit neatly in a box, and I think that boggles the media,” said Javon Price, 23, a self-described conservative Republican who spoke in his personal capacity but works as a policy analyst for the America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit group allied with Trump that promotes the former president’s policies. “We’re normal everyday people like everybody else, and political beliefs aren’t the end-all be-all.”
Republicans in this generation are more likely to take what they call “libertarian” approaches to social issues like same-sex marriage, and surveys show that these young Republicans are more likely to care about “cancel culture” than the electorate as a whole. They’re also overwhelmingly white and male. But despite being more liberal on social issues than older Republicans, most of the young Republicans I spoke with admitted to me that they don’t see themselves ever leaving the GOP. And if Trump runs for president in 2024 and wins his party’s primary, most also said they would vote for him again. Even so, many of them are not too far behind their Democratic peers on a number of social issues, according to polling analysis as well as interviews with these young voters.
Recent polling from Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape found that both Democrats and Republicans in this generation, ages 18-24, have favorable opinions of people who are LGBTQ (83 percent of young Democrats have a favorable view compared with 66 percent of young Republicans) and support legalizing marijuana (67 percent of young Democrats compared to 55 percent of young Republicans). The gap between Democratic and Republican Gen Zers is also fairly small when it comes to separating children from their parents at the border when their parents could be prosecuted for illegally entering the U.S., with just 7 percent of young Democrats and 26 percent of young Republicans agreeing with that policy.
The fact that young Republicans aren’t that different from their Democratic peers on some social issues is largely on par with what academic research and studies from Pew have found, though not all social issues were as cut and dried. For example, even though two-thirds of Gen Zers want stricter gun measures, according to Rasmussen Reports survey data, young Republicans are still far less likely than young Democrats to want to ban assault rifles, according to Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape. One of the Republican men I spoke with said gun rights had even become a barometer for how he judges political candidates. “If you know somebody’s opinion on gun rights, you can make a pretty educated guess as to where they stand on every other issue — even unrelated ones,” Stephan Kapustka, 22, told me.
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Abortion may be another issue like this. Although the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape polling showed that a majority of Gen Zers from each party said they believe at least some abortions should be permitted — and only 16 percent of young Democrats and 33 percent of young Republicans said abortions should never be permitted — the issue divided the men I spoke with. For example, Price, who voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020, is strongly anti-abortion. Regarding his childhood neighborhood outside of Newark, New Jersey, he told me, “I could more easily find a Planned Parenthood than I could a park.” Henke, who is Christian, agreed; during a separate phone call, he said he used to take a more hands-off stance toward abortion but switched to an anti-abortion stance after talking with his pastor. Matthew C., meanwhile, told me he’s pro-abortion rights. Overall, few Republicans want to outright ban abortion, but this is one social issue where young Republicans appear to be closer to the opinions of their elders in the party.
But the biggest gaps between Gen-Z Republicans and Democrats aren’t on social issues. It’s how they view issues of economic and foreign policy. And for many young Republicans, that’s what’s driving their support of the GOP. For example, Gen-Z Democrats are way more likely than Gen-Z Republicans to support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour (79 percent for young Democrats compared with 43 percent for young Republicans), cutting taxes for families that make less than $100,000 a year (69 percent compared with 43 percent) and raising taxes for families that make over $600,000 a year (70 percent compared with 38 percent).
“A lot of us are very financially motivated, and maybe that’s because we grew up in the Great Recession,” Henke told me. “I was raised to be financially responsible because my parents started with pretty much nothing and now they’re both pretty successful. They’ve taught me and my family to be fiscally responsible, and that’s the biggest thing that motivates me.”
Indeed, even though the Democratic Party is closer in line with where some of these Gen-Z Republicans stand on social issues, it might be economic policy — plus opposition to abortion and gun control — that has a bigger hold on them. Some of Trump’s more populist messaging around “draining the swamp” has also resonated with them.
“[Trump] made me really proud to be an American and made me feel like the American Dream is alive and well,” Luke T. said. “He did a really good job of grabbing hold of people’s frustration with the establishment, and I liked that he was an outsider, rather than a traditional Republican.”
But it’s not just the economy and Trump that has made these young voters loyal to the GOP. Kapustka told me he’s open to more left-leaning views on social issues, but that he’s had conversations with his fellow Republican friends who think that “the Democrats don’t really care about them because they’re evil, white males or something like that.”
Data and interviews with Gen-Z Republicans illustrate a cap on young Republicans’ more socially liberal views, particularly as it pertains to recent political fights over “cancel culture” and how socially progressive or “woke” Americans should be. For instance, polling from Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape found that over half (55 percent) of Gen-Z Republicans believe we should end the practice of shaming people who say things that aren’t politically correct, versus 38 percent of Gen-Z Democrats who believe the same. This could be related to research that suggests Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that they self-censor their political views due to fear of judgment for what they believe. “Shutting people down or attacking them on Twitter seems to be a new thing,” Matthew C. told me. “And I think ‘cancel culture’ is horrible. I grew up around social media and the internet, and they both can be very toxic.”
Indeed, political science research suggests that young voters are shaped by what happens in their late adolescence and early adult years, so if there is a fear among younger Republicans that voicing their political views risks retribution, it could explain in part why recent GOP culture-war issues have played such a role in shaping these voters’ political consciousness.
To be sure, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Gen Z as a whole because they make up less than 10 percent of the electorate. Moreover, most of what we do know is limited to how they voted in the past one or two presidential races. But it’s possible that, over time, Gen-Z Republicans won’t be a political minority. There’s already some evidence that today’s younger liberals might get more conservative as they get older, and roughly one-third of Gen-Z voters who don’t identify as Republican said that they would consider voting for a moderate Republican candidate, according to a June 2020 survey by the Niskanen Center. For now, though, young Republicans are just a small slice of the electorate, but as long as the party sticks to its roots — or, its founding principles of small government and free enterprise — it’s unlikely these voters are going anywhere anytime soon.
Meredith Conroy contributed research.
CORRECTION (Aug. 24, 2021, 6:09 p.m.): An earlier version of the first chart in this article said there was a +23.2 point gap between Republicans and Democrats ages 18-24 on whether they supported capping carbon emissions to combat climate change. The gap was actually +33.3 points.