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How Do Young People Vote in Midterm Elections?

Youth support for Democrats has grown in recent years, but there are significant differences by race/ethnicity and gender.

Note: While this analysis was first published before the 2018 midterms, the historical youth vote choice chart has been updated with data from that election.

The 2018 election season is well underway. Dozens of states have already held primaries for Congressional and gubernatorial races, with more contests underway in the coming weeks. At CIRCLE, we are especially focused on elections in which young people are poised to play a significant role and possibly swing the final results. Our Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) tracks and ranks those races.

One reason the youth vote can be especially impactful, particularly in a number of close elections for House seats, is young voters’ 10+ point preference for Democratic candidates over the past 14 years. Before 2004, young people were a competitive group when it came to House races, though only once (1994) did Republicans “win” the youth vote—and then only by one point.  However, since 2004, what was once a narrow preference for Democrats has grown larger, and changes in the youth vote choice have tracked closely with changes in party control.

Democrats have held or regained control of the House after midterm elections just once in the past quarter century. In 2006, 58% of young voters backed Democratic candidates—the highest level of support either party has garnered outside of President Obama’s two presidential election years. In those years, young people’s support for Democratic House candidates surged to a 20-point margin, and the party won back the lower chamber of Congress first time in more than a decade. When that margin of support dropped to 13 points in 2010, Republicans regained control of the House.

As always, it is important to note that young people are far from monolithic at the ballot box. A look at youth support for House candidates in 2014 offers a snapshot of how young people in different demographic groups voted. It is evident that Democrats’ advantage with voters aged 18-29 is largely thanks to youth of color, as young Whites of both genders preferred Republicans—in the case of young White men, by a nearly 20-point margin. Black youth, especially, stand out for their overwhelming support of Democratic candidates.

District by District

With dozens of elections expected to be competitive this November, young people will once again have the opportunity to shift the balance of power in American politics. Their historical voting trends suggest that, while Democrats may hold a slight advantage nationally, each race and district is different and a few percentage points can make all the difference. At the same time, looking at youth voting by race and gender suggests challenges for both parties in connecting with certain segments of the youth electorate. As they look forward to November, candidates and campaigns should seek to meaningfully engage with young voters—as should all who care about including their important voices in our democracy.