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Young voters want abortion rights and gun control. Will that bring them to the polls?

MILES PARKS, HOST:

Lately, two issues have been in the news almost every day - abortion and guns. These are also two issues that are really important to young voters. But are they important enough to swing elections? NPR political reporter Elena Moore keeps a close eye on those young voters, and she joins us now.

Hey, Elena.

ELENA MOORE, BYLINE: Hi, Miles.

PARKS: So let's start with the issue of abortion rights. This was a big part of Democratic messaging in a recent Wisconsin election for an open Supreme Court seat. Liberals did end up flipping the court. How big of a role did young voters play in that election?

MOORE: So we don't have specific data yet like exit polling, but we do know that turnout was really, really high on college campuses. And we know that in those precincts there was high support for Janet Protasiewicz, who was the Democratic-backed candidate. And, you know, we can't extrapolate too much about this race. It's just one race. But we do know that abortion as an issue is a motivating factor for young people. You know, even back in November, during the midterm elections, voters under 30 - so Gen Z and younger millennials - actually said that their top issue when voting was abortion. And that's not the case for older generations. And that's all according to CIRCLE research at Tufts University.

PARKS: On the Republican side, there are voices within the party who have long said that the party needs to bring their policies on abortion more in line with the majority U.S. opinion. The majority of Americans generally favor more access to abortion. Have Republicans talked about this issue differently to younger voters than to older voters, for instance?

MOORE: I think they're working on that messaging. I talked to Scott Walker about this. He's the former governor of Wisconsin. Now he has an interesting role with young voters. He's the president of the Young America's Foundation, which is an organization that works to engage with young conservatives. And Walker told me on the issue of abortion, Republicans do need to work on their messaging.

SCOTT WALKER: Conservatives overall have to do a better job of explaining not only the pro-life versus pro-choice position, but in particular, when it comes to candidates, staking out a reasonable position.

MOORE: Reasonable position is kind of an interesting way to say it. He gave me an example. He said in Wisconsin when he was governor in 2015, he passed a law that would ban abortions after 20 weeks.

PARKS: And what about the gun issue, Elena? How are young voters, and how are the parties messaging to those young voters about the gun issue?

MOORE: I mean, it's also a really big issue. It directly affects young people. You know, guns are the leading cause of death among Americans under 19, and young people, voters under 30 - 3 in 5 think gun laws should be more strict. That's according to new data out of Harvard. And so I talked to Congressman Maxwell Frost about this. He's a Gen Z member of Congress, the first one. He has a bill addressing gun violence. And he told me it's obvious to both Republicans and Democrats that this is an issue young people care about.

MAXWELL FROST: I think everybody understands it now. But I think that Republicans, specifically - they believe or at least they did believe that much like other generations - that Gen Z with time would become more and more conservative. And I think what they're seeing is Gen Z and young millennials are not becoming more conservative. They're actually kind of just sticking to what they believe in.

MOORE: And traditionally, young voters do vote more liberal. And so that inevitably is going to affect issues like guns and abortion. But the key question for Democrats now is, does this actually get people politically organized, and does this get them to vote? And, you know, we saw that when we looked at Wisconsin, and we've seen that for years now with young people finding their political voice in response to gun violence.

PARKS: OK. So it seems like Republicans have a little bit of work to do on these two issues. But how does that play into their overall messaging looking ahead at 2024?

MOORE: I mean, it's on their mind. They're going to have to address these kinds of issues, but also they're going to try to remind young people about the issues that they think are really strong within their party, and a big one is on the economy. And we know that young voters do care about the economy. In the most recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, it was the top issue for Gen Z and millennial voters.

PARKS: That's NPR political reporter Elena Moore.

Thank you so much, Elena.

MOORE: Thanks, Miles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks
Miles Parks is a correspondent on NPR's Washington Desk, where he covers voting and election security.
Elena Moore
Elena Moore is an assistant producer for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also does political reporting for the Washington Desk and fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting.