Young People's Ambivalent Relationship with Political Parties
Over the past decade, membership rates in both major political parties have declined, with more and more Americans preferring to register as independent voters. The polarization of the Supreme Court, the partisan brinkmanship plaguing Congress, and the behavior of both parties’ establishments during their respective 2016 presidential primaries may have further exacerbated voters’ distrust of the party system.
Our 2018 pre-election poll of young people, aged 18-24, tells us more about how this trend is manifesting among youth, many of whom feel disaffected from—and disinclined to join—either political party. Just over half of youth (56.4%) choose to affiliate with the Democrats (35.5%) or Republicans (20.9%), and one third of youth identify as independents. Young independents have diverse political identities, with some leaning more toward progressive candidates and others preferring conservatives or libertarians. They are, however, uniformly less likely to vote: among all young independents, just one in four say they’re “extremely likely” to cast a ballot this November, compared to 40% of young Republicans and close to half of young Democrats (47.5%). Finally, we find that young people’s party affiliation correlates strongly with that of their family: more than two-thirds of youth say their party preference matches their parents’.
Party People?: Most Youth Belong to a Party, but are Skeptical of their Efficacy
In previous analyses, we’ve discussed how young voters are excited to effect change, and are potentially poised to vote in significantly higher numbers than in 2014. However, our polling data suggests that young people’s political energy and engagement does not necessarily translate to party membership. Slightly more than half (56.4%) of young people in our survey choose to affiliate with a political party, but one-third (33.1%) are independents—a segment of youth nearly as large as those who identify as Democrats (35.5%), and far greater than registered Republicans (20.9%).
Our survey also finds that young people’s somewhat tepid embrace of political parties does not stem from a lack of understanding about their functions and their positions. Youth are far from uninformed on this point, they report: 65% of Democrats and Republicans, and even 58% of independents, say they know what it means to be a member of a political party and know what the parties stand for. Instead, it appears to be driven by doubts that the parties represent their views and interests and skepticism about their efficacy. Just over a third of all youth (35.7%) say that party membership makes their voice more powerful, and even among registered Democrats or Republicans, less than half say the same.
Many partisan youth also have a dim view of their party’s establishment, as 52% of young Democrats and 39.7% of young Republicans believe that “party elites” sometimes prevent their preferred candidates from running. Young Democrats, who overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries, might be responding to the Democratic National Committee’s alleged favoritism towards Hillary Clinton’s campaign during that campaign. Likewise, our research on the 2016 Republican primaries found that President Trump received lower levels of support from youth voters overall, and most young Republican primary voters viewed him unfavorably.
Our data do indicate some potential for parties to reach young voters. Most youth say they have never been asked to be a member of a political party, including 56.4% of current independents. Research consistently indicates that young people respond to being asked to participate, which suggests that this could be a way for parties to gain more traction with youth. In addition, while fewer Black youth (23.7%) and slightly fewer Latino youth (34.4%) are unaffiliated than white youth (35.2%), there still appears to be substantial untapped potential for parties to engage youth of color. Black and Latino youth have a slightly more optimistic view on the efficacy of party affiliation than white youth: 40.9% of Latino youth, and 40.6% of Black youth, agree that parties amplify their voices, compared to 33.7% of white youth.
Black and Latino youth are also more likely than white youth to say that they are looking, but haven’t found, a party that’s sufficiently ideologically aligned with them; they are also more likely to say they’d participate locally in party activities if they knew how to do so. Their relative confidence in parties and political groups as levers for change echoes our analysis of young people’s sense of hope and collective impact, which showed Black and Latino youth were more likely to consider themselves as part of a group that would vote to express their views, and therefore suggests that they may more clearly appreciate the benefits of banding together politically. It also points to both an opportunity and a challenge for political parties, since these young people of color are expressing an interest in participating but saying they do not know how and do not feel fully represented by parties’ positions and candidates.
An Independent Streak: Unaffiliated Youth Have Diverse Political Ideologies and Interests
Not surprisingly, youth who are unaffiliated or registered as independents express the lowest level of trust in parties and are the least engaged in the electoral process. Young independents are less likely to head to the polls in November: 24.5% say they are “extremely likely” to vote, versus 47.5% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans. There are significant differences by race and ethnicity: just 9.2% of Black independents and 14.3% of Latino independents are extremely likely to vote, whereas 31.4% of white independents say they are extremely likely to cast a ballot in the midterms. Independents overall have a pessimistic outlook on their political agency: they’re more likely than party-affiliated youth to consider themselves unqualified to participate in politics, and they’re less likely to believe that the outcome of the 2018 election will make a difference. As less likely and less engaged potential voters, independents are also less likely to hear about the election from their peers and receive contact from political campaigns.
Among independents who do say they are “extremely likely” to vote, their political ideologies and candidate preferences are far from monolithic. While almost a third (31.8%) of young independents say they will vote for a third-party congressional candidate, 40.1% say they will vote for a Democratic representative and 25.3% say they will vote for a Republican candidate. Though few House races will include multiple independent or third-party candidates, 16.7% of all young Independents say they would vote for an “independent progressive candidate,” 10.6% would vote for an “independent conservative,” and 14.5% would vote for a libertarian candidate. As with likelihood to vote, there are clear trends along racial lines. 50% of Latino independents and 55.5% of Black independents favor Democratic or progressive House candidates, whereas just 41.7% of white independents prefer Democrats or progressives.
Independents’ slight preference for Democratic candidates belies the fact that both parties have a lot of work to do to gain the allegiance of these unaffiliated voters. A mere 22.7% of independents trust the Democratic Party, and just 12.9% trust the GOP. Furthermore, even if common barriers to membership were removed, young independents still indicate they would not want to affiliate. Just 26.1% of young independents say they’d like to become members of a party but have not found one which matches their views. A smaller minority of independents (21.6%) say that they don’t know what the parties stand for—percentages that approximate the responses of young Democrats and Republicans to the same statements–indicating that few independent youth are unaffiliated because they lack awareness of party platforms. The decision not to affiliate might instead stem from young independents’ belief that affiliating with a party actually inhibits their political power: just 21.7% of independents believe that party membership makes their voice more powerful, as opposed to 48.0% of Democrats and 44.5% of Republicans.
It’s A Family Thing: Young People Largely Inherit Politics from Parents
In our initial poll data analysis, we noted that the most common and influential source of election information among young people was their families. In addition to sharing news and political information, families can include their children in political discussions, promote engagement, and teach and model voting habits. The causal link can go both ways: research has demonstrated that ideologies and habits of political engagement can be transferred to parents from their children as well.
Our survey finds that family is also deeply influential when it comes to youth party affiliation— whether because they directly sway young people’s views, because they choose to live and participate in environments where certain political views are predominant, or some combination of both. More than two-thirds of all youth say that their party preferences closely match that of their parents. Some young people do deviate from their parents, and we find it is more common for youth from Republican and independent households to now have different affiliations, than for those from Democratic households to deviate. More than three-quarters of youth who come from Democratic households are themselves members of the Democratic Party, while about half of youth who grew up with Republican or independent parents have maintained the same allegiances.
We see other interesting trends among youth who affiliate differently than their parents. The youngest respondents in our survey, those aged 18-19, are slightly more likely to have similar party preferences to their parents than older youth: 58.2% to 54.3%. In addition, young people who have completed college are more likely to deviate from their parents’ party affiliation than those who have only completed high school: 27.8% to 20.6%. It’s natural that higher education, which provides opportunities for new forms of political socialization outside the home, serves as a significant driver for young people to develop and express different political views from their parents’. A national study of 7,000 students at 120 colleges found that appreciation for both liberal and conservative viewpoints increased after one year of college, which suggests that exposure to a variety of opinions across the political spectrum can encourage students to engage with differences and even reevaluate their own beliefs.
The party affiliation of young person’s families also has an effect on their electoral engagement. Youth who grew up in a household with a clear allegiance to the GOP or the Democratic Party are more likely to say they will vote than those who grew up in homes without a clear political affiliation: 47.5% for Democrat families, 39.6% for GOP families, and 24.1% for families with no affiliation. Youth with party-affiliated parents are also more likely to say they’ve been following the upcoming elections, as 56.4% of youth from Democratic households and 53.3% of youth from Republican households have paid “some” or “a lot” of attention, compared to just 35.3% of youth from independent households.
Since non-affiliation is associated with lower levels of engagement, it makes sense that young people growing up in these environments would have less exposure to, and education about, current political events like the November midterms. On the other hand, partisan or politically-oriented households can encourage political participation among youth by exposing them to “socialization activities,” such as dinner-table discussions about politics, watching nightly news together, and family trips to the polling place. These activities can build civic habits and contribute to the formation of a voter identity—a belief that voting is an intrinsic part of who you are—and a strong voter identity is positively associated with turnout and political participation.
About our 2018 Pre-Election Poll
The survey of young people, ages 18-24, was developed by CIRCLE at Tufts University. The polling firm GfK, which collected the data from their nationally representative panel of respondents between September 5 and September 26, 2018. The study surveyed a total of 2,087 people aged 18 to 24 in the United States, with representative over-samples of Black and Latino youth, and of 18- to 21-year-olds. The margin of error is +/- 2.1 percentage points. Unless mentioned otherwise, data above are for all the 18 to 24-year-olds in our sample.