Youth-driven advocacy groups are proving increasingly influential in the 2020 election cycle as a new generation of activists seeks to move the Democratic Party toward a more progressive agenda.
The activism is emerging as turnout in the 2018 midterms among young voters hit a 25-year high and surveys show a surge in voters between 18 and 29 saying they intend to take part in the 2020 primaries.
Groups like Sunrise Movement and March for Our Lives are now looking to capitalize on that rising political enthusiasm for their causes.
March for Our Lives, an organization founded by survivors of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., reinvigorated the debate surrounding gun control policy in the United States.
“Young activists, certainly ever since Parkland and the March for Our Lives, have completely changed the conversation on this issue,” Lydia Kuykendal, deputy engagement director at the gun control advocacy group Giffords, told The Hill.
Kuykendal said those platforms have “absolutely, no question” come earlier in the election cycle than in previous ones and been more comprehensive than ever before, in part because of energy from young activists.
“March for Our Lives did a great job energizing the whole movement,” she said.
Presidential candidates like Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellNASCAR bans display of Confederate flag from events and properties Gloves come off as Democrats fight for House seat in California Grenell says intelligence community working to declassify Flynn-Kislyak transcripts MORE (D-Calif.) and Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook McEnany says Juneteenth is a very ‘meaningful’ day to Trump MORE (D-Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants Black lawmakers unveil bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-N.J.) have introduced aggressive gun control platforms since launching their bids for the presidency.
Swalwell, in particular, has sought to differentiate himself in a crowded Democratic primary field by making gun control policy the central focus of his platform, and the 38-year-old congressman announced his campaign in April with the help of Parkland activists.
“He found it deeply inspirational that these students picked themselves up out of this unimaginable horror and grief and loss, and almost instantaneously started speaking out to demand action,” an aide to Swalwell’s campaign told The Hill.
“They were devastatingly effective at it,” the aide added. “He was really inspired by the energy and the perseverance that they brought to this and it’s sort of restored his hope that we can do something about this, [that] we can break the [National Rifle Association’s] stranglehold on Congress.”
But Swalwell isn’t the only candidate to align with the group — the majority of 2020 Democratic hopefuls attended March for Our Lives rallies in their home states last year.
More still, each of the two dozen presidential contenders has adopted gun control policies consistent with March for Our Lives’s goals, though some have pushed for more aggressive platforms than others.
“I’m pretty excited to see that a lot of them adopting a lot of the policies we’ve pushed for,” Charlie Mirsky, head of March for Our Lives’s legislative and student lobbying effort, told The Hill.
March for Our Lives, which first rose to prominence after organizing a mass demonstration in Washington, D.C., that spurred similar protests to end gun violence in more than 800 cities globally, has since expanded its membership and political influence.
“A lot of chapters have grown quite significantly since their original marches and have kind of morphed more into mobilizing voters and in many cases actually producing and introducing policy across the country,” Jordan Harb, head of the March for Our Lives chapter network, told The Hill.
Harb pointed to the group’s strategy in Arizona, where members have pushed for the state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, to introduce a school safety plan by holding a 400-person “die-in” at the capital and registering 3,500 young voters.
He noted that voter registration drives, in particular, have helped produce tangible effects on gun control policy and to get lawmakers to take the group seriously.
In 2018, 67 gun-safety bills were signed into law in 26 states and in Washington, D.C., according to Giffords.
But March for Our Lives has also sparked intense opposition from some conservatives, who view the group as too young and opportunistic. Gun control also remains a divisive issue in Congress and across state legislatures.
Sunrise Movement has similarly renewed demands for an aggressive push to address climate change. The group, a major force behind the Green New Deal, has called for every 2020 candidate to commit to a stringent timeline for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
Sunrise argues the Green New Deal, a resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezAttorney says 75-year-old man shoved by Buffalo police suffered brain injury How language is bringing down Donald Trump Highest-circulation Kentucky newspaper endorses Charles Booker in Senate race MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyEngel scrambles to fend off primary challenge from left Markey touts past praise from Kennedy: ‘He does an incredible job’ Progressive Caucus co-chair endorses Kennedy in Massachusetts Senate primary MORE (D-Mass.), will be essential to court young voters in the next presidential election.
“The energy behind the Green New Deal early this year was an incredibly important moment for the climate movement, and the real energy around it was certainly driven by young people and some incredible political voices like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” Joe Bonfiglio, president of advocacy group Environmental Defense Action Fund, told The Hill.
The Sunrise-backed Green New Deal and its advocates have put increased pressure on 2020 candidates to lay out their plans to address climate change, typified by centrist contenders like former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) rolling out comprehensive climate platforms early on in their campaigns.
“Campaigns had in the back of their brain that climate was going to be an issue that they were going to have to tackle in a very thoughtful way, but the attention the issue drew really out of the gate probably moved up everyone’s timetable,” Bonfiglio said.
The demands that Sunrise is making — calling for net-zero emissions, swearing off fossil fuel donations and green job guarantees — would have been considered far-left just a few years ago, but are now endorsed by most Democratic presidential candidates.
Not all 2020 Democrats back the Green New Deal or some of the initiatives backed by Sunrise, including former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyThe Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what ‘policing’ means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight Minnesota AG Keith Ellison says racism is a bigger problem than police behavior; 21 states see uptick in cases amid efforts to reopen The Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan says there will be consequences from fraying US-China relations; WHO walks back claims on asymptomatic spread of virus MORE (D-Md.) and former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperGun control group rolls out first round of Senate endorsements The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ Hickenlooper ethics questions open him up to attack MORE (D).
Sunrise, which has more than a hundred local chapters, has focused on direct confrontations to draw media attention and pressure lawmakers to embrace the Green New Deal, including staging a sit-in in Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names Black lawmakers unveil bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Pelosi: Georgia primary ‘disgrace’ could preview an election debacle in November MORE’s (D-Calif.) office attended by Ocasio-Cortez.
Sunrise also made headlines after a viral video showed a group of middle school and high school activists confronting Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Democrats demand Republican leaders examine election challenges after Georgia voting chaos GOP votes to give Graham broad subpoena power in Obama-era probe MORE (D-Calif.), leading to a sharp retort from the six-term senator.
“You know what’s interesting about this group is that I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’m doing,” the senator says in an edited clip released by Sunrise. “You come in here and you say, ‘it has to be my way or the highway.’ I don’t respond to that.”
The group has also sought to gain momentum for its cause by launching a nationwide “Road to a Green New Deal Tour.” The tour’s stop in Washington, D.C., featured Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) as its headliners.
Though he has yet to unveil his own climate plan, Sanders has staunchly backed the premise of the Green New Deal from the beginning.
Bonfiglio explains there is a “perfect storm” for climate advocacy today as voters increasingly place the environment as one of their top concerns.
A CNN poll in late April found that climate change was the top issue among registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, with 82 percent rating it as a “very important” priority for the party’s candidates to take up.
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“We haven’t seen this type of activism from young people on this issue, at least not on the scale as we are right now,” Bonfiglio said. “When you mesh the two it’s the one time D.C. pays attention.”