Major National Issues Like Abortion May Spur Youth Mobilization
The leaked draft decision that suggests the U.S. Supreme Court is on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade is likely to have profound political implications in this November’s midterm elections. In recent years, we have seen how national issues that become the focus of major national attention can spur youth to mobilize each other, deepen existing organizing efforts, and create new pathways and opportunities for electoral engagement. Analyses of our own surveys from previous elections, and of recent polling data, suggests that the abortion issue could have a profound impact on the youth vote in 2022—especially as young women, and young women of color in particular, continue to play a leading role in civic and electoral engagement. That impact could manifest in increased mobilization and opportunities for political participation among both pro- and anti-abortion young people.
Issues and Movements Can Drive Youth to the Polls
Young people care deeply about their communities, their peers, and about the issues that affect them. In the past two election cycles, our research has highlighted the connections between major national issues and youth political action.
In 2018, following the Parkland school shooting, the gun violence prevention movement became a major factor in youth electoral engagement. In our polling at that time, young people (ages 18-24) who said they were involved with or supported the post-Parkland movement were 21 percentage points more likely to self-report that they voted in the 2018 midterms. Moreover, 43% percent said that the Parkland shooting influenced their vote choice “somewhat,” and 20% said it affected their vote choice “a lot.”
In 2020, the major movements for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd likewise became a major factor in youth civic and political engagement. Almost half (45%) of youth we polled in 2020 said they took concrete action for racial justice, and young people named racism and violence against people of color among the top issues that would influence their vote for President.
While many other factors influenced voter participation in two high-turnout elections for all age groups, young people increased their voting rates in both 2018 and 2020 by more than 10 percentage points, and their voting increases outpaced those of older groups in the electorate.
Young People Report the Highest Support for Abortion Rights
Many youth are especially concerned about issues of equal rights, gender equity, and racial justice—and they view abortion as one such issue. While views on abortion can be highly nuanced and dependent on how questions are asked, most data sources agree that young people (ages 18-29) are the age group most supportive of abortion rights. According to 2021 data from Pew Research, 67% of young people believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. GenForward data from 2021 shows that 51% of young women, and 36% of young men, believe that abortion should always be available as a matter of personal choice; 60% of young Democrats agree with that position, compared to 20% of young Republicans.
In CIRCLE’s 2018 pre-election poll, 58% of young women (ages 18-24) reported that they supported or were involved with the pro-choice/reproductive rights movement, compared to 32% in the “right-to-life movement.” Women of color were more likely to be directly involved, with 18% of young Black women and 16% of young Latinas saying they were active participants, compared to 10% of young white women.
Of course, the abortion issue also has the ability to motivate electoral engagement on both sides. According to the GenForward data, 53% of young Republicans say that abortion should never be permitted, or only allowed in cases of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in jeopardy. According to our analysis of 2020 AP VoteCast data, 68% of young people (ages 18-29) who voted for former President Trump believed abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. Youth who voted for Trump were actually slightly more likely to say they opposed abortion than Trump voters aged 45+ (65%).
The Power and Potential of Young Women of Color
Our 2018 finding that young Black and Latina women were more likely to be actively involved in the pro-choice movement is part of a trend of civic leadership and action by young women of color. Young women overall have been voting at higher rates than young men; we estimate that 55% of young women and 44% of young men cast ballots in 2020. Young women also voted at higher rates than young men in 2018.
Young women have also been leading beyond the ballot box. According to our 2018 poll, young women were more likely than young men to say that they were motivated to be politically involved, and more likely to participate in social movements or voter outreach. Our 2020 poll underscored the leadership role of young women of color, who were more likely to say that they had talked to their peers about politics, helped register others to vote, or volunteered for a campaign.
When coupled with an issue that young women are disproportionately passionate about, these trends could further increase political action. Data from 2017 suggests that young women ages 20-24 account for one-third of unwanted pregnancies in the United States. And a study from the Public Religion Religion Research Institute found that, among Gen Z women, support for abortion rights correlates positively with engagement in more political activities.
Political Impact Nationally and Statewide
Beyond impact at the federal level on the 2022 midterm elections, overturning Roe v. Wade may focus young voters’ attention on statewide races, since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision will mean that abortion rights are largely decided by state governments. Earlier this year, we released our Youth Electoral Significance Index rankings of the top 10 gubernatorial races where young voters have the highest potential to influence election results. In six of those states, there are state-level abortion bans or restrictions. That may motivate and spur political action from both pro-abortion youth who may want governments in those states that would overturn those bans, and anti-abortion youth who may want to keep them in place.
Where Youth Can Help Decide Governor Races: