28% of Young People Voted in 2018
We recently released estimates of 2018 midterm youth voter turnout in all 42 states for which youth voting data are available in the voter files. Our analyses found that, in every single state, young people’s turnout rate increased compared to 2014.
Based on the data from those 42 states (which represent 94% of the American youth population) we estimate that, nationwide, 28.2% of young citizens (ages 18-29) voted in the 2018 midterm elections.
This new estimate, based on voter file data aggregated by Catalist, comes close to our initial 31% estimate, which was based on exit poll data and calculated the day after the election. The 28.2% national turnout rate is a more precise and reliable estimate that further confirms the increased youth participation in last November’s midterms. It’s more than double the national youth turnout (calculated using the same method) from the 2014 midterms, when we estimate that only 13% of eligible youth cast a ballot—itself a much lower turnout rate than the 20% figure initially calculated through different methodology.
The release of this national turnout estimate is an ideal occasion to reiterate and reflect on some of the factors that made the 2018 election cycle different, and conducive to a remarkable rise in youth political participation:
- Ongoing and Early Outreach and Engagement: Young people’s political activism and action was in the spotlight since the beginnings of 2018. Much of that was for tragic reasons: the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida added energy to student-led calls for school safety, and that explicitly focused on voter registration from the start and made gun rights an electoral issue. Our research has shown that those three elements—starting early, peer-to-peer outreach, and focusing on issues youth deeply care about—are key features of any successful youth engagement strategy. Indeed, our post-election poll found that young people who were participants or supporters of the gun violence prevention movement were more likely to be contacted by campaigns and more likely to vote.
- Multiple Entry Points: Young people need multiple avenues, outlets, and entry point to political engagement. Activism on gun control, the environment, and other issues of concern to youth were certainly pathways in 2018. Many young people were also contacted by candidates and campaigns, particularly from Democrats who may have been hoping to capitalize on President Trump’s unpopularity among youth. Social media also played a key role, both because of its ability to reach a wide range of youth who might be disconnected from “traditional” political actors and organizations, and because of the growing connections between online and offline engagement. For example, we found that youth who signed a petition of followed a candidate on social media were more likely to undertake some form of offline activism as well.
- A New Political Generation: The post-Parkland movement may have helped crystallize another key element of increased youth engagement: a growing sense among young people that they can effect real political change. Despite some popular cliches, youth are not apathetic about politics, but they have been frustrated by political messages and actions that do not include their voices, and skeptical about the political process’ ability to deliver positive social change. That disillusionment grew after the election of Donald Trump, but it did not lead to disengagement. On the contrary, our survey of young people found that those who felt the most frustrated by politics were more likely to participate and vote—perhaps to help transform the very system that inspired their cynicism, and to join their peers who increasingly talk about political issues and encourage them to engage. As the saw their friends, classmates, and other youth across the country similarly energized, many coalesced into what could be a new generation of politically active youth.
- Decisive Impact on the Election: Young people excited about their ability to shape politics and influence election results saw some evidence that is indeed the case. Nationally, young people preferred Democratic candidates to the House of Representatives by a historic 35-point margin, and Democrats decisively won control of the House. Our additional analyses show that, in some individual races, the youth vote either swung the result or helped a candidate make their election competitive—see our analyses of Jon Tester’s win in Montana, and Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams’ close calls in Texas and Georgia. In other cases, the youth vote was decisive long before November, as when they propelled Ayanna Pressley (MA-7) to a surprising victory against a longtime incumbent in the Democratic primary before she went on to win, unopposed, in the general election.