WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — The midterm elections next Tuesday will answer many questions about the state of American politics, but in addition to potentially ushering in new leadership in Congress, it could confirm the existence of a formidable and committed bloc of young voters unlike those that came before it.
Or not. Only about 20 percent of voters 18-to-29-years-old voted in 2014, and although millennials are blamed for many, many ills of modern society, experts say the aversion they and Generation Z-ers have shown to voting is nothing new. The youngest generation has been consistently underrepresented in elections—and especially in midterm elections—since 18-year-olds got the right to vote.
“Voting, like all other civic skills, is learned through practice and experience,” said Alison Novak, author of “Media, Millennials, and Politics: The Coming of Age of the Next Political Generation” and a professor at Rowan University. “This is one reason we see less turnout in young groups than older groups- across the decades and generations. As younger people get older, they have more civic and political experiences that encourage voting.”
Realistically, the younger generation often has less of an immediate stake in society than older voters.
“Most of young voters don't own property, they don't have kids, and they're relatively healthy. They're shielded from the more immediate consequences of tax reform and social spending cuts,” said Miles Howard, author of “The Early Voters: Millennials, in Their Own Words, on the Eve of a New America.”
However, several polls provide good reasons to expect a stronger showing from 18-to-29-year-olds in 2018 than in recent midterm elections. A biannual survey by the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School released earlier this week found 40 percent of them “definitely” plan to vote, nearly twice as many as have shown up at the polls in the most active midterm cycles over the last 30 years.
“This year definitely feels different,” said Will Simons, deputy press secretary for NextGen America, a liberal group working to register young voters. “It feels like there’s this energy and enthusiasm among voters that is unique for midterm elections.”
According to the poll, 54 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans in that age group plan to vote, an increase of three percentage points for Democrats and seven for Republicans since April. The poll indicated only about a quarter of young voters approve of President Trump’s performance, and 59 percent said they would “never” vote for him in 2020.
Likely voters in that age group preferred Democratic control of Congress by a 34-point margin, and 59 percent said they would have more fear for the future if Republicans retained control of the House. A federal jobs guarantee, free college tuition, and single-payer health care were all supported by majorities.
A poll of 18-to-24-year-olds conducted in September by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University identified similar trends, with 34 percent saying they were “extremely” likely to vote in November. That is nearly as many as said they would vote in 2016, and researchers found most of those people actually did turn out in that election. Four out of five respondents said they believe their age group can change the country, and that sentiment was seen across both parties.
Data firm TargetSmart has analyzed early voting numbers from several states, and it has found voters 18 to 29 have at least doubled their 2014 early vote turnout in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, and Florida. Notably, other demographics have significantly increased early voting totals as well, so it is unclear how much sway those young voters will have over the outcome.
New York magazine recently interviewed a dozen young adults who did not plan to vote this year and their reasons varied widely. Some were disillusioned by democracy after the 2016 election, while others complained of logistical barriers to registering or voting. One concluded there was no point in voting because global warming will kill everyone anyway.
Most of these are fairly common concerns among younger voters, experts say: voting is harder than it should be and they doubt their vote will make a difference.
“We see young people saying they don’t see candidates they really want to get behind or talking about issues they really care about,” said Abigail Kiesa, director of impact at CIRCLE.
For college students, voter ID requirements and residency rules can be difficult to navigate. Young workers struggle to free up the hours it can take to wait on line and cast a vote.
Corporate sponsors are stepping in to make voting easier for young adults this year. Uber and Lyft are offering discounted rides to polling places, and Snapchat is adding polling locations to its Snap Map feature. New Balance announced this week it will send a double-decker party bus through New York City to transport voters to the polls.
“We see many technology platforms doing a little more with helping people find that concrete basic information,” Kiesa said.
According to Howard, experience has left the current generation of young voters with a more cynical but possibly more accurate assessment of modern politics than their parents.
“Millennials are the most well-educated generation in American history and many of us are demoralized and depressed about the state of U.S. politics. We're keenly aware that ‘the system’ is designed to work for moneyed interests and oligarchs,” he said.
As with most things political these days, President Donald Trump has been an unavoidable factor in convincing young voters their input matters.
“While I wish I could say this is because the Democrats have come up with a brilliant message to run on, I think the true factor that will push millennials to the voting booth is the realization that Donald Trump and the Republican Party leadership have embraced authoritarianism and white patriarchal nationalism,” Howard said.
Youth activism has surged since the 2016 election, and it has grown even stronger in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. Whether young adults agreed with the Parkland students about gun control or not, their example of political advocacy on the national stage has been an inspiring one.
“Trump motivated a lot of people to get involved,” Simons said. “I think that was a wake-up call for a lot of young people who previously the only administration they had known was Obama’s.”
New technology has offered politicians and advocacy groups new avenues to reach out to young voters. Social media provides opportunities to spread a message to millions at little to no cost, and campaigns can now text voters directly.
“Candidates must use social media carefully and not appear to pander or make fun of the group on digital media,” Novak said, pointing to Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated attempt to start an emoji-based conversation with young voters about student loans.
“Social media and text apps should be thought of as branches of a sturdier tree,” Howard said. “If the trunk is weak or hollow, the whole thing will eventually collapse under pressure.”
Person-to-person contact is still one of the most effective means to persuade millennials, and that is the principle behind much of NextGen’s work. According to Simons, the group has more than 700 staffers on 420 campuses spread across 11 states talking directly to other students about the importance of voting.
“The crux of our program is the peer-to-peer organizing, the kind of old school democracy is what we call it,” he said.
In its September survey, CIRCLE found 42 percent of young people are learning about the midterms from family members, and most of those who are extremely likely to vote have heard about it from relatives. The center’s pre-election polls from 2012 and 2016 also revealed family as the biggest influence on those who planned to vote.
“The factors that influence whether a young person chooses to participate are built over time. These are not last-minute things that happen,” Kiesa said, noting that home, school, and social environments can predispose someone toward voting.
Certain candidates are proving especially adept at attracting younger voters, including Andrew Gillum in Florida, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, and Beto O’Rourke in Texas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those candidates are often young themselves, but they also unabashedly embrace progressive ideas to the left of the Democratic mainstream.
“Young, progressive, aspirational candidates we’ve seen have a pretty strong impact on getting young people involved People who kind of speak the truth and say what they mean and stand up for their values, we’ve seen that resonate really strongly with young people,” Simons said.
Young voters’ preference for progressive candidates is consistent with other polling on their political ideology. A Gallup Poll conducted over the summer found more 18-to-29-year-olds view socialism positively than capitalism.
Experts say witnessing the Great Recession at a young age and entering the workforce in its aftermath may have helped sour millennials on capitalism. They also stress that “socialism” as this generation understands it is often closer to the strong social safety net seen in Scandinavian countries than complete government control of the means of production.
“Remember,” Howard said, “we watched the criminals behind the Iraq War and the 2008 housing bubble implosion escape accountability for their actions—and that was when the Democrats had a majority hold on Washington.”
Other surveys have found similar divides between the young and old on other major issues. According to a March Pew Research Center poll, millennials are much more likely to see racial discrimination as a continuing problem in the U.S., to view immigration as one of the country’s strengths, and to support same-sex marriage.
Nearly 60 percent of millennials identified themselves as Democrats or Democratic-leaning in the Pew survey. At the time, 62 percent said they favored Democrats taking control of Congress, while other generations were closer to a 50/50 split. Millennials were also most likely to disapprove of President Trump’s performance, while only 27 percent said they approved of him.
“I just want to emphasize that young people come to voting with such diverse experiences They’re certainly not monolithic,” Kiesa said. They may trend leftward nationally, but youth voting blocs can be very conservative in some states and districts.
Some trying to convince young adults to vote have stressed the stakes of the election and the impact it may have on the issues that matter to those under 30. Student debt and climate change have proven to be low priorities for the Republican Congress and White House, and a GOP majority is unlikely to drive immigration or health care policy in the direction most millennials want.
“If young people vote in numbers anywhere near the percentages of other generations they can get any policy they want. College affordability, climate, civil rights, healthcare, immigration whatever your generation decides. It’s your government if you just take it over,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, tweeted Thursday.
As the most liberal and racially-diverse generation in U.S. history, Howard said many millennials are recognizing that the Trump administration’s agenda on immigration, the judiciary, civil rights, and other issues could threaten them or those close to them if left unchecked.
“A lot of millennials are coming to terms with the reality that some elections are about voting for candidates you believe in, and others are for voting against politicians who are a danger to your well-being,” he said.