The Gun Violence Prevention Movement Fueled Youth Engagement in the 2018 Election
February 14th marked the one-year anniversary of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In the aftermath of the shooting, members and supporters of the Parkland community—including student activists David Hogg, Emma González, Cameron Kasky, Sarah Chadwick, Jaclyn Corin, and Alex Wind—rallied together to fight for gun violence prevention. They founded Never Again MSD (NAMSD), which called for protests and demonstrations to lobby for anti-gun violence legislation and co-organized the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. along with numerous voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts thereafter.
For months leading up to the 2018 election cycle, young people highlighted the problem of gun violence and school safety in many communities and made it part of the national conversation, which made a sizable impact in politics and in the media . Never Again MSD created a platform for working with youth from diverse backgrounds who had been active for a long time on these issues. In addition, the media spotlight on the Parkland students helped to raise awareness of other young activists working on a variety of causes and motivating their peers. The organization emphasized voting as an important lever to effect change and made voting against candidates who supported the National Rifle Association a specific goal.
Youth of all ages, including many who were under 18 and not yet able to vote, were an important part of these movements and conversations. This post looks at the youngest eligible voters (ages 18-24), using CIRCLE poll data from before and after the election to provide some insight into the influence of the gun violence prevention movement on youth engagement in the 2018 election. We find:
- Almost two-thirds (64%) of youth said they had paid ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ of attention to news about the Parkland shooting.
- Young people who said they were actively involved with or at least agreed with the post-Parkland movement were 21 percentage points more likely to self-report that they voted in the 2018 midterm elections.
- Young people who reported being actively involved in the movement were more likely to say they were contacted by a campaign both before October AND and in the last six weeks before the election.
- Among all 18 to 24-year-olds, 43% percent said that the Parkland shooting influenced their vote choice for Congress and in local elections at least “somewhat,” with 20% saying that it affected their decision “a lot.”
Movement Participants More Likely to Be Black and Latino
Following the March for Our Lives, NAMSD and other activists led numerous rallies and voter registration drives. And, in the lead-up to the midterms, young people registered to vote in record numbers. According to preliminary CIRCLE estimates, the number of registered voters aged 18-29 increased nationwide from 2016 to 2018. The rate of eligible citizens in that age group who were registered to vote rose from 68.3% to 69.3%. This seemingly small increase is remarkable, because registration numbers have historically decreased significantly between presidential cycles and midterm cycles.
The gun violence prevention movement may have helped fuel the rise in youth turnout in 2018. According to CIRCLE’s pre-election survey of about 2,100 young people aged 18-24, youth who consider themselves part of that movement reported an increased likelihood to vote in the midterms. In our post-election polling, youth who said they were either actively involved with or agreed with the movement were much more likely to self-report that they voted in the 2018 midterm elections—21 percentage points more. Young people of color were at the core of much of this work, and voter registration and outreach efforts connected to gun violence prevention may have been especially effective in encouraging participation from young people of color: Black and Latino youth in our poll were twice as likely to report that they are a part of the movement as White youth.
In addition, the increased media coverage of young activists throughout 2018 likely contributed to the increases in youth voter registration and turnout. While it’s extremely difficult to measure the influence of media coverage on civic behaviors, there is clearly a value in seeing same-age peers speaking at the National Mall about the power of young people and appearing frequently on national television to talk about policy and to explicitly encourage youth to vote. These dynamics made 2018 an unusual election cycle and enabled the kind of representation of youth, including diverse youth, that we haven’t seen before. We strongly believe it contributed to the outsized growth in youth voting this past election.
Gun Violence Prevention Supporters More Likely To Be Contacted, Vote
In our post-election poll, fielded in November 2018, we asked 18 to 24-year-olds how much attention they had paid to news about the Parkland shooting. Almost two-thirds (64%) said ‘some’ or ‘a lot’. At the same time, young people who reported agreeing with the gun violence prevention movement (a segment of youth that is slightly more racially diverse than the overall youth population) were more likely to say that they were paying a lot or some attention to the 2018 Congressional elections in their area. Furthermore, young people who reported being involved in the movement were also more likely to say they were contacted by a campaign both before October and in the last six weeks before the election, suggesting that campaigns may have been successful in reaching out to young gun-control activists and converting their passion into votes. This is notable, because campaigns and parties often focus their outreach on those who have voted before. In this case 48% of young people under 21 years old—many of whom were newly eligible to vote in 2018—who support the post-Parkland movement were contacted at some point before the election, whereas just 33% of under-21s who don’t support the movement reported receiving any contact at all.
Our poll also suggests that young people who said they agree with or participate in the gun violence prevention movement took specific actions that may have led to greater youth engagement. Most (70%) talked with friends about politics and elections. Close to half (44%) tried to convince other young people, family members, and/or roommates to vote—only 22% of non-movement supporters said they did so. Moreover, 15% of gun violence prevention movement supporters and activists had actually helped others register to vote, with an additional 42% saying that they would have done so if they had an opportunity. On the other hand, among non-supporters, just 6% had helped someone register, and only 23% said the would do it if they had the chance.
Youth who said they were actively involved with or agreed with the movement were much more likely to self-report that they voted in the 2018 midterm elections. And the gun violence issue didn’t just affect how many young people voted, but also for whom they voted. Among all youth, 43% percent of 18 to 24-year-olds said that the Parkland shooting influenced their vote choice for Congress and in local elections at least “somewhat,” with 20% saying that gun violence prevention affected their decision “a lot.”
Before the 2018 election, we saw some signs that young people were poised to make their mark at the ballot box, and that youth involved in gun violence prevention, using the platform created by NAMSD activists, were potentially catalyzing civic engagement by connecting an issue that youth are passionate about to electoral participation. Our CIRCLE poll data and available voter file data so far confirm these signs and indicate that we are seeing a surge in youth political participation.
There are key lessons here that can and should apply to other movements and campaigns. First, youth movements can be diverse, scalable, and effective when they embrace and recognize the experiences and efforts of diverse youth working on related goals. Second, centering youth voices on major policy issues is not only possible but also effective for building engagement. Third, local grassroots youth leadership, with early and significant investments, can have a powerful impact. Finally, social movements can in fact provide multiple entry points to civic engagement, broadly defined, for diverse young people living in different types of communities.
About our 2018 Poll
The survey was developed by CIRCLE at Tufts University, and the polling firm GfK collected the data from their nationally representative panel of respondents between November 8 and December 7, 2018. The study involved an online surveyed a 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. This survey is a follow-up to CIRCLE’s pre-election survey of 2,087 young people which was fielded in September of 2018. The survey series was designed such that 1,007 of the pre-election survey participants were re-contacted and participated in the post-election survey along with 1,126 new participants who only took the post-election survey. Therefore, this survey allows us to compare the same group of young people before and after the election. The margin of error is +/- 2.1 percentage points, except for the analyses of recontact sample (N = 1,007) which has a margin of error of +/- 3.0%. Unless mentioned otherwise, data below are for all the 18 to 24-year-olds in our sample.