The first question people ask Victor Shi ’24 is “Are you a social media expert?” And the second: “Is President Joe Biden too old to energize Gen Z voters?”

As we sit on the patio of the UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center on a chilly but sunny afternoon, Shi tells me that the answer to both is a resounding “No.” It’s March, and he still has a few finals to prepare for — in two weeks, he’ll be graduating from UCLA with a bachelor of arts degree in American Literature and Culture. His first after-graduation priority? Go home to Chicago and “just rest for a week,” after which it’s straight into a career he has seemed destined for since middle school: electoral politics. At the end of March, he joined the Biden 2024 Campaign as a youth communications coordinator.

Long before he started at UCLA, Shi began leveraging an obsession with politics into a role as avatar for, and cheerleader to, young voters. With Gen Z long dismissed as apathetic and irrelevant on the American electoral map, Shi wants to make sure this cohort wakes up and smells the threat to freedom. In the process, he’s amassed an X following of more than 285,000, a legion that includes The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman; Star Trek’s George Takei ’60, M.A. ’64; former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke; and former White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

So, just how does a 22-year-old become a player in presidential politics? It all started just before the 2016 Iowa caucuses. One of Shi’s eighth-grade teachers in Buffalo Grove, Illinois explained that “as young people, you can all make a difference,” while lecturing on the vastness of the political spectrum between Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. “As an eighth grader, I was just so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and very idealistic,” Shi says. “So I started volunteering for Congressman Brad Schneider, out in the 10th District in Illinois, knocking on doors and making phone calls. I just fell in love with the process.”

By the time Shi entered high school, he already had “a thirst for civic engagement,” says his AP government teacher, Andrew Conneen, who helped convince the then-17-year-old to collect signatures, make his pitch and run for a spot as the youngest delegate for Joe Biden at the 2020 Democratic Convention in Milwaukee. The story, tailor-made for news coverage, was picked up by PBS Newshour, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. Suddenly, Victor Shi, budding political wunderkind, was the new electoral face of Gen Z.

“I think he learned two sides of public life in our age of polarized politics,” Conneen says. “There’s notoriety that comes with public life in our polarized media. But there are also a lot of networks to connect with.”

Soon after the convention, Shi started at UCLA (attending via Zoom from his parents’ house on Zoom for freshman year, then in person in Westwood for the three years), where he has managed to balance studies with a bustling part-time career as a budding D.C. politico. With 81-year-old MSNBC legal analyst and Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks, Shi co-hosts a weekly podcast called iGen Politics. He also does cable news hits as the soothsayer, surrogate and strategist for the Gen Z voter, and he tweets fiery observations and directives to his huge collection of X followers.

It feels novel to hear from a young person so all-in on Biden, but Shi believes his generation’s tepid response to the sitting president is a communication issue as much as anything else. He tells me he’s constantly thinking about “what types of messages and messengers and platforms” will best reach young people “to get them more aware of what the campaign and president are doing.”

Shi knows, better than most, that crafting a well-honed message to cut through the morass of social media might be the coming election’s biggest game changer.

Courtesy of Victor Shi
Say cheese: Shi with the candidate and fellow Democratic enthusiasts at a 2020 Biden rally

A Social Media Star Is Born

In his half-zip Vineyard Vines pullover, Shi looks more like a prep schooler than an L.A.-based influencer (though his virtual following did get him invited to the White House’s holiday “influencer party,” along with UCLA classmate and former Dance Moms star Nia Sioux). He has the warm, confident delivery of a seasoned communicator: He maintains steady eye contact, stays on message, and occasionally punctuates a statement with a thumb pressed against the knuckle of his index finger in a manner reminiscent of Bill Clinton. At a moment when the Democratic Party desperately needs youth engagement, a 22-year-old who admires Biden and views the future of the party with hope — he cites Pete Buttigieg, Gretchen Whitmer and Gavin Newsom — seems perfectly positioned to run for office himself. But Shi winces when I ask if he’ll be on the ballot someday. “Definitely not,” he says, laughing. The vitriol he saw candidates face while he was serving as a delegate — and has felt personally since his profile has grown — quashed any such thoughts. “People have hurled negative comments toward my parents and friends, which is worse than any attack on me,” he explains. “And that ugliness in politics beyond just me is why I feel like running for office would be a whole different beast.”

Shi has become a popular target for MAGA Nation, which is attributable to the incredible growth of his social media following. During his junior year, Shi had 2,000 followers, most of whom were Wine-Banks fans who happened to click on the bio of her co-host. But during the 2020 midterms, he joined the advocacy organization Voters of Tomorrow and started tweeting out youth-related content. Retweets by Vanity Fair’s Molly Jong-Fast and a popular anti-Trump account called Mueller, She Wrote changed everything. “Literally, after the midterm elections,” he says, “I checked one day, and I was at 40,000 followers.”

Cable came calling, hungry for a well-spoken, smart, feisty and telegenic young person to talk about his peer demographic and their politics. He appeared mainly on MSNBC, but also sometimes as a foil on Fox News. At first, he did the TV hits from the Luskin Conference Center. (He eventually got chased out for going into conference areas reserved for paying guests.) These days, he’ll either catch a ride to the NBC studio in Universal City or port in remotely. (“They’ll literally send a van to wherever you are, and then you just get in and you’re in the back with a camera and a TV behind you,” he says, laughing.)

Becoming the face of Gen Z Biden voters carries a cost: Shi’s mentions and DMs are flooded with trolls. “[It’s] a bunch of anti-Asian stuff. It’ll be me as an egg roll or wearing a CCP [Chinese Communist Party] hat,” he says. He seems fairly sanguine about it all: “I mean, they’re funny to me. If that’s what they want to spend their time on, at least they’re putting some work into it.” He plays his extremely 2024 brand of fame cool, but there’s one perk of his massive X following that makes the excited kid in Shi show through. “Mark Hamill DM’ed me,” he says. “I’m meeting Mark Hamill in a couple weeks!”

Jessica Pons
“He gives me hope for the future,” comedian Kathy Griffin, a friend, says of Shi. “He keeps me up on what young people are into politically.”

Political fame at UCLA is different than it is at other schools. Shi’s friends at East Coast universities obsess over jobs on the Hill; in L.A., the opportunities are a bit more star-studded. Shi tells me he regularly gets invited to salons hosted by the comedian Kathy Griffin (to Shi, Griffin is just “Kathy”). “She wants to bring back the art of conversation, so she’ll gather 10 people from random walks of life, and we’ll go to her house,” he says. “No phones allowed at the table, and no cross-talk.” The attendees? Rosie O’Donnell or Selma Blair, along with a roster of TV and print journalists and thought leaders. Griffin tells me she casts the parties “like a play,” with the rule that “you can’t be a dum-dum.” Shi’s role? “Our voice of youth.”

“I am 63 years old, and we are very good friends. He gives me hope for the future because he is so bright and so engaged and also a very, very kind person,” she says. “We go on these long walks together as well, and he always brings one of his friends from UCLA with him. He keeps me up on what young people are into politically.”

Bridging the Great Generational Divide

The day we meet, Shi sends out viral tweets about a Buttigieg CNBC hit, a Taylor Swift Instagram post, a Mark Cuban quote, Kyrsten Sinema’s decision to leave the U.S. Senate, an MSNBC interview, Biden outperforming Trump in Iowa and The Washington Post’s framing of Trump’s primary wins. He tweets. A lot. Especially for someone who admits that his generation is mainly on TikTok. But the tweets are all on message: This election’s stakes couldn’t be higher, Biden’s doing great, Trump’s a fatally flawed candidate. A December New York Times/Siena College poll found that just 3% of 18-to-29-year-olds strongly approved of Biden’s performance as president. I ask Shi if he’s found that his cohort at UCLA shares his view.

He doesn’t talk as much politics on campus as you’d expect, he says. Most of the time, “politics is off the table” when hanging out with friends. They like to go out to dinner, talk about movies, philosophical topics and, well, girls. “We don’t really talk about, like, the filibuster or some random senator,” he says.

Instead, Shi has managed to bifurcate his dual life as college kid and commentator. As an English major, he’s always trying to find enough time to read a mountain of assigned books. So he appreciated that his favorite class, taught by the writer Mona Simpson, focused on just two: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Simpson tells me she hopes the deep dive into language will serve Shi moving forward, because the best political minds are great rhetoricians. “There’s an authenticity, which is very close to creative writing, in the sense that you want a very personal, specific, indelible, distinctive, recognizable voice,” she says. “You want to be telling the truth as you felt it.”

Shi hears the concern on campus about Biden not doing enough on healthcare or education reform or, especially, the war in Gaza. He’s found that the most successful way to change minds is simply by explaining what’s what. “I share your concerns, I share your frustration,” he tells campus activists, “but there are just certain things that Biden can and can’t do. He needs Congress to function. He wants to act on immigration, but if you have a Republican House, it won’t let him.

“If we elect more people who share our concerns,” he continues, “we can get more done.”

Whether that message carries the day remains to be seen. Shi sees the November election as most likely again coming down to a few thousand swing votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He’s doing everything in his power to make sure Biden comes out on top.

“It keeps me up at night sometimes, knowing how close it will be,” he says. “I’m thinking a lot about reaching a generation that is so removed from most of the ways candidates reach out to people.”

On his podcast, on X, on cable news, in Kathy Griffin’s living room, he’s become an avatar for youth for an older crowd. Now, working in the Biden campaign, he’ll have to find out how to speak directly to the voters who may decide the whole shebang: his peers.

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Summer 2024 issue.