It’s a perennial concern among Democrats: The youth vote, will it come through? And will this cohort reveal themselves as liberal-minded as political folklore often suggests?
Well, in the 2018 midterms, anyway, the answer to both questions turned out to be a resounding yes — and this single factor may have saved the Democratic Party’s “blue wave” bacon.
As the Center For Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) reported on the day after the midterm elections, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 turned out in their highest number of the past quarter century, with exit poll calculations suggesting a sizable bounce from turnout in the 2014 midterms. Per CIRCLE: “The substantial increase in youth turnout is in many ways the culmination of an election cycle in which young people had an extraordinary impact through their activism, emphasis on voter registration, and—yesterday—overwhelming support for Democratic candidates.”
This, according to CIRCLE, “made youth a powerful voting bloc in the 2018 midterms,” and, in several races critical to Democrats, it was the decisive factor. Overall, two-thirds of this voting cohort broke for House Democratic candidates. CIRCLE estimates that this overwhelming tilt in the Democratic Party’s favor “almost certainly helped the Democratic Party take control of the House of Representatives.” Youth turnout was also particularly high in several key battleground states — in Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin, youth turnout exceeded the overall national trend.
And in many of the races where Democrats needed to eke out victories, they were borne aloft on this tidal wave of young blood. Per CIRCLE:
In addition, in several statewide races, the youth vote appears to have been decisive. In Wisconsin, where Democratic candidate Tony Evers beat incumbent Republican Scott Walker by just 1.2 percentage points, under-30 voters supported Evers by a 23-point margin, 60% to 37%. That’s a substantial shift from 2014, when youth supported Walker’s Democratic challenger Mary Burke by a much smaller margin, 51% to 47%,
In Nevada, where young people made up a particularly high share of the electorate this year (19%), both the Democratic Senate candidate Jacky Rosen, and the Democratic Governor candidate Steve Sisolak, are projected to have won close races by less than 5 percentage points. Young voters supported Rosen over her Republican rival by a 37-point margin (67% to 30%) and Sisolak by a 31-point margin (62% to 31%).
And in Montana, where youth made up an above-average 15% of the electorate, Democrat Jon Tester won an extremely close race that was not called until Wednesday afternoon. Youth supported Tester over his Republican opponent by a nearly 40-point margin: 67% to 28%.
And while the youth vote wasn’t sufficient to every task to which Democrats might have hoped it could be applied, there were measurable transformations across the political landscape. In Texas, for example, the young voters courted by upstart Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke weren’t able to drag him past incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the end, but they formed a vital portion of O’Rourke’s coattails. As Texas Monthly’s R.G, Ratcliffe documented in his midterm post-mortem, O’Rourke can rightly be credited for altering Texas’ political topography, including two vital red-to-blue flips in the House of Representatives.
And while, it’s an open question as to whether or not O’Rourke’s impact will be lasting in Texas, the national youth vote trends point to a dire future for Republicans if they can’t find a way to build some degree of meaningful appeal with the younger generation. Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson — a gifted political observer who has been warning about the ominous headwinds for Republicans for quite some time, to no avail — was quick to point out on Twitter that the Democrat-to-Republican divergence among 18-29 year-olds had reached an epochal height:
— Kristen Soltis Anderson (@KSoltisAnderson) November 7, 2018
Anderson would go on to demonstrate that this divergence was also beginning to occur in the next-oldest generational cohort, into which Millennials are now steadily integrating. “One more thing, and this is the real punch in the face for Republicans,” she tweeted, “Millennials are now into their mid-30s. And look at the 19 point gap among aged 30-44. (In 2014 that was a D+2 group. In 2010, R+2. Even in the ghastly 2006 they were only D+8.).”
One more thing, and this is the real punch in the face for Republicans: Millennials are now into their mid-30s. And look at the 19 point gap among aged 30-44. (In 2014 that was a D+2 group. In 2010, R+2. Even in the ghastly 2006 they were only D+8.) pic.twitter.com/ACYzPBJyAg
— Kristen Soltis Anderson (@KSoltisAnderson) November 7, 2018
Anderson, in recent years, has ended up as something of a Cassandra figure — like the famed seer from Greek mythology, she is simultaneously blessed with unerring predictions and cursed to never be believed by those she’s trying to help. And among her warnings to Republicans has been this constant admonition: the younger generations are not growing more conservative over time. As she wrote in a March 2017 piece for the Washington Examiner:
What is striking for millennials is less about the partisanship and more about the ideology. It’s not just that Democrats have held a consistent advantage over the GOP with this generation (and they have – by massive margins), it’s that the proportion calling themselves liberal Democrats has increased substantially since the 2012 election. Millennials are getting older, and yet they aren’t moving rightward at all. Like the Gen Xers ahead of them, they’re instead more and more likely to decide “liberal” suits them just fine as a label.
Democrats aided themselves considerably in 2018 by running a slew of candidates from the younger generations, many of whom — such as Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, Colin Allred in Texas, and Katie Hill in California — won their races and will come to Capitol Hill.
The youngest among them, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), made news this week when she revealed that she will have to creatively stretch her savings, and her shelter, long enough to secure her first congressional paycheck and, hopefully soon after, an apartment. Ocasio-Cortez’s situation was mocked in some circles, as you might expect. But what Washington’s terminally out-of-touch elites often fail to grasp is that her lived-in experiences are very much akin to those of younger Americans.
There is, of course, no guarantee that Democrats will maintain an iron grip on these younger generations — especially if Republicans awake from the stupor and start to heed Anderson’s warnings. Nevertheless, politicians of all stripes would do well to remember what makes the youngest voters among us unique: Their own political experiences were seasoned by two ill-fated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan abroad and a future-imperiling economic catastrophe at home, and defined by the adults in their lives — who failed them.