ATLANTA—The three dozen young Black men and women who gathered in a church meeting room last Friday night were greeted with a rousing exhortation that had the added benefit of being true.
In welcoming remarks, Bryce Berry, a senior at nearby Morehouse College and the president of the Young Democrats of Georgia club, told the group that none of the party’s national-policy accomplishments of the past two years would have been possible without people like them. “Without young Georgians, young Black Georgians,” Berry said for emphasis, “there would be no Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, no American Rescue Plan … no Inflation Reduction Act, no student-debt relief, and no gun-safety bill.”
It was the sort of thing speakers always say to motivate a crowd at political rallies. But in this case it was historically accurate: Massive turnout and huge margins among young voters, especially young voters of color, were crucial to the twin runoff victories of Georgia Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in January 2021 that delivered Democrats their unexpected majority in the upper chamber.
Young adults have become an essential electoral asset for Democrats—and loom as a potentially decisive factor in determining whether the party can avoid the worst outcomes up and down the ballot this November. In particular, young voters may decide whether Democrats can preserve the fragile hold on the Senate that Georgia provided to them.
A sharp generation gap is among the most consistent findings in public polling across almost every competitive Senate race this year. Here in Georgia, for instance, an array of recent public polls (including surveys by Quinnipiac University, Marist College, Monmouth University, and the University of Georgia) have found Warnock leading the Republican Herschel Walker by as much as two to one among young adults from about 18 to 34 and consistently by a margin of about 10 percentage points among those in early middle age. Polls almost always show Walker at least slightly ahead among those in their later working years, and solidly leading among those 65 and older. (This week’s explosive allegations about Walker—the claim that he allegedly funded an abortion for a girlfriend and the subsequent accusations of domestic violence from his son—seem likely to weaken him, perhaps substantially, with every group, but are unlikely to erase these sharp generational differences.)
These patterns are so common across the competitive states that it’s hard to imagine Democrats maintaining their Senate majority unless young voters like those who gathered at Atlanta’s Allen Temple AME Church turn out in substantial numbers.
Compared with older generations, Millennials and members of Generation Z are more racially diverse, more likely to hold postsecondary degrees, and less likely to identify with any religious tradition. Both cohorts have leaned sharply Democratic since the first Millennials entered the electorate in large numbers in the 2004 election; the party has routinely carried about three-fifths of young adults in recent presidential contests. In 2018, Democrats hit a peak of support among young voters, winning two-thirds of those younger than 30 and three-fifths of those ages 30 to 44, according to estimates by Catalist, a Democratic targeting firm.
Millennials and Gen Z are especially crucial to Democratic fortunes across Sun Belt states like Georgia and Arizona. In this region, younger generations are far more racially diverse than the mostly white, older voters who provide the backbone of GOP strength. In Arizona, for instance, Latino voters and other people of color compose almost three-fifths of the population under 30 but less than one-fifth of the population over 65, according to calculations from census data by William Frey, a demographer at Brookings Metro. In Georgia, Black voters and other people of color represent half of eligible voters under 45 but only three in 10 of those over 65. The gap between what I’ve called “the brown and the gray”—the diverse younger and the mostly white older generations—is comparably large in Texas and Nevada and nearly as big in North Carolina, Frey’s data show.
For Democrats, this year’s nightmare scenario of losing both the House and Senate is a repeat of 2010 and 2014, when the GOP midterm sweeps were turbocharged by a catastrophic falloff in turnout among young people from the presidential race two years earlier.
The anemic youth turnout in those off-year elections during Barack Obama’s presidency fueled a widespread perception that Democrats now faced a structural disadvantage in midterms because the electorate in those years was destined to be much older and whiter than in the presidential contest. But the 2018 results upended that assumption: Much more robust turnout among young adults helped power the Democratic gains that allowed them to recapture the House of Representatives. Compared with 2014, youth turnout increased in every state in 2018, more than doubling across the country overall, Circle, a think tank at Tufts University that studies young voters, has calculated. Some of the biggest increases occurred in Sun Belt states where the youth population is the most racially diverse, including Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada.
The turnout surge continued into 2020, when exactly half of adults younger than 30 showed up to vote, a big increase from the 39 percent in 2016, Circle concluded. Georgia again ranked among the states with the biggest youth-turnout increase compared with 2016—a key factor in the Democrats’ razor-thin victories there in the presidential race and the two Senate runoffs.
Democrats this year are highly unlikely to win as big a share of youth voters as they did during their 2018 sweep (they didn’t even equal it in 2020). But one of the pivotal questions remaining for the 2022 election is how close Democrats can come to matching the strength with young voters they displayed while Donald Trump was in the White House.
Democrats face some serious headwinds. Never enthusiastic about President Joe Biden during the 2020 Democratic primaries, young people have given him lackluster approval ratings throughout his presidency. Generally operating with less of a financial cushion than older voters, young people have also been more affected by the highest inflation in four decades. “The cost of living is going up, but our salaries are not,” Alexia Brookins, a manager at a construction company, told me at the AME event sponsored by the group Millennials of Faith last weekend.
In a mid-September NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, just 37 percent of Millennials and Gen Z said that Biden’s actions had strengthened the economy; 55 percent said that he had weakened it. In a late-September Yahoo News/YouGov survey, only about one-fifth of young adults ages 18 to 44 said life was better for people like them since Biden took office (the rest said it was unchanged or worse).
Terrance Woodbury, a partner at HIT Strategies, a Democratic consulting firm that focuses on young voters of color, worries that these verdicts will make it difficult for Democrats to reach the turnout and margins they need among young voters. In polling that HIT recently conducted for the NAACP, he told me, three-fourths of Black adults younger than 50 said their lives had not improved since Biden took office.
Woodbury told me that although the media seem fixated on whether potential Republican gains among men will widen the Black gender gap this year, he expects that the “generational gap” in the African American community will be much wider. “Younger voters are much more likely to say Democrats take Black voters for granted, much less likely to approve of the direction of the country, and much less likely to approve of the performance of Democrats in Congress and the White House,” he told me. “All of that is significantly higher by generation than by gender. I actually do think there is a real risk of Democrats underperforming with young voters, and specifically young voters of color.” Equis Research, a Democratic polling firm that specializes in Latino voters, raised similar warnings about young Hispanic voters in a late-September memo analyzing the upcoming election.
But other factors may help Democrats approach, if not necessarily match, their recent advantages with young voters.
More young adults may vote in 2022 simply because so many of them registered and voted in 2018 and 2020. One reason for that is structural: “There are more young people on the voter rolls because of the [2018 and 2020] elections, which is a huge boost, because it means they are more likely to be contacted by parties and organizations,” and those contacts increase the likelihood of people voting, Abby Kiesa, Circle’s deputy director, told me.
The other key reason is attitudinal: Higher youth turnout may mean that not only is voting becoming a habit for those who have already done it; it is also becoming more expected among the 18-year-olds who age into the electorate every two years (more than 8 million of them since 2020, Circle projects). At the AME event, for instance, Kendeius Mitchell, a disability-claims manager, told me that youth engagement in Georgia is feeding on itself. “Just having it around so much in the conversation now is making people take accountability,” he said.
John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, sees the same trend in the institute’s national surveys. “Voting … could be becoming a part of this new generation and how they think,” he told me.
Also lifting Democratic hopes is the party’s summer succession of policy advances on issues important to young people. Della Volpe said the “No. 1” criticism of Biden among young adults in the Harvard poll was “ineffectiveness.” But the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, with its sweeping provisions to combat climate change, and the president’s decision to cancel up to $20,000 in student debt for millions of borrowers have provided Democratic organizers and ad makers something they lacked earlier this year: evidence to argue to young adults that their votes did produce change on things they care about. Biden gave organizers another talking point yesterday afternoon, when he announced a sweeping pardon of all people convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law.
On the ground in Georgia, Keron Blair, the chief organizing and field officer for the New Georgia Project, a grassroots political organization founded by the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, told me that with the Democrats’ recent successes, “it feels a little bit easier” than in the spring to make the case to young adults that their vote counts.
Looking across the overall record of Democrats since they took power, “people aren’t like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing,’” Blair told me. “But people are clear that some of the wins and the political and economic shifts that we are seeing [are] the result of the [voting] choices that people have made.”
Also working for Democrats is the gulf in values between most young voters and the Trump-era Republican Party. Fully 70 percent of adults younger than 30, for instance, said in a Pew Research Center poll this summer that abortion should remain legal in all or most circumstances, by far the most of any age group. That places them in sharp opposition to a GOP that is intensifying talk of passing a national ban on abortion if it wins control of Congress. “If we maintain that [recent] surge among young voters and voters of color,” Woodbury said, “they are voting against the crazy on the other side.”
Although different public surveys have sent different signals about youth engagement, the latest IOP youth survey, which is considered a benchmark in the field, found that as many young people said they “definitely” intend to vote this fall as did in 2018.
That prospect points toward an incremental but inexorable power shift. In 2020, for the first time, Millennials and Gen Z roughly equaled Baby Boomers and their elders as a share of eligible voters. By 2024, the younger generations will establish a clear advantage. As their numbers grow, so does their capacity to influence the national direction. There’s no guarantee they will exercise that inherent power next month by turning out to vote in large numbers. But more young people appear to be recognizing how much their choices can matter. Berry, the young Georgia activist, told me that his message to his friends is centered on understanding the strength in numbers that they are accumulating: “I really impress on folks, ‘Look at what happened because of you. You understood the moment in 2020; now you have to understand the moment in 2022.’”