Let’s Talk About "Let’s Talk Elections"
As he maintains a successful YouTube channel for election analysis, high school senior Ethan Kelly has his sights set on college—and the 2022 midterms
Presidential election years are momentous moments—not only for voters and democracy, but for the journalists who cover politics and government. Reporting on campaigns, tracking the twists and turns of a race, and documenting history can make (and sometimes break) careers. That’s true if you’re a print reporter, network anchor, or a YouTube creator.
Since June 2017 Ethan Kelly has run the channel Let’s Talk Elections, a destination—especially for Gen Z audiences—for making sense of what’s happening in the world of U.S. politics. His videos typically feature a voiceover analysis of an issue with opinions supported by external polling data and historic voting trends. His nearly 1,600 videos have attracted 140,000 subscribers and garnered 53 million views. Not bad for a high school student.
Kelly’s videos aren’t reactions; they’re the rough cut of history. Clips dig into the urgent political questions of the moment, from whether Senate Democrats should eliminate the filibuster to what it would mean to add Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico as states to the Republican Party’s identity crisis. And then there are the clips on the Georgia senate runoffs, the insurrection at the Capitol, the second impeachment of President Donald Trump, the inauguration of President Joe Biden, and the Senate impeachment trial. With no shortage of storylines to cover in 2021 Kelly has maintained a prolific pace, publishing an average of two videos per day.
When he launched Let’s Talk Elections, Kelly was 14. Today, he’s an 18-year-old senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland, looking toward the 2022 midterms and preparing to attend college. He spoke to The Elective about creating Let’s Talk Elections, his future and the future of the channel, and his take on the U.S. political landscape.
Where did the idea for Let’s Talk Elections come from?
My interest in politics goes back to 2012 when I had to do a project on the election in the fourth grade. I had just some understanding of how the electoral process worked. When I was 9 years old, I would spend time on websites like 270toWin and RealClearPolitics. It really meant nothing to me, but it was just very interesting. So over the next five years, I spent a lot of time following elections and the news. I didn't watch any cartoons or anything. When I was in elementary school, the only thing I would watch religiously was cable news, mainly CNN, so I became very familiar with a lot of the top journalists from a very young age. I saw people like Nate Silver, Harry Enten, and a number of other people who provided commentary about elections, and that's what I wanted to do.
Rather than wait to graduate from college, I began my own channel in the summer of 2017, before my freshman year of high school. I decided this is what I want to do. I have a computer that can produce videos, I have a microphone that my parents got me for Christmas, so why not? I just started creating videos on a regular basis. I committed myself to maintaining this schedule through the school year because I told myself this is what I want to do. I wanted to always have a voice in the political atmosphere. I wanted to provide commentary to people without having to work for a major news network, or waiting 10, 20, 30 years. That’s why I started Let's Talk Elections and why I still maintain it, to have that presence for young voices. I didn’t look like a lot of the people that I saw on the television, and I was by no means as old as them. A lot of people did discount my opinions because of my age, but I think it's very important to have some type of voice from those who are in the younger generations. It's our future as much as anyone else's.
Where do you find the ideas or topics for your videos?
I would say 75% of them are ones that I would just come up with. Anytime I come up with an idea, I rush to write it down or I put it in the Notes app on my phone. Sometimes I get these ideas right before I'm going to bed, so I will jump out of bed and put it somewhere. If there's a breaking news story, I will rush to cover that immediately. Most of the time these are ideas that I will spontaneously come up with. But some ideas come from my viewers. I read my comments often, and there are popular ideas amongst the viewers of my channel. Sometimes when I'm reading through them, people say you should do this video, you should do this election matchup, and I agree, and I'm saying, "This is a good thing to do, it'd be very interesting. Why not?" I would say around a fourth of the videos I've published so far, which is probably around 300 to 400, have been suggested by viewers and weren't ideas of my own. I really like interacting with my viewer base because they do give me good ideas and they tell me about things I otherwise wouldn't know. Sometimes they tag me on social media when a new poll is released. I've gotten a couple Twitter tags the past few days covering Marjorie Taylor Greene and public opinion on her and public opinion on politics in general. Things that I probably would have missed that aren't published on FiveThirtyEight or RealClearPolitics.
Do you have a set length in mind when creating your videos?
I make them as long as I need them to be. I try to write out a list of things that I'm going to cover throughout the video, and then I get to it when I get to it. I don't script any of my videos. If it's a slow day in politics, everything is the same as we expected—which I expect to have for the next two, three years until we hit a prime 2024 election time—those videos will generally be shorter. But if there's a major event, like the Capitol insurrection, or there's a major event with the covid-19 stimulus package, that video will be longer because I will have more things to talk about and it has a direct impact on the American people. But I don't really have a set way of going about longer videos. It's more that I will try to cover everything that I can. Of course, if it's a much heavier topic I will have more things to talk about and generally it will take longer for me to reach my final conclusion, or just reach every single point that I want to hit throughout the video.
You incorporate polling data pretty well in your videos. There’s a lot out of that kind of information out there. How do you decide what to use and how to use it?
I take the data I see and try to provide a good analysis of it. Two years ago, I would take an approval-rating poll about President Trump and talk about what that would mean for the 2020 election or for potential Democratic nominees or potential Republican challengers. I’d start with the data provided through FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics, and I'd open up the file that has demographic breakdowns. They ask 30 to 50 questions, and there are only a few that really stick out on those other sites. But when you come down to the statistics about it based off age, race, and income level, there are a whole number of breakdowns that provide a lot more information about the poll. I just put that out to the viewer, and then I draw my own conclusions about what the data is saying. If Biden was up 10 points nationally, I’d say this is a good day, this is a good week, it's a convention bump, it's a debate bump. Rather than just giving people the same thing that they would see on FiveThirtyEight, I want to expand off of that and talk about the implications for not only 2020 or 2018, but also elections to come through 2022, 2024, and so on.
You mentioned FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics, but what other sources do you use for data?
I don't typically go to too many other polling websites. Generally, I go to the FiveThirtyEight update page, and then they have a whole list. Once I see which ones that really jump out to me as anomalies or just as a general theme, I'll go to the site or page about the results or just a published PDF about the results themselves. That way, I'm able to get a primary source looking at these polls. If I see it's a Washington Post or New York Times poll, they will generally have a published article about it with a lot more data. But typically, I'll stick with FiveThirtyEight and use historical election data from the New York Times or through published sources. I’ll even go to quick sources like Wikipedia to get an immediate election result. But I use a multitude of websites to help create the videos. Right now, I use Yet Another Political Map Simulator for mapping out my election predictions.
Let’s Talk Elections has had an uptick in subscribers. How important was the 2020 election to helping you build that audience?
I noticed that a lot of people started watching my videos around June and July. I think this largely has to do with the fact that because of covid-19 people were home a lot more, and because of that people had more time to watch my videos in their full length. Whenever people interact with your video, whether positive or negative, YouTube tends to suggest it to more people. It was sort of a snowball effect that as more people started watching, maybe 1,000, 2,000 more, that would allow 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 more to jump on to that through their suggestions. I’ve had my channel since June 2017. Right before covid-19 hit, I had 37,000 subscribers. I just reached 140,000, so it's not even a year and I've gained more than 100,000 subscribers. I'm very grateful that this is something I've been blessed with. But I recognize that this is partly a result of the extreme circumstances that our country is in, the world is in. And I think this was combined with the fact that 2020 was an election year like no other. I mean, record turnout, the highest we've ever seen, raw vote share in United States history, 67% of eligible voters voted. It was a very good year for the election, which means people were much more interested in it. It was the perfect storm for my channel to grow under these circumstances.
How do people react when they find out that you’re a teenager and not, you know, someone older?
I did a face reveal back in October 2017. I was 14 years old at the time, and I will say the backlash was a lot worse back then about my youthfulness. But when I was 17 and made the livestream—I’m 18 now—people were a lot less critical. But I took down the face reveal back then. That was for 1,000 subscribers. It wasn't put together too well, so I didn't really want it up. But building up to that, that was something that a lot of YouTubers keep secret. There are plenty of YouTubers that I watch that have more subscribers than me who still haven't revealed what they look like and don't plan to. I respect people's privacy and decisions, but this is something that I was very passionate about and I really didn't care if people knew what I looked like. It was something that I was comfortable with. Plenty of people had already known what I looked like just because they had been with my channel for quite some time. I had done livestreams before with my face, but the most recent one was probably 2018.
When the channel hit 100,000 subscribers, I thought about what I could do for a subscriber special or channel special. The majority of my viewers came after covid-19, so chances are most people had not seen what I looked like. That was something that was being asked for, and that's something that I wanted to do after 100K. There were people who had said this doesn't make sense [that I was young], very similar to the comments I received when I was 14 years old. People asked why they should listen to someone who can't even vote. I couldn't vote in 2020. But also, just because of those people, I actually pushed myself even more to continue working at this. I still think that it's very important for young people to be active in politics. This is super important for our futures. Just because I may be 17 doesn't mean I shouldn't have an opinion about what will directly impact my future for the next four years or possibly eight years.
How do you balance running Let's Talk Elections with the demands of being a high school student?
I used to make videos around once a day. I only started doing two a day after covid-19 had pretty much shut down my entire state in March 2020. I had more free time and this was the height of an election year, so there was more content to cover. But now I still maintain my two videos a day schedule. It was not hard to do one video a day, I'll admit. I probably spend around one hour to two hours per video. But also politics has given me a lot more content just because there are a lot more things happening. Even though we are straight into the Biden administration's first few weeks, we're getting a lot of content. I think that's something that really helps my channel.
But overall, I maintain it through time management. I know when I need to make videos. I try to produce one during my lunch period. I have 45 minutes in between four classes. I take eight classes a day. I have four classes, then I have my lunch period, and then I have the four more. I try to make sure that I'm able to fit everything in and I try to maneuver my schedule. That way I would have that 45-minute break around 12 p.m. every day. In school I would normally be eating in the cafeteria or going somewhere, but now I’m just eating at home, then producing my video. It isn't something that I find overbearing. It doesn't feel like work to me. If anything, it's a break from school and it's something that I really enjoy. I make time for it because I really want to do it. And I've scheduled my academic year to work around the one video at noon and then another video after school.
We’ll have midterm elections in 2022, and control of the House and Senate will be in play. What are you watching for in terms of the congressional races?
I actually just made a video talking about how Democrats could turn 2022 into a blue wave year. I think this largely has to do with the fact that the Republican Party has been in a position like no other. They’re the minority party; this was the first Democratic trifecta in a decade. Everything points historically that 2022 would be a red wave year. The 2018 midterm was expected to be a Democratic wave year, and it was. Same thing with midterms in 2014, 2010, 2006. Looking at next year, though, I think it could be very different considering that Joe Biden is going to be the president under extenuating circumstances. We have covid-19 recovery on the way, 11% of the population has received the first doses of vaccination, we're on track to an American recovery. Not many presidents have served during a global pandemic. We have rarely ever seen something hit the United States so hard. This is called a once in a century pandemic for a reason.
The first warning sign for the GOP certainly was the Georgia runoff elections. Those were two Senate races that could have easily been won by the GOP. But after the Democrats won those seats, it raised questions about what we might see in 2022, especially in the House of Representatives. I would say the Republican party starts out with the advantage, thanks to redistricting that will happen as a result of the 2020 Census. State legislatures oversee that work. Republicans are in control in the majority of states, and they can redraw congressional districts however they want. They could easily find 20 districts to eliminate through consolidation that could push out Democrats. The domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol will certainly hurt their chances, and they're going to see a number of Republicans tied to Marjorie Taylor Greene the same way Democrats in conservative or swing districts were tied to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar. The right wing now has this figure who’s going to be used in House elections, specifically. Having these members of Congress who are vocal about conspiracy theories—whether they believe them now or not—is something that could shake up the race as well. So even with a year that isn't too favorable for the GOP, I think the GOP starts out with the advantage but it's by no means out of reach for the Democratic Party.
There have been a number of high-profile Senate retirements, especially in the Republican caucus. How do you think that will impact 2022?
Any political party that has an incumbent who's retiring, I would say the advantage certainly shifts to the opposition party, especially if it's a swing state. What we see now is Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania is retiring, Richard Burr in North Carolina is retiring, Rob Portman in Ohio is retiring. Those are three swing states. Had these three incumbents decided to run again, they would have had the benefit of incumbency. And they are known names in each state. Portman won by 20 points on the same ballot that Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 8%. So there was certainly a lot of crossover support. Republicans can no longer count on that. When you have incumbents who are popular and well known, people might be inclined to vote for them. If they're happy with the way they are on the statewide level or their ability to pack things into bills that will benefit the state or because of their ranking on committees, whatever it might be, these incumbents offer more benefits for their constituents just because they are incumbents.
Now that all three of these races have opened up, the seats have actually shifted in favor of the Democrats. That's not to say Democrats are favored in Ohio or Pennsylvania or North Carolina. But Ohio used to be rated as safe for the GOP, Pennsylvania was likely, North Carolina was likely. Now, Pennsylvania and North Carolina are toss-ups, and Ohio is a likely Republican state based off of race rating changes. So looking at those three states, I will say having a retiring incumbent hurts the GOP. There are no Democrats, as of now, who are retiring in 2022. It certainly makes the race more competitive.
What are your plans for after high school graduation? And how will they impact Let’s Talk Elections?
The good thing about college is that my schedule will be a lot more malleable. I'll be able to plan my classes in particular ways, so I will be able to make sure I can keep up the production rate. I don't plan on dropping it, especially since I'll be entering into college roughly a year before the 2022 midterm elections. But going into college, I think that I'm certainly going to be studying a lot of what I do on my channel. I'm going to make sure that I involve myself in data science. I would love to take courses on statistics and major in political science, focus on international affairs, possibly branch out into international elections. I've been very happy I've been accepted to a few very good universities. I got into Harvard University back in December. I'm very thankful. I really hope to use what I learn at whichever university I end up attending to advance my videos, provide a different type of view than I'm taught through my classes, and expand on what I already know. So far I've been self-teaching, I don't have any classes besides AP United States Government and Politics at my high school that I can really say is a political class. We don't even offer AP U.S. history. Generally, we don't have anything besides the main type of science and mathematics courses and English courses. I'm excited to be able to study exactly what I do on my channel. I'm really excited about what I can offer for my channel and what I can offer for future commentary on my videos. I'm looking forward to studying what I love to do already.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.