Young People Might Actually Turn Out for the Midterms

As politics becomes more personal for young Americans, new data suggest they could vote next week in numbers not seen in more than 30 years.

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Millennials, as the meme goes, are easy to blame for just about everything: the rise of avocado toast, the end of home ownership, the death of Applebee’s. Older generations have characterized them as lazy and apathetic, including when it comes to politics. And Generation Z has started to receive the same treatment. But new polling suggests that young people will vote in next week’s midterms at levels not seen in at least three decades.

A Harvard poll suggests that midterm turnout among Millennial and Generation Z voters could be historically high. Its findings, released Monday morning, may signal that the spike in Millennial political involvement that began after the 2016 election of Donald Trump hasn’t lost steam in the past two years. Other recent data indicate that this engagement transcends typical political activity. “We’re starting to notice that the personal is political,” said Mari Jones, a Harvard student who helped run the poll. “Big events in American politics cause young people to think about politics differently.”

The survey, from the university’s Institute of Politics (IOP), found that 40 percent of young people ages 18 to 29 said they would “definitely vote” in the upcoming midterm elections. Historically, the biannual poll is off by high single digits from actual youth turnout. But if just 22 percent of this group votes, it would be the highest midterm turnout for young voters in at least 32 years. According to IOP’s director of polling, John Della Volpe, in the past three decades youth-voter turnout has only hit 21 percent twice—in 1986 and 1994. To Della Volpe, the potential turnout is starting to look more like it did in the 2016 presidential election than it did during the last midterms, in 2014.

IOP’s polling suggests that, among young voters, support for the much-hyped blue wave is high. Sixty-six percent of the likely voters surveyed preferred Democrats to win Congress, more than twice the share who preferred that Republicans maintain control (37 percent of those polled live in the South and 21 percent in the Midwest). “If there is a blue wave in America, it will be, I think, started by young people and work all the way up,” said Della Volpe, though he noted that the margin between support for a Democrat-controlled Congress and support for a Republican-controlled Congress has narrowed by seven points among likely voters since IOP’s spring poll.

Austin Carr, a 22-year-old graduate student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, knows firsthand how much more politically engaged some young voters have become. Over the past year, he said, he’s gone “from complaining on social media to actively calling my senators and having tough discussions with my friends and family.”

The driving force, for him, has been the threat posed by climate change, a concern shared by many in his cohort. “If we don’t take care of global warming now, my kids might die,” he said. “If they don’t die, then their kids for sure will.”

Young people’s political identities seem to be shifting, too, affecting how they define themselves and what they consider to be politically possible. The Harvard pollsters asked those they surveyed to indicate their views on several policies that make up the basis of the democratic-socialist movement. More than 50 percent supported a federal jobs guarantee, single-payer health care, and free tuition at public universities, policies championed by the likes of the Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Among the likely voters, support for these three policies was even higher, jumping above 60 percent. “People vote with what they feel like will affect themselves,” Jones said. Teddy Landis, another Harvard student involved in the poll, noted that IOP’s spring poll found that “tangibility does matter to young people when they think about politics.”

The fall poll found that among all the young people surveyed, 39 percent supported democratic socialism. However, among likely voters, that support jumped to 53 percent, a five-point lead over support for capitalism. “We have been seeing a longer-term shift toward a more progressive politics among young Americans,” Della Volpe said. “Even on issues where young people aren’t necessarily progressive, they’re becoming more progressive.”

However, Della Volpe said, that doesn’t necessarily translate to increased loyalty to the Democratic Party. This disconnect between policy and party could continue to prove difficult for the Democratic political establishment, as it did during the last election. But in the end, Della Volpe said, when the choice is between a Democrat and a Republican, most young people will still choose a Democrat.

Another data set shows just how personal politics has become for Millennials: A new study from OKCupid, the dating app, found political engagement up among its young users. In the past year, the company reported, there’s been a 64 percent increase in “political terms” on users’ dating profiles, phrases such as “Swipe left if you vote for Trump” (swiping left means rejecting) or “Make America Great Again.” OKCupid’s data encompass 300,000 Millennials born between 1980 and 1997, 20 percent of whom identify as queer and 80 percent of whom who identify as heterosexual.

As part of their profile, OKCupid’s users answer a series of questions designed to better match them with potential romantic partners. Data from these questions show that 85 percent of both Millennial men and women said voting is either extremely or very important to them. Forty-six percent of Millennial women said they wouldn’t date someone who didn’t vote. Most strikingly, 73 percent of Millennial women preferred their partner vote for the same party as them, almost 20 percent more than Millennial men. And 75 percent of Millennial women also said they would not date someone who didn’t support the #MeToo movement.

The company also reported an uptick in the number of politically themed profile pictures in the past year. “One major reason I swiped right on my current boyfriend is because he had a picture in his profile from him canvassing for Bernie,” said the 21-year-old Mary Anna Ball, who lives in West Virginia. Other Millennials use politics to weed out potential partners from the start, by inserting language into their profile that makes clear they’ll only date people from a particular political party.

This heightened political consciousness doesn’t just manifest in voting and dating. “When you look around what’s happening in the country, young people are on the ground, they’re organizing their friends, their family, their classmates,” Landis said. “Young people are making a connection between what we’re marching for on the streets and who’s in office,” added Brittany Packnett, an IOP fellow and racial-justice activist. “Young people have translated their community activism into political activism.”