As Gen Z has risen to political prominence — organizing protests, feuding with right-wing politicians, and getting elected to Congress — no man has been a bigger target of its collective ire than former president Donald Trump. Yet Nikki Haley, another Republican presidential hopeful, has seemingly avoided Gen Z’s wrath. So far.
Perhaps the difference is that Trump recently made incendiary comments about transgender kids in a campaign video. Or maybe the resentment dates back to 2019 when he mocked Gen Z climate activist Greta Thunberg for her supposed “anger management problem.” Regardless, Trump’s uniquely antagonistic approach to politics has been so successful at alienating Gen Z that last November, young voters opposed Trump-endorsed candidates like Herschel Walker and Mehmet Oz by colossal margins, stymying the heavily anticipated red wave.
So ridiculous. Donald must work on his Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Donald, Chill! https://t.co/4RNVBqRYBA— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) November 5, 2020
I understand this phenomenon firsthand. At 18, I am one of many young voters frustrated with our democracy’s descent into hyperpartisan chaos. By organizing a political summit to facilitate conversations between Gen Z and political leaders, I have discovered why my generation feels this way. At the summit, one of my guests was Adam Frisch, the Colorado Democrat who challenged far-right Representative Lauren Boebert and lost by only 546 votes. Addressing the assembled students, Frisch argued that it was an aversion to “angertainment” — a portmanteau of anger and entertainment — that drove Gen Z away from Trump-endorsed firebrands like Boebert.
“It is certainly understandable for those who have politically awoken in the last five or six or seven years [to have] a lot of frustrations,” Frisch told me. “It goes back to this ‘angertainment’ industry that I think has been very divisive for the country, and certainly turns off a lot of younger people. … I think a lot of people, including young people, want to talk about what the future is going to look like going ahead, and how we are going to move forward as a unified country.”
Statistics support Frisch’s claim: Data show that Gen Z hates polarization. With Trump’s “angertainment” looming large over last November’s midterms, Gen Z sided with the Democrats, who had campaigned as the less radical option. But this decision was a pragmatic one and came down to picking the lesser of two evils; a recent study shows that Gen Z dislikes the partisanship promoted by both parties, with 53 percent believing the Democratic Party is headed in the wrong direction and 52 percent believing the same about the Republicans. In total, an astonishing 43 percent of Gen Z believes that neither party is qualified to lead the nation — so it comes as no surprise that Gen Z forgoes major party affiliation at a higher rate than any other age group.
These numbers suggest that Trump’s rhetoric — not the “R” on the ballot — is driving Gen Z away from the GOP. In fact, Gen Z’s lack of party loyalty and disdain for partisan politics could allow a less divisive Republican, like Nikki Haley, to make inroads with the group. Already, Haley has signaled that she could be the presidential candidate Gen Z desires, publicly stating, “I think we need a young generation to come in, step up, and really start fixing things.”
In 2024, Haley’s measured approach and focus on tangible issues could earn her the support of young voters. As the governor of South Carolina, Haley took a pragmatic policy-oriented approach centered around job creation that drew BMW and Boeing to the state. As UN ambassador, Haley took a similarly uncontroversial stand against human rights violations, earning the approval of 63 percent of voters — including 55 percent of Democrats.
Thanks to her nonconfrontational temperament, Haley has yet to be vilified by Gen Z activists. Throughout her political career, she deftly avoided the culture wars detested by Gen Z by removing the Confederate flag from State House grounds following the 2015 Charleston, S.C., church shooting and refusing to support a bill that would prohibit transgender individuals from using their preferred restroom. This all suggests that Haley — who has also advocated that conservatives conduct more outreach to Gen Z — could do more than Trump to attract young people to the Republican Party.
Still, as a candidate in a Republican primary, Haley is engaged in a delicate balancing act by also supporting traditional Republican positions, such as pro-life legislation and expanded gun rights. Though these stances are unpopular among Gen Z, in the past, Haley has skillfully navigated the demands of both Trump supporters and moderates, staying in the good graces of the GOP’s hard-right faction while also sustaining the levelheadedness that Gen Z craves. As she runs for president, maintaining the bipartisan sensibility that distinguishes her from Trump is key if Haley hopes to appeal to younger voters.
If Republicans nominate a still-polarizing Trump in 2024, the result will probably be the same as in 2020, with Gen Z’s share of the electorate only increasing. Haley, on the other hand, could run a closer race by maintaining broader Gen Z support, courtesy of her inoffensive image. One thing is certain — the 2024 election won’t be a repeat of 2016. A generational shift has caused the political winds to change, and today, polarization is out.
Alex Shieh is founder and chief pollster of The Phillips Academy Poll, a polling firm run by members of Gen Z. Follow him at @alexkshieh.