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How Youth Can Swing Elections: Lessons from 2014

In four key Senate races, young people's vote share and preference for one candidate shaped the election results.

Youth can swing an election: in 2012 we reported that, had Mitt Romney split voters age 18-29 with President Obama in four key battleground states, he would have won the White House.

A new CIRCLE analysis of four pivotal 2014 Senate races shows that young people may have had a significant impact on those results as well. These examples reinforce the importance of the youth vote at a time when campaigns and candidates are seeking to mobilize voters for 2016.

Here’s a look at how each of those contests played out:

  • Alaska: Republican Dan Sullivan eked out a victory over Democrat Mark Begich by a margin of 49% to 45%—a difference of just 6,000 votes. At least 15,000 young people (an extremely conservative estimate due to a lack of comprehensive age data) cast ballots in that race, more than twice the margin of victory. Some young voters also supported third-party candidate Mark Fish, which may have cost Begich critical votes.
  • Colorado: In another close 49%-to-46% result, Cory Gardner (R) ousted incumbent Mark Udall (D) by 40,000 votes out of just under 2 million ballots cast. More than 10% of those ballots—five times the margin of victory—were cast by youth aged 18-29.
  • Louisiana: As we noted right after the election, young voters may have had the biggest impact in Louisiana, where they propelled Democrat Mary Landrieu (42%) to a runoff against Republican Bill Cassidy (41%). Young people cast 11% of the votes in that election and supported Landrieu to the tune of 50%, which was by far her best performance among any age group.
  • North Carolina: Over 230,000 young people went to the polls in North Carolina, more than five times the 46,000-vote margin of victory for Thom Tillis (R) over Kay Hagan (D). In a race that ended 49% to 47%, young voters chose Hagan in 53% of their ballots while only 39% voted for Tillis—his lowest level of support among any age group. But only 8% of all votes were cast by youth, which suggests that if Hagan could have mobilized more young people, the race may have turned in her favor. During the 2008 election, which saw high youth turnout, Hagan received 71% of youth votes.

The results of these 2014 contests hold important lessons for candidates from both parties. As primary races tighten, and as campaigns begin looking ahead to November, they would do well to remember the importance of youth engagement to our politics—and to their chances of victory.

During the most recent Democratic presidential primary debate, a 23-year-old YouTuber asked the candidates what they would do to engage young people in this election, asserting that getting his generation to vote “should be a priority for any presidential candidate.” While the contenders may have agreed with his assertion on the debate stage, political campaigns often leave much to be desired when it comes to reaching youth. That’s not just a problem for our democracy; candidates ignore young people at their peril.