Trump-Biden debate is upon us. Don’t ignore Gen Z voters.Sara Pequeño 

Gun Rights

What do Gen Z voters care about? I’m giving Donald Trump and Joe Biden a quick lesson on that.

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President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will face off in a debate on CNN next week and we’ll all be watching. If they want to win over Gen Z, they’ll need to use this time wisely.

Both major party candidates are decades older than Generation Z’s oldest members – Biden is 81, Trump is 78 and the oldest Zoomers are 27. But they both need my generation’s attention to eke out a victory in November.

While it isn’t guaranteed that Gen Z will tune in (the majority of us prefer streaming services over cable), both candidates should be thinking about how their platforms can be truncated to fit on a phone screen. As of June, both candidates are on TikTok, where a third of 18- to 29-year-olds get their news, according to the Pew Research Center.

To get the quick remarks that will perform best on TikTok or Instagram, both candidates will need to stay on topic and consider three major issues for Gen Z in the upcoming election.

The presidential debate should focus on the economy

The majority of stories about Gen Z this election cycle have been about voter apathy and the disillusionment our generation feels about the electoral process.

In spite of these headlines, I have faith that Gen Z voters will show up to the polls in November.

We can’t vote for Trump: Gen Z voters like me should be mad at Biden. But we can’t risk another Trump presidency.

There are a few issues motivating Gen Z voters. Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found that the majority of Americans ages 18-34 that they spoke with say the cost of living/inflation are among their top concerns ahead of the 2024 election. And 28% say “jobs that pay a living wage” are among their priorities.

Despite the flak Biden has received for the economy, parts of it have improved during his time in office. The unemployment rate has been below 4% for 16 straight months. More than 270,000 jobs were added in May, and the stock market has been performing better under Biden. All of these things should be mentioned at the debate.

Trump and the Republicans typically blame Biden for a reportedly bad economy. The former president will likely make these claims again during the debate.

Trump will probably also mention his tariff idea, a 10% tax on all goods coming from outside the United States. I’d rather see the former president talk about tax cuts or other Republican solutions to the imagined economic turmoil.

Both candidates would be wise to talk about the successes under their respective economies, and would also be wise to attack their opponent’s record.

Gun violence remains a top issue

The survey from CIRCLE revealed that gun violence is the third most pressing issue for Gen Z voters, just behind “jobs that pay a living wage” and “cost of living/inflation.” 

Gun violence is also a prevalent issue because of the Supreme Court. The justices recently reversed a ban on bump stocks, which alter semiautomatic rifles and allow them to fire quickly. The ban was signed into law under the Trump administration.

For Biden, the best option is to talk to people at March For Our Lives, a youth-led nonprofit founded after a mass shooter killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The organization has a number of objectives from banning assault weapons to addressing poverty and the prison industrial complex in an effort to curb their effects.

For Trump, addressing gun violence could mean doubling down on his declaration to NRA members earlier this year that “no one will lay a finger on your firearms.” It might also require him to discuss his own gun license, which may be revoked by the New York Police Department because of his recent felony convictions. If he does talk about guns, my hope is that he will at least prioritize commonsense gun laws over the most right-wing members of his party.

Abortion is driving conversations – and voters

If Biden and Trump want to dig into another issue that motivates both Gen Z and older generations, they’ll talk about abortion. The CIRCLE polling found that 19% of Americans ages 18-34 say “expanding access to abortion” is one of their top three issues.

Surprisingly, both candidates are weak on the issue. Biden has publicly said he does not personally support abortion. Trump has tried to avoid the issue and won’t go on record about whether he would support a national ban

What I would like to hear from both candidates is simply the word “abortion.” Not something about a “woman’s right to choose” or the phrase “abortion on demand.”

I want the two candidates to have an adult conversation about what they want to see with regard to abortion nationwide. If Republicans are pushing for a total abortion ban across the country, Trump should just say that. He’s already bragged about being the reason Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. If that isn’t the plan, it needs to be made clear to voters.

Conservatives working against women: Republicans want to control women so much they voted against protecting contraception

For Biden, it’s time to take a page from Vice President Kamala Harris’ book and acknowledge that abortion is health care.

Above all, I want both candidates to offer solutions. This would align with what the Biden campaign is doing to commemorate the anniversary of the ruling that overturned Roe, and would show voters that he takes the issue seriously in spite of his personal beliefs.

Ultimately, we just need these two candidates not to lose focus

There are other issues factoring into Gen Z’s vote. The poll from CIRCLE at Tufts University found that climate change, public education and immigration are issues people ages 18-34 care about, just not as much as they care about the economy or gun violence.

What respondents found important also differed based on race: Among economic issues and gun violence prevention, fighting racism was a top issue.

It’s unclear how much Gen Z cares about Trump’s new felony convictions. While there has yet to be any age-specific polling on the hush money trial’s outcome, 21% of independents say they’re less likely to support Trump because of it. If Biden is smart, he will use the 34 counts of falsifying business records to hammer home how unfit Trump is to be president.

It’ll be a miracle if Biden and Trump get through the debate without losing the plot. According to the rules of the debate, microphones will be muted until it is the respective candidate’s turn to speak. 

Both should aim for sound bites to use on TikTok, Instagram and other social media sites. That’ll be easier if you aren’t being interrupted every few seconds. Still, it’s embarrassing that we can’t trust two of the oldest nominees for president to act like anything other than children. There are high school debate teams that manage themselves better.

If Biden and Trump are serious about winning over Gen Z, a generation largely up for grabs this election cycle, they’ll need to prove it at the debate. They’ll be grateful they did come November.

Follow USA TODAY elections columnist Sara Pequeño on X, formerly Twitter, @sara__pequeno and Facebook

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