Young Women's Political Engagement in Elections and Beyond
The 2018 midterm elections featured historic highs in campaign spending, media coverage, voter turnout rate, and overall attention and excitement—particularly among young people. For many, that election was also a “year of the woman” in which more than 30 women were elected to Congress for the first time. The 2018 election built on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run, the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement and other notable events that have mobilized and inspired young women to get involved in politics and civic life. Their growing participation cements a trend of engagement and impact in elections by young women, and especially by young women of color, who have been among the Democratic Party’s strongest supporters.
The 2020 election will provide another opportunity for young women to play a pivotal role in our democracy. In this analysis, we look at polling data from that historic 2018 election cycle to see how young women are thinking about civic and political engagement, how empowered they feel to voice their opinions, whether they trust civic institutions, and if they’re involved in social movements to stand up for their rights.
Our top findings include:
- Young women had a higher voter turnout than young men in 2018, and were more likely than young men to say they would vote for a Democratic candidate: 50% vs. 40%. Eight in ten young women had an unfavorable perception of President Trump at the time of the survey.
- More than half of young women trust institutions like higher education, the police, and the military, but they distrust large corporations.
- About 1 in 3 young women feel they are well-qualified to participate in politics. There is no difference in that sentiment between young White women, young Black women, and young Latinas.
- In 2018, there were important differences among young women in issue priorities by race/ethnicity. The top issue for young White women was accessible/affordable health care, for young Black women it was racism, and for young Latinas it was immigration.
- Young women are more likely than young men to be active in social movements like Black Lives Matter, environmental activism, #MeToo, reproductive rights activism, and the gun violence prevention movement. By contrast, young men—particularly young White men—are more likely to be involved in conservative movements like MAGA and pro-Second Amendment activism.
- When it comes to support for social movements, there are differences by both gender and race/ethnicity. For example, young women are 19 percentage points more likely than young men to support Black Lives Matter: 57% vs. 38%.
Voting, Political Parties, and Support for Candidates
Young women’s political participation in the last midterm elections undoubtedly helped make 2018 a “year of the woman.” Historically, young women have voted at higher rates than young men, and though the youth turnout gender gap has narrowed in recent election cycles, in 34% of young women and 30% of young men (ages 18-24 years) cast a ballot in 2018. Overall, young White women voted at slightly higher rates (36%) compared to young Black women and young Latinas (33% and 30% respectively).
The youth turnout gender gap was even higher among some racial/ethnic groups: for example, young Black women’s voter turnout was 10 percentage points higher than that of young Black men. Some of that difference may be due to outreach: earlier analysis from our 2018 youth poll showed that young women, particularly young women of color, were contacted at higher rates than young men during the election cycle.
In general, young people lean more liberal than older voters, and young women tend to be more liberal than young men. In 2018 that translated into higher support for the Democratic Party: our pre-election poll of young people (ages 18-24) found that young women were 10 percentage points more likely than young men to say they would vote for a Democrat candidate for Congress: 50% vs. 40%. Only 23% of young women said they would most likely vote for a Republican candidate, compared to 30% of young men. Among young women who registered with a political party before the 2018 elections, 43% registered with the Democratic Party and just 18% with the Republican Party. In addition, 2018 exit polls showed that two-thirds of young people (here defined as ages 18-29) favored Democrats regardless of race—although exit polls did not break down the data by age and gender combined. Some of that support for Democrats may also be a rebuke of President Trump, who was incredibly unpopular among young women: 8 out of 10 had an unfavorable opinion of the president at the time of the survey. By comparison, 6 out of 10 young men viewed the president unfavorably.
Trust in Institutions and In Young People’s Political Power
Young people’s trust in politics and in public institutions has suffered in recent years, and young women are no exception. In our polling, 6 out of 10 young women (and a similar rate of young men) said they were even more cynical about politics after the 2018 election than after 2016. That includes 62% of young White women, 57% of young Black women, and 56% of young Latinas. Our poll also found that just 38% of young women feel (agree or strongly agree) that they have a legitimate voice in the political process . When we look at young women who disagree with that statement, we find a marked difference by race/ethnicity, with young Black women (40%) twice as likely as young Latinas (20%) and young White women (24%) to feel they don’t have a voice.
There are also differences by party identification. Young women who strongly identify with a political party are more likely to feel their voice matters in the political processes than those who don’t, including nearly 64% of young women who “strongly” identify as Democrats and 44% who “strongly” identify as Republicans. Interestingly, young women who strongly identify as Republicans are much less likely than their male counterparts to feel that their voice matters in politics..
In our 2018 polling we found that, for many young people, this cynicism or distrust actually led them to want to participate in political life. That seems to be the case with young women, 37% of whom “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they are motivated to get involved in politics, compared to just 26% of young men. There are party differences in this respect too: young women who “strongly” lean Democratic were almost twice as likely than young women who lean strongly toward the GOP to say they want to get politically involved: 52% to 28%. There are also differences by race/ethnicity: young women of color are more motivated to get politically involved than both young men of color and young White women.
Many young women aren’t just motivated to participate; they feel prepared to do so. A third of young women say they are well-qualified to participate in politics, and that holds true regardless of race/ethnicity: 32% White, 34% Black, and 33% Latinas.
Another key aspect of young people’s engagement in civic life can be their trust (or lack thereof) in political and public institutions. In our 2018 polling, only four of the 14 institutions we asked about were trusted by a majority of youth: higher education, scientific research, the military, and the police. There were some notable differences in institutional trust by gender. Young women were more likely than men to “somewhat” or “completely” trust colleges and universities (58% vs. 51%), major news media (26% vs. 21%) and the Democratic Party (44% vs. 31%). On the other hand, men are more likely than women to trust the police (61% vs. 53%), large corporations (18% vs. 12%), religious institutions (31% vs. 25%) and the President (22% vs. 14%).
Race/Ethnicity Clearly Divides Issue Priorities among Young Women
The COVID-19 pandemic is surely shifting issue priorities among all young people, but it is helpful to see which issues have resonated with young women in recent years and how those issues vary among different groups of youth. In CIRCLE’s pre-2018 midterm polling, the top issues among all youth were affordable healthcare (chosen as the most important issue by 13% of young people), lack of well-paying jobs (9%), college affordability (9%), tax rates (8%), racism (8%), and immigration (8%). There were minor differences by gender: for example, young women were slightly more likely than young men to choose affordability of family healthcare (15% vs. 11%) and college affordability (10% vs. 8%).
However, there were critical differences in issue priorities by race/ethnicity. In our polling, the top issue for young White women was accessible/affordable health care (18%), for young Black women it was racism (17%), and for young Latinas it was immigration (17%).
Our 2018 post-election polling did highlight gender differences in young people’s concerns about social and political developments. For example, nearly two-thirds (63%) of young women were worried that violence against women would increase, compared to less than half (47%) of men. Young women of color were especially worried, with 52% of young Black women and 49% of young Latinas saying they were “very concerned” about violence against women, compared to just 28% of White women. Young women were also 16 percentage points more likely than young men (46% vs. 30 %) to be concerned that important discussions about violence against minorities would decrease after the 2018 elections. As with concerns about violence against women, young women of color were much more likely to be worried: 37% of young Black women, 29% of young Latinas, and 15% of young White women.
As we look toward the 2020 election, it will be interesting to see how the impact of COVID-19 may shift some of these attitudes and priorities, especially among young women of color. The pandemic, which has reportedly had a higher mortality rate among Blacks and Latinos, has once again revealed deep fissures and inequities by race/ethnicity. In addition, many issues that affect young women, like domestic violence, are on the rise during mandatory lockdowns. This may represent an opportunity for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden—who has said he will pick a woman as a running mate—to address these issues in ways that acknowledge the concerns of young women and young women of color in particular.
Young Women More Likely To Be Involved in Social Movements
The differences in political perceptions and issue priorities highlighted above may also be reflected in young women’s involvement in some of the social movements that have shaped the political landscape in the past few years. Our 2018 pre-election polling found that young women are generally more likely than young men to say they are active in social movements and in efforts to encourage their peers to vote. In this highly uncertain and unusual election year, political candidates and parties will still do voter outreach and campaigns albeit in remarkably different ways than before. As such, they need to pay attention to issues that matter to young people especially to young women who are both more likely to be actively involved in movements and convincing their peers to vote.
As in many other aspects of young women’s political views and civic participation, there are differences by race/ethnicity. A third of young White women are active in social movements, compared to 2 in 5 young women of color. Young Black women (23%) and young Latinas (20%) were about twice as likely as young White women (12%) to say that they feel like they’re part of a group or movement in which “members will vote to express our views.”
When we look at particular movements, young women are more likely to be part of Black Lives Matter, the environmental movement, the #MeToo movement, reproductive rights activism, and gun violence prevention movements. By contrast, young men are more likely than young women to be involved in conservative-leaning movements like MAGA (the “Make America Great Again” movement associated with President Trump) or Second Amendment rights activism. Much of the support for the latter is driven by young White men; for instance 39% young White men support or are actively involved in the MAGA movement, compared to 22% of young White women. In fact, the MAGA movement drew sharp opposition from young women overall: 52% say they oppose MAGA, compared to 33% of young men.
By contrast, 6 in 10 young women support or are actively involved in the gun violence prevention movement (compared to 48% of young men). That said, nearly 3 in 10 young women (27%) also support or are active in the Second Amendment rights movement, as are 42% of young men.
For many young women, and especially for young women of color, issue priorities closely trace their support and involvement in social movements. For instance, compared to young White women, young Black women are twice as likely to be concerned about crime (8% vs. 4%) and three times more likely to be concerned about police treatment of communities of color 10% vs. 3%). Consequently, 76% of young Black women either support or actively got involved in the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM), compared to 65% of young Latinas and 49% of young White women. The differences by race/ethnicity are even more stark when we look at who said they’ve been “actively involved” in the movement: 23% of young Black women compared to 5% of young White women. Overall, young women were 19 percentage points more likely to say they either support or were involved in the Black Lives Matter movement than young men: 57% vs. 38%.
Similarly, young Latinas were three times more likely than young White women to say issues related to immigration were the most important to their vote choice: 17% vs. 6%. Two-thirds of young Latinas said they were either actively involved or supported the Dreamer movement— almost twice as much as young White women (66% vs. 37%).
One movement that was particularly relevant during the 2018 election cycle was the #MeToo movement against sexual assault, especially after the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Right before the 2018 midterms, CIRCLE polling showed that young women were almost twice as likely as young men to support the #MeToo movement: 56% vs. 32%. And, although more than half of young women support the movement support does vary by race/ethnicity: 60% of young Latinas, 57% of young White women, and 48% of young Black women support or are actively involved in #MeToo.
When we look at which young people don’t just support the #MeToo movement, but said they were actively involved in it, young women were almost four times more likely to be involved than young men: 11% vs. 3%. Furthermore, 20% of young women who strongly identify as feminists said they were actively involved in the #MeToo movement. In our poll, we found that just over a quarter of young women (27%) said they paid “a lot” of attention to the news of sexual assault accusations against celebrities and high profile figures (27%), and particularly to the accusations against Justice Kavanaugh’s specifically (28%).
Moreover, 1 in 5 young women said that the Kavanaugh hearings impacted their vote choice “a lot” in Congressional and local elections. For young Black women and young Latinas, the impact of the hearings on vote choice was 10 percentage points higher than for young White women. Our polling also revealed that, for many young women, the greatest impact of the Kavanugh hearings was seeing how many women shared stories of sexual assault: 56% of young women said they were greatly moved by these stories, compared to 33% of young men.
Another key issue and movement for young women is pro-choice/reproductive rights activism. Young women were three times more likely to be “actively involved” in that movement: 12% compared to 4% of young men. An additional 46% of young women said they support the movement (even if they are not actively involved in it), while 13% of young women said they oppose it (compared to 16% of young men). In terms of race/ethnicity, while 46% of young White women supported the pro-choice and reproductive rights movement, only 10% were actively involved in it, while 18% of young Black women and 16% of young Latinas were actively involved.
Generally, young women were almost twice as likely to support pro-choice and reproductive rights activism (58%) compared to the pro-life movement (31%), but it is still a polarizing issue amongst young women. Young women who strongly considered themselves feminists were exponentially more likely to support (87%) and to be actively involved (26%) in the pro-choice/reproductive rights movement.
Our findings highlight that young women don’t just care about issues in the abstract, but that many translate their concerns into concrete support and action in social and political movements. Even though young women tend to support more progressive issues, they are not a monolith, and many of them are also active in conservative movements as well. It is clear that any campaign or political movement that does not leverage young women’s efficacy and active involvement in movements to change society will lose on a large demographic of highly engaged potential voters that may also help drive their peers to vote in the upcoming 2020 elections.
 About the CIRCLE Poll: CIRCLE developed a survey to study youth perception before and after the 2018 elections. The polling firm GfK collected the data from their nationally representative panel of respondents. The pre-election poll was fielded between September 5 and September 26, 2018 and surveyed a total of 2,087 people aged 18 to 24 in the United States. The post-election survey was fielded between November 8 and December 7, 2018 and involved an online surveyed total of 2,133 self-reported U.S. citizens aged 18 to 24 in the United States, with representative over-samples of Black and Latino youth, and of 18 to 21-year-olds. The margin of error is +/- 2.1 percentage points. Unless mentioned otherwise, data below are for all the 18 to 24-year-olds in our sample.
Authors: Noorya Hayat, Abby Kiesa, Kristian Lundberg, Alberto Medina