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Opinion: Mark Kelly and Katie Hobbs owe their victories to young voters

Young voters turned out in droves to support Democratic candidates in Arizona, demonstrating the power of youth turnout

201103 Election Line West.jpg
Voters line up to vote on election day at the ASU West Campus in Glendale, Arizona on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

Despite coming into politics in a right-leaning battleground state, Arizona Democrats Mark Kelly and Katie Hobbs beat out their Republican counterparts. Young voters drove home their win.

Exit poll data shows that 76% and 71% of voters ages 18-29 voted for Kelly and Hobbs, respectively. Young voters had the second-highest midterm turnout in 30 years, a factor that turned the tide against a predicted red wave.

With many brought to the polls with the intention to defend their rights and democracy at large, young Arizonans banded together to vote for progressive policies and candidates. It's clear that young voters are a powerful voter bloc, and it's vital that politicians who hope to win or remain in office in Arizona and around the nation take this demographic seriously.

READ MORE: A 'red tsunami' in Arizona was avoided by a strong showing from state Democrats, but Republicans still gained in some races

"It seems very clear that there were issues emphasized by Democratic candidates that motivated young voters considerably," said Nathan Martin, an associate professor of sociology working at the AZ Youth Identity Project.

Both Kelly and Hobbs highlighted progressive agenda items that seemed to resonate with young voters. 

"The issues they care about align more with the Democratic Party," said Nilda Flores-Gonzalez, the associate director and professor at the Sanford School, who co-authored a 2021 study with Martin on what drives young voters to the polls. "Young people tend to vote Democrat because they care about climate, individual rights like abortion and care about social issues."

Flores-Gonzalez noted that a driver of youth turnout for Arizona Democrats seemed to be "pure opposition" to Trump and MAGA Republicans. Martin echoed this sentiment.

"Young people are voting less for the Democrats and more against Trump and Trump-aligned  Republicans," he said. "Mark Kelly was not going up against a Doug Ducey type of Republican but he was going up against a Trump-picked candidate."

This "against rather than for" mentality is a key characteristic of the young voter demographic that also played a significant role in the 2020 presidential election.

"Neither of the candidates was appealing to young people," Flores-Gonzalez said. "What was appealing (to young voters) was their values or the social issues they cared about."

With anxiety looming about the future of democracy, this explains why Arizona's young voters overwhelmingly voted for candidates like Kelly and Hobbs. Although imperfect, both seemed like better alternatives to right-wing candidates Blake Masters and Kari Lake.

"Young voters are not enthusiastic about political parties or candidates," Flores-Gonzalez said. "But they'll take whoever for them is the lesser of two evils."

Whether they were driven to the polls by high-stakes issues like abortion and climate change or not, young voters are redefining their role in politics and showing that they are an essential voter bloc nationwide.

"Generation Z is really dispelling stereotypes of what it means to be a young person and politically involved," Martin said. "They are really becoming a very real political force that is deciding close elections in Arizona and broadly."

Arizona's elections have come down to the wire, with Kelly, Hobbs and Secretary of State candidate Adrian Fontes winning by small margins. However, the bottom line is that young people have shown what we're made of, almost single-handedly turning the red wave blue. It's a sign of the times that a generation criticized for its self-absorption is actually turning out in droves for democracy.

Let Arizona's midterm elections stand as a lesson to politicians to take the young vote seriously, or we may just as easily vote them out next term.

Edited by Sadie Buggle, David Rodish, Grace Copperthite and Greta Forslund.

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Editor's note: The opinions presented in this column are the author's and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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