In the 2018 elections — the midterms of Donald Trump’s presidency — turnout among younger voters surged. Almost twice as many people in their late 20s and early 30s voted that year as had done so in the midterms four years earlier. And they strongly backed Democratic candidates, helping the party retake control of Congress.
At the time, it was not clear whether the newfound political engagement of younger adults would last beyond Trump’s presidency. So far, though, it has — and it’s emerging as one of the biggest stories in American politics and a major advantage for the Democratic Party.
After each election, the data analysts at Catalist, a progressive research company, publish a post-mortem report based on months of analysis of election returns, voter files and other sources. A central theme of the latest report, covering the 2022 midterms, was that “Gen Z and millennial voters had exceptional levels of turnout,” as Catalist’s experts wrote. In the 14 states with heavily contested elections last year, turnout among younger voters rose even higher than it was in 2018.
This chart, by my colleague Ashley Wu, offers a nice way to see the trends:
Since 2014, turnout among people born before 1950 has declined, mostly because more have died or been unable to get to the polls. (Experts refer to this dynamic euphemistically as “exiting the electorate.”) Turnout among middle-aged people rose, and turnout among young voters rose even more sharply.
Older Americans still vote at higher rates than younger Americans, but the gap has narrowed substantially over the past two decades.
Fear, not love
Why? Many younger voters have become more politically active because they fear for the country’s future. Those on the left — who are a majority of younger voters — worry about climate change, abortion access, the extremism of the Republican Party and more. Those on the right worry about secularization, political correctness, illegal immigration and more.
“What seems to be driving younger voters to the polls isn’t love, but anger,” Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report has written.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, younger voters throughout U.S. history have not automatically been liberal. In 1984, Americans under 30 strongly backed Ronald Reagan’s re-election. In 2000, they split almost evenly between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
It’s true that people often become somewhat more conservative as they age (and millennials are following this pattern, as my colleague Nate Cohn explained). But the more significant factor is that generations tend to have distinct ideologies. People are shaped by the political zeitgeist during their adolescence, as research by Yair Ghitza, Andrew Gelman and Jonathan Auerbach has shown.
Americans who came of age during the Depression and New Deal, for example, leaned Democratic for their entire lives. Those who grew up during the Reagan era (many of whom are part of Generation X) lean to the right. In recent decades, major news events, including the Iraq war, the financial crisis, Barack Obama’s presidency and the chaos of Trump’s presidency, appear to have created a progressive generation.
For four straight national elections dating back to 2014, Democrats have won at least 60 percent of the vote among 18- to 29-year-olds. It’s longest such run of success since at least the 1970s, when Catalist’s data begins.
The pattern offers reason for Democratic optimism. Millennials and Generation Z are growing parts of the electorate, while older, more conservative generations are gradually exiting the electorate. Even in the short term, the age dynamics matter: A Republican will have a slightly harder time winning the presidency in 2024 than in 2020. In the long term, Republicans will struggle to win national elections unless they can appeal to more Americans born since 1980.
Still a contest
With all this said, a coming period of Democratic dominance is not guaranteed. The party has other weaknesses that could eventually alienate more millennial and Gen Z voters.
Another theme of the Catalist report is that working-class voters across races have recently drifted toward the Republican Party. Many of these less affluent voters seem bothered by the increasing social liberalism of the Democratic Party. Many younger voters are also not sure which party offers more promising economic policies.
These concerns help explain why Florida and Texas have remained solidly Republican, to the disappointment of Democrats. The chart below compares the Democratic Party’s performance by class and race in the past two midterm elections when a Democrat was in the White House.
I realize that the combination of trends is complex. The Democratic lean of Americans under 40, combined with their recent increase in voter turnout, has become a huge advantage for the party. Yet not all these voters are committed Democrats. Many identify as independents and are more conservative than the highly educated, affluent officials who dominate the Democratic Party and progressive groups.
In the competitive world of American politics, Democrats are in a stronger position than Republicans among younger voters, but the contest is not over.
More on 2024
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