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Gen Z has had enough of politics. Does RFK Jr have the answer?

Robert F Kennedy Jr is actively courting the Gen Z vote after several encouraging polls.   (Getty Images)
Robert F Kennedy Jr is actively courting the Gen Z vote after several encouraging polls. (Getty Images)

Holden Culotta first caught the politics bug as a 15-year-old during the 2016 presidential election.

Four years later, he registered as a Democrat, even though he never felt at home in either the blue or red teams, and volunteered for Andrew Yang’s 2020 insurgency campaign.

After getting a taste of retail politics while canvassing for the Yang campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr Culotta ditched the Democrats to join Mr Yang’s centrist Forward Party in 2021.

When Robert F Kennedy Jr announced in April he was running against Joe Biden in the Democratic primary, Mr Culotta was drawn to the famous political scion’s promise of upending Washington DC’s tribal politics and reluctantly rejoined the party.

Now an unofficial surrogate for RFK Jr’s independent campaign, the 22-year-old University of Vermont political science student told The Independent that he had always felt a “gut level pull” towards a third-party alternative.

“People my age are fed up,” Mr Culotta said. “We’re completely disillusioned with the two-party system.”

Recent polls from the New York Times and Quinnipiac University have shown RFK Jr with the highest third party support since Ross Perot in 1992.

Robert F Kennedy Jr is attracting the highest support for a third party party or independent candidate in decades (EPA)
Robert F Kennedy Jr is attracting the highest support for a third party party or independent candidate in decades (EPA)

Among 18 to 29 year olds, Mr Kennedy polled higher than both Mr Biden and Donald Trump, and despite conventional wisdom suggesting that he can only act as a spoiler for either candidate, his supporters are daring to dream.

“There’s a psychological barrier to people voting for an independent or third party if they’re polling at 2, 3, 4 per cent. It’s kinda like ‘why waste my time?’” Mr Culotta told The Independent.

“But seeing him polling 20, 25 per cent, there’s a lot of people who have been waiting for this opportunity.”

‘We also have to eat’

The 18-29-year-old demographic has historically been exercised to turn out by issues like foreign wars, climate change, threats to women’s reproductive rights, LGBT+ equality and police brutality.

But after 30-year high inflation and a federal minimum wage anchored at $7.25 per hour, many among Gen Z are feeling the pinch of financial hardship.

NYU student Olivia Archard, 20, told The Independent she senses a shift towards Gen Z prioritising their own personal finances out of grim necessity.

“There are people working extra jobs to put themselves through NYU,” she said. “People are having to hop the subway so they can save money to afford to eat. That is a reality for some students.”

Ms Archard grew up in New Hampshire in a Democratic-supporting family, and politics is a hot topic of conversation at NYU’s Global Liberal Studies where she is vice president.

NYU student Olivia Archard, 20, has been a Democrat supporter, but sees the appeal to young people in some of RFK Jr’s policies (SUPPLIED)
NYU student Olivia Archard, 20, has been a Democrat supporter, but sees the appeal to young people in some of RFK Jr’s policies (SUPPLIED)

She was surprised by RFK Jr’s high polling, and says his name had not come up during discussions about the election on campus.

“After looking into his policies more I can understand the appeal for many 18- to 29-years-olds.  Policies that are targeting the economic institutions that are failing young people is a very smart move,” she said.

Everywhere RFK Jr goes on the campaign trail, he talks about his plan to make housing affordable for younger voters through low-cost loans backed by Uncle Sam.

Mr Culotta told The Independent those ideas are resonating with other young people.

“Growing up, I never really saw a path to owning a home and no one around me in my age group did,” Mr Culotta says. “I think that’s a huge part of it, seeing a really detailed plan that’s going to address that.”

Link Lauren, a 25-year-old TikTok influencer who has interviewed several 2024 candidates, agrees that the next election will be all about the economy.

“The number one issue for young people is money, money, money,” he told The Independent in an interview.

“We love mother nature, but we also have to eat,” he said, citing the skyrocketing cost of rent, food and other essentials as top of mind.

Mr Lauren’s TikTok channel pivoted from pop culture to politics around the time of Mr Trump’s CNN town hall in May, and quickly found a receptive audience for his spicy takes on Mr Biden, Hollywood and the mainstream press.

Link Lauren, 25, runs a popular political TikTok account and says young voters are primarily focused on economic issues (SUPPLIED)
Link Lauren, 25, runs a popular political TikTok account and says young voters are primarily focused on economic issues (SUPPLIED)

He told The Independent that his young audience are also hyper-engaged on immigration.

“People think, ‘Oh young people, they’re not so into the border’. But the migrant crisis is now affecting New York City, it’s affecting Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles,” he said. “They’re slashing funding for education, they’re slashing NYPD funding over the migrant crisis.”

Chris Mowrey, 21, who started a politics TikTok channel on politics in 2022 from an unashamedly pro-Biden perspective, says he is puzzled by RFK Jr’s popularity among young voters.

The political science junior from Kennesaw State University in Atlanta told The Independent that Gen Z naturally lean anti-establishment because of their upbringing and the feeling that the government failed them.

He believes Mr Kennedy is yet to face tough scrutiny of his policies, and argues that the key concerns facing young people are the economy, climate change, gun control, and protecting democracy.

“We don’t want to go down a road, as a country or a generation, where we’re throwing our hands up, getting angry and saying we’re going to elect a guy like RFK Jr, which would be a really bad idea,” Mr Mowrey told The Independent.

“He doesn’t seem like a young person candidate at all.”

Chris Mowrey runs a political TikTok channel from an unashamedly pro-Biden perspective (SUPPLIED)
Chris Mowrey runs a political TikTok channel from an unashamedly pro-Biden perspective (SUPPLIED)

With the two presumptive main party candidates aged 81, and 77, the relatively spry 69-year-old political novice has enjoyed a surge since declaring as an independent in October.

‘He’s able to laugh’

The Kennedy campaign has touted its Students4Kennedy initiative and pointed to a “groundswell of support” on college campuses.

“Mr Kennedy is very active on social media and podcasts which contributes to his appeal for young voters who may not see him on TV news,” his campaign told The Independent.

So far, there’s little evidence of this supposed burgeoning youth movement.

The Students4Kennedy account on X/Twitter has been inactive since June. A callout for students to “get involved” leads to a broken link. A search for Students for Kennedy on TikTok brings up a channel from a failed run for Senate in 2020 by Joe Kennedy III, RFK Jr’s nephew.

At a recent Spaces event on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, titled Why Gen Z loves RFK Jr, there was a distinct lack of Gen Z voices among the speakers.

In 2020, under-30 voters turned up in droves to help elect Mr Biden. The 55 percent of youth voter turnout was the highest since the dying days of the Vietnam War in 1972, with six in ten opting for the Democrat candidate.

But the president has since seen his stock plunge among young voters. A recent NBC News poll found he was trailing Mr Trump among 18 to 34 year olds as Gen Z deserted Mr Biden over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

Robert F Kennedy Jr’s plan for Uncle Sam to co-sign first home loans has resonated with younger voters (Associated Press)
Robert F Kennedy Jr’s plan for Uncle Sam to co-sign first home loans has resonated with younger voters (Associated Press)

Where his uncle John F Kennedy mastered the new format of television, RFK Jr has been a fixture on the podcast and YouTube circuit, appearing for extended interviews on dozens of shows from Joe Rogan to Jimmy Dore.

He has shared raw, personal accounts of overcoming heroin addiction, and the loss of his famous uncle and father by the time he was 14.

“With minority and younger voters seeming intrigued, Kennedy, for now, enjoys the kind of demographic support his charismatic father and uncles generated decades ago,” Quinnipiac University Polling Analyst Tim Malloy said recently.

According to Statista, 47 per cent of 18-34 year olds say they get their news from social media, 28 per cent from streaming services such as YouTube, 15 per cent from online only news sites and 11 per cent from local and national newspapers.

Mr Culotta said that the podcast format allowed RFK Jr’s authenticity to come through.

“When I’m listening to him, it feels like he’s just having a conversation. He’s able to laugh or crack a joke. And he’s shown his ability to change his mind on issues like the border.”

After a trip to the southern border in June, Mr Kennedy adopted a new hardline approach that was closer to Mr Trump’s policies than the Democrats.

Holden Culotta, 22, is a University of Vermont political science student and RFK Jr surrogate (SUPPLIED)
Holden Culotta, 22, is a University of Vermont political science student and RFK Jr surrogate (SUPPLIED)

“You don’t see anything like that from the major candidates,” Mr Culotta says. “They seem to have this approach of ‘if I admit that I was wrong about something and change my mind, it’s just going to look like weakness.”

Mr Lauren concurred that candidates who were willing to sit for extended interviews and had a savvy social media presence would fare best with the youth vote.

“It’s no surprise that they’re really resonating with Gen Z and Millennials because that’s where they’re getting their information.”

Gen Z priorities

With an estimated four million Americans turning 18 every year, Gen Z and Millennials will make up nearly half of the voting population in 2024.

Older Gen Zers entered a world convulsed by 9/11, and grew up under the spectre of the War on Terror.

They inherited a world riven by climate change, before their economic future was crushed in the global financial crisis of 2008, swiftly followed by an era of extreme political polarisation.

Then a pandemic reshaped the social, political and economic landscape.

An examination of Mr Kennedy’s policies on issues shows him at odds with stances traditionally popular among young voters.

Before becoming well-known for his anti-vax crusade during the Covid pandemic, Mr Kenndy had a reputation as an environmental champion for his work cleaning up the Hudson River, and suing companies like Monsanto for their use of toxic pesticides.

But climate change is barely mentioned on his campaign website. In an interview with Jordan Peterson, he claimed that the climate crisis is being used “as a pretext for clamping down totalitarian controls, the same way the Covid crisis was”.

His approach to clean energy is to allow free markets to determine the pace that polluters move from fossil fuels to renewables.

In an interview with Unherd, he said that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “is effectively run by the oil industry, the coal industry and the pesticide industry”.

Mr Kennedy has called for a 15-week national ban on abortion. He has been reluctant to criticise Mr Trump, despite the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Mr Kennedy received significant blowback for agreeing to speak to the so-called parent’s rights Moms For Liberty event in June, and later backed out. He said in July he was distressed by some support therapies for transgender minors, and that “puberty blocker drugs need to be looked into”.

In June, he said there is nothing policymakers can “meaningfully” do to reduce the gun violence epidemic in America through tougher gun control legislation.

Kennedy Jr at an anti-vax mandates demonstration in Washington DC in 2022 (Associated Press)
Kennedy Jr at an anti-vax mandates demonstration in Washington DC in 2022 (Associated Press)

He has also blamed video games and the increasing use of antidepressants for a rise in mass shootings committed by young people.

Ms Archard says that RFK Jr will have difficulty convincing young voters on his social policies.

“That’s where he is going to fall into trouble bringing the youth population to his side. At NYU, people are looking at abortion protection, the right to choice to be set in stone. Gun control has been very important to Gen Z.”

She says RFK Jr is “is cemented in our minds as an anti-vaxxer”.

“That is not going to sit very well with many young people who have just gone through the pandemic.”

Mr Culotta points to RFK Jr’s anti-war stance as key to winning over the younger vote.

“A lot of people around me are really disgusted with the extent that Biden has been willing to dive headfirst into these wars rather than looking for an option to negotiate, looking for options to peace. I do not get the sense that negotiation or peace is the goal.”

Mr Mowrey told The Independent that RFK Jr was essentially an “anti-climate change” candidate, who was not speaking to young voters on the issues that mattered most to them.

“Young people are very motivated about climate change, gun control and abortion, so I would have to predict they will do the same thing in November as they did in 2020.”

“We’re the most educated generation and we’re passionate about voting.”