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The Abortion Election: How Youth Prioritized and Voted Based on Issues

Young people care deeply about a wide range of issues, but data shows abortion was their top concern and had the biggest impact on their vote.

Lead Author: Ruby Belle Booth
Contributors: Kelly Beadle, Abby Kiesa, Alberto Medina


Young voters had a major impact on the 2022 midterm elections. Their voter turnout was the second-highest level of youth participation in at least 30 years, while their strong preference for Democratic candidates nationally and in most states across the country boosted the party to critical wins on its way to defying expectations and retaining control of the U.S. Senate.

As in every election, young people were motivated to vote by a range of issues; and different youth may prioritize and view those issues differently based on their identities and experiences. In this cycle, after the Supreme Court decision this summer, concerns about abortion from youth on both sides of the issue were especially notable. Our analysis of Edison Research National Election Pool exit poll data sheds light on the issues youth cared about most and how it shaped their vote choice. Understanding how young people connected with various issues in this cycle is critical to engaging them effectively and authentically in elections.

We find:

  • Young people (18-29) who voted in the 2022 midterms said abortion was the top issue influencing their vote, followed by inflation and crime, out of five possible choices which they were presented.
  • 4 in 5 youth who believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases voted for a Democratic candidate to the House of Representatives.
  • More young female voters cited abortion as a top motivating issue than young men
  • Gun control continues to draw significant support and climate change remains a serious concern for young voters.
  • Among all age groups surveyed, youth were the most likely to say that their views of President Biden played no role in their 2022 midterm vote.

Youth Were Only Age Group to Cite Abortion as #1 Priority

In the months leading up to the election, the economy/inflation and abortion emerged as the top issue concerns for young people. According to exit polls, by a large margin, youth prioritized the latter. Out of five possible options given for this question in the survey (abortion, crime, inflation, immigration, and gun policy), 44% selected abortion as the most important issue in deciding their vote and 21% cited inflation. Notably, for every other age group, those priorities were reversed: inflation first, and abortion second.

While both sides of the abortion issue motivated young people at the ballot box—a concern that may encompass both those who are for and against abortion— pro-choice youth were more likely to say it was the most important factor when voting for a candidate for a U.S. House candidate.

As pre-election surveys also indicated, according to the exit polls, youth were the age group most likely to say abortion should be legal in all or most cases (72%). That view was reflected in their vote choice, as young people who expressed that position on abortion voted for Democratic candidates by an extraordinary 64-point margin: 80% for Democrats vs. 16% for Republicans.

At the same time, abortion may also have been influential to the quarter of youth who said they believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Young voters with that position on abortion supported Republican candidates by an even larger 81-point margin. A third of youth who favor abortion restrictions listed it as the top issue motivating their vote in the 2022 midterms. However, a slightly higher percentage of young people who believe abortion should be illegal chose inflation as their top issue (37%), compared to half of young people who believe abortion should be legal.

Views on abortion and its importance in this election differed across demographic groups. White youth were both more likely than youth of color to say that that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases (33%) and to rank it as their top priority (51%). By contrast, 84% of youth of color, including 89% of Latino youth, shared that they believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Young men and women were about as likely to say abortion should be legal. But young women, who are often more directly impacted by abortion restrictions, ranked it as a higher priority: 56% compared to 36% for young men. That was reflected in vote choice as well: young women's vote choice nationally was 71% for Democrats and 26% for Republicans, compared to 53% vs. 42% for young men—a 34-point difference in vote choice margin by gender.

Multiple Priorities: Youth Also Motivated by Inflation, Crime, Gun Control

Of the five options provided, inflation was young voters’ second most-commonly selected top priority: nationally, 21% said it was most influential to their vote for the House of Representatives. Concern about inflation was highest among young men, particularly young white men and those with a college degree. While, in the past, young people have indicated in surveys that they trust Republicans to best address economic issues, exit polls showed that the majority of youth (55%) trusted Democratic candidates on inflation. Voters in all other age groups trusted Republicans.

Likewise, youth were also the only age group to say they trust Democrats more on immigration. They also reported trusting Democrats more on crime and foreign policy, which may reflect some of the ideological differences driving the major difference in vote choice between age groups.

The third most-cited priority, crime, was the top issue for 13% of 18- to-29-year-olds. Latino youth (30%), young men (19%), and especially young men without a college degree (26%) were more likely to name crime as the top issue that decided their vote.

Gun policy was the most important issue for 9% of young voters, and gun control policies continue to get broad support from young people. Seventy percent of young voters said they support gun control, with Latino (77%) and female respondents (82%) offering especially strong support. Notably, young women without a college degree were just as likely to say gun policy was their top priority as inflation.

Though not included among the options in this survey for young people’s top issue priorities, other questions reveal that climate change continues to be more of a concern for youth than for older generations. By a 21-point margin, more young people identify climate change as a very serious concern than any other age group, with 81% saying that they consider it a very serious or somewhat serious issue.

Next month, CIRCLE will release findings from an exclusive post-election survey with more in-depth data on young people’s issue priorities and positions beyond the options presented in exit polls.

A Referendum on Biden? Young Voters Weigh President’s Impact

With the midterms often framed as a referendum on the sitting president and his party, President Biden’s actions and favorability among young people was closely scrutinized in the weeks leading up to the 2022 midterms. Many of the issues that majorities of young people expressed their support for were priorities for the Biden administration and a Democratic Congress that took action on gun control, climate change, and economic issues like student loan forgiveness, which 75% of young voters said they support.

Young people who voted in the 2022 election had the highest approval rating of President Biden of any age group (53%). This was an improvement on Biden’s approval among youth from polling earlier in the year, and young people were the only age group whose presidential approval in exit polls was a net positive. When asked if they saw their vote in the midterm election as a way to support or oppose President Biden, 20% said it was to oppose him (the lowest of any age group). Young people were the age group least likely to say that the President’s policies hurt the country—29%, 16 points less than the next closest age group.

That said, 59% of youth (the highest of any group) said President Biden was not a factor in their vote. Youth were also the age group most likely (37%) to say that they thought President Biden’s policies made no difference on the country. This data underscores our research showing that young people vote based on the issues more than their allegiance to parties or candidates. To the extent that those candidates want to earn young people’s support, they must reach and communicate with youth about how their policies connect to the concerns that drive youth to the ballot box.

About the Analysis: Our analysis is based on data from the National Election Pool Exit Poll conducted by Edison Research. In the United States a total of 18,571 voters who cast ballots on Election Day were interviewed at 241 Election Day polling places and 72 early in-person voting locations. This survey also includes 1,425 absentee and/or early voters interviewed by telephone using a registration-based sample (RBS). The National Election Pool members (ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC) prepared the questionnaire. An upper bound on the error due to sampling for a 95% confidence interval is +/- 4%. Data on smaller subsamples may have larger margins of error.

More 2022 Election Research

Find all of our data and analysis on young voters' participation and impact in the midterms on our 2022 election page.