Age wave hits North Carolina politics

By Gary Pearce
Posted 10/30/19

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 …

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Age wave hits North Carolina politics

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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.


Two longtime Raleigh 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 more than 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 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 midterm 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 influence future elections, McLennan said.

Trump is president because he won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a total of 80,000 votes. He won North Carolina by 173,000 out of nearly five million votes.

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 could swing the Democratic presidential primary here March 3 — and help the Democratic candidate in November.

The Meredith Poll found:

• Among all North Carolina voters, Trump leads Joe Biden 38-34, Elizabeth Warren 39-33 and Bernie Sanders 39-33.

• But among millennials and Gen Z, Biden leads Trump 39-28, Warren leads 36-28 and Sanders leads by a whopping 48-26.

• Sanders’s lead suggests he’ll have strong support from young voters in North Carolina’s March primary.

Gary Pearce is a former political consultant. He was an adviser to Gov. Jim Hunt from 1976-84 and 1992-2000.