Commentators have attached much comfort and hope to the turnout of young voters in this year’s election. At 27%, youth turnout was the third-highest in the 13 midterms since 1974, with peaks at 32% in 1982 and 31% in 2018. They strongly favored Democrats.
While there were quite large differences in the overall percentage of turnout of all age groups among the states this year, nationwide that turnout was 46%, the second-highest estimated percentage for midterms since 1894. That compares with 66.3% in 2020, which was the highest nationwide turnout in a presidential election since 1900.
Midterm youth turnout has frequently been far lower than it was this year. For instance, an estimated 20.9% of people under 30 voted in the 2010 midterms. Late last month, a national poll conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School found that 40% of 18 to 29 year olds said they would “definitely" vote in this year’s midterm. Obviously, some of them didn’t make it.
According to an analysis by the go-to people on youth and elections, Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), the young voters who did show up were the only age group to rank abortion their number one priority.
The CIRCLE team wrote:
As pre-election surveys also indicated, according to the exit polls, youth were the age group most likely to say abortion should be legal in all or most cases (72%). That view was reflected in their vote choice, as young people who expressed that position on abortion voted for Democratic candidates by an extraordinary 64-point margin: 80% for Democrats vs. 16% for Republicans.
At the same time, abortion may also have been influential to the quarter of youth who said they believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Young voters with that position on abortion supported Republican candidates by an even larger 81-point margin. A third of youth who favor abortion restrictions listed it as the top issue motivating their vote in the 2022 midterms. However, a slightly higher percentage of young people who believe abortion should be illegal chose inflation as their top issue (37%), compared to half of young people who believe abortion should be legal.
Views on abortion and its importance in this election differed across demographic groups. White youth were both more likely than youth of color to say that that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases (33%) and to rank it as their top priority (51%). By contrast, 84% of youth of color, including 89% of Latino youth, shared that they believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Although about the same portions of young women and young men said abortion should be legal, women were more likely to name it their number one priority: 56% compared to 36% for men. Young women's vote choice nationwide was 71% for Democrats and 26% for Republicans, compared to 53% versus 42% for young men, a 34-point difference by gender.
Respondents in the exit polls were only given five priority options—abortion, inflation, crime, gun control, and immigration—to choose from. But a huge majority noted that climate was also on their mind. Not exactly a surprise given previous polls going back years. “To move any young person out of their apartment and into the voting booth, the candidate has to be relying on issues related to climate change; I think it’s just kind of table stakes,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and author of Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America.
Scott Waldman at ClimateWire reported Tuesday (paywall):
The Tufts analysis found that more than 8 in 10 young midterm voters said climate was a very serious or somewhat serious issue.
In Georgia, young voters — especially voters of color — are highly motivated by climate policy, said Sara Suzuki, a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts who helped analyze the results.
“Not running on climate more seriously is a missed opportunity,” she said. “Communities of color are feeling climate issues more acutely, and that helps explain why young people of color are really prioritizing climate as an issue.”
As always, there were marked differences among states this year. This includes the key Senate race in Georgia, where the estimated under-30 vote this year hit 31%. For comparison, turnout of all Georgia voters was 56.9%.
CIRCLE analysts calculated that young Georgians accounted for 116,000 of the ballots cast in favor of Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, voting nearly 2 to 1 for him over Republican Herschel Walker, 63% to 34%.
Although voters ages 30-44 also backed Warnock by 56% to 41%, the state’s overall split was, of course, much closer, with neither candidate breaking the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff. Had youth voted more in line with the older electorate, instead of getting 37,675 more votes than Walker, Warnock would have gotten 15,325 fewer. That encouraging lead means nothing if turnout weakens. Under-30s made up just 13% of Georgians who voted. But paying special attention to getting this always balky cohort of voters to turn out yet again is nonetheless key to keeping Warnock in his seat and putting Democrats in a much better position in the Senate than the 50-50 version we’re stuck with now.
As the CIRCLE team pointed out, Georgia wasn’t the only key race where young voters gave an edge to Democrats:
- In the Pennsylvania Senate race, where Democrat John Fetterman won by a slim 3% margin, youth ages 18-29 preferred Fetterman 70% to 28%, compared to 55% to 42% among voters ages 30-44, with voters over 45 preferring Republican candidate Dr. Oz.
- In the Wisconsin Governor election, which we had ranked as the #1 race where the youth vote could influence the outcome, Democratic Governor Tony Evers won reelection by a slim margin, 51% to 48%. Young voters gave Evers extraordinary support: 70% vs. 30% for Republican challenger Tim Michels. Voters 30-44 also preferred Evers by a slimmer 55% to 44% margin, while voters over 45 backed the GOP candidate.
The team also made note of the fact that while under-30 white voters are less Republican than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, there is still a big difference in how young voters of different races/ethnicities cast their ballots.
The Democratic skew of the youth vote is encouraging. But, seriously, a turnout of 27%, even the 40-year record of 32%, is pitiful. Before someone takes my saying so as generational warfare from an out-of-touch Okay Boomer, let me note that I think Mindy Romero, the director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the USC Price School of Public Policy, had the right idea in this Nov. 17 Los Angeles Times op-ed:
We need to do a much better job of introducing young people to the civic and electoral process. Young people who have had high-quality civics educational experiences are more likely to vote when eligible, form political opinions, understand campaign issues and know basic facts about how our electoral system works. High school students who learn how voting can affect their lives, how to register and how to actually vote are more likely to cast ballots when they turn 18 than those who don’t.
But most youth get an abysmal civics education — and when they turn 18 society expects them to magically know how to vote and feel that it matters, that it will make a difference on the issues they care about. It is absurd to blame them for not voting and say it’s because they are apathetic or that there is something wrong with their generation. [...]
For years now, we’ve been involved in this blame game. But the truth is that our electoral system, political parties and campaigns, as well as our educational system, have done a poor job of helping younger voters believe in the importance of the voting process. Instead of blaming our youth, let’s start engaging them in sincere and effective ways. Any politician’s praise is empty without real and significant resources directed toward youth. The future of our democracy depends on it.
Calculating the youth vote always results in no more than an estimate because not all states record age data for voters. CIRCLE thus relies on surveys to estimate youth turnout, those being the National Exit Polls and the Census Bureau’s November Current Population Survey.