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Strong Link Between "Thinking about the Election" and Youth Turnout in Midterms

The close relationship between the percentage of youth who were thinking about the election and the percentage who voted highlights the importance of reaching out and talking to young people.

An excellent predictor of youth turnout rates in midterm years is the proportion of young people who were thinking a lot about the election in advance. We also know from the exit polls that young adults who voted in 2014 had been following the election. The most important aspect of “enthusiasm” may thus be the degree to which young people are focused on the election to come. In turn, that finding reinforces the importance of civic education and outreach that promotes attention to elections.

We find that for the past 20 years, young people’s responses to Pew’s question about interest in the midterms and our estimate of youth turnout (calculated right after the election) have tracked each other very closely.

Pre-election commentary often centers on the somewhat nebulous notion of “enthusiasm.” We have previously written that this concept may be best measured by a group of indicators that show the level of interest in that contest. Those measures might include discussion of the election, participation in or attention to campaigns, and whether or not people have been the target of outreach. Our analysis here shows that one such measure—how much young people thought about the election—may prove to be an especially useful metric in midterm cycles.

Contrary to concerns about uninformed youth going to the polls, young people who vote in midterms are highly likely to have followed the election closely before casting their ballot. According to 2014 exit polls, over three quarters of young voters said that they followed this year’s election somewhat, very, or extremely closely. Youth also reported thinking about this year’s contest more than in 2010, when only 21% said they thought about the election “a lot” or “quite a lot.”

Increasing opportunities for young people to learn about, pay attention to, and become interested in elections appears to be a promising strategy for improving political engagement. Civic education that includes attention to elections may also be valuable, as well as youth news literacy and other efforts to ensure that young people can understand and discern the truth from media.

Further research is needed to understand how all of these efforts intersect and how practitioners from different fields can collaborate to increase youth voting and civic engagement more generally.