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Youth Engagement in the 2018 Election

Our exclusive pre-election poll finds that young people are paying attention to the election and intend to support Democrats.

The 2018 midterms have the potential to be historic for youth political participation, with young people receiving campaign outreach, paying attention, and intending to vote at unusually high levels (34% “extremely likely” to vote) that come close to the levels of engagement seen in the 2016 presidential election. Young people who report being actively engaged with the post-Parkland movement for gun violence prevention are even more likely (50%) to say that they’re extremely likely to vote. Our poll reveals strong support overall for Democratic candidates in Congressional elections (45% plan to vote for Democrats, versus 26% for Republicans), but large disparities among different demographic groups of young people, with Black and Latino youth much more likely to support Democratic candidates, young white men actually favoring Republicans, and unaffiliated white youth spreading their support across various parties and ideologies. We also find that, for all the focus on young people’s engagement with political content online, family remains the most  important way for youth to learn about the election and the most influential in their engagement and participation. Here’s more about our findings:

Outreach, Attention, and Intention to Vote Unusually High for Midterms, Comparable to 2016

The 2018 elections are garnering an extraordinary amount of media attention and inspiring significant activism, much of it led by or focused on young people. That may explain why indicators of youth engagement appear unusually high for a midterm cycle, and much closer to what we saw in 2016. Our poll finds that 34% of young people (ages 18-24) are “extremely likely” to vote in the midterms. Interestingly, 18 to 21-year-olds—this election’s newest voters, who were not yet eligible to vote in 2016—reported that they are extremely likely to cast ballots at a similar rate. That would represent a significant shift, since these ‘youngest’ young people have historically had lower voter turnout than ‘older’ youth. By comparison, our 2016 pre-election poll found that 40% of 18 to 24-year-olds were “extremely likely” to vote, and subsequent post-election analysis found that number to have been generally predictive of turnout as calculated by other sources. If that holds true again this year, it points toward the potential for a substantial increase in youth turnout.

More young people are paying attention to congressional elections this year than in 2016, and we find that attention correlates with likelihood to vote. Some of that attention has been related to issues that have driven significant discussion and action among youth, such as gun violence prevention. Yet, as we’ve seen in our other analyses, young people’s interest in a particular issue, by itself, is not enough: youth must receive outreach and basic information about voting for their engagement to translate into voting. Our poll finds that young people who are actively involved in the gun violence prevention movement are much more likely to vote than 18 to 24-year-olds overall (50% vs. 34%), and those who say they support the gun violence prevention movement are slightly more likely than the overall sample to say they are extremely likely to vote . Youth who oppose this movement, though a much smaller group (11%) than those who support gun violence prevention movement (54%), are also more likely than youth overall to say they will vote: 43% vs 34%. We see a similar dynamic among those supporting the #MeToo movement and those opposed.


Contact by campaigns is also unusually high for midterms and comparable to 2016: one-third of young people in our poll report being contacted before the end of September, which mirrors our 2016 findings. As we’ve emphasized in previous analyses, likelihood to vote is strongly correlated with outreach to youth. In our poll, youth who report having been contacted by a candidate’s campaign or another organization supporting candidates are more likely to say they will vote (49%) than those who have not been contacted (28%).

Youth of Color Overwhelmingly Favor Democrats, White Men and Unaffiliated Youth Less So

Our poll finds that, when asked about a generic Congressional ballot, 45% of youth intend to vote for a Democratic candidate while roughly half of that, 26%, intend to vote for a Republican candidate. Many youth (23%) are interested in supporting independent candidates, though that interest is divided among support for candidates with progressive, conservative, and libertarian inclinations. This would follow the recent trend among youth, over half of whom have supported Democratic House candidates since 2004, though not nearly by the same margin as in our survey.

Of course, candidate support often differs dramatically among youth. Black youth are strongest supporters of Democratic candidates (65%), and Latino youth (52%) also favor Democrats at a higher rate. Meanwhile, white youth are more evenly split between Democratic candidates (36%), and Republican candidates (34%), with 23% supporting independents of various ideological stripes. There are also gender differences: young white women prefer Democratic candidates (43%, vs. 32% support for Republicans), while young white men prefer Republican candidates (36%, vs. 29% for Democrats) and almost one-third prefer an independent, which is about the same as their support for Democratic candidates.

Some of these differences may be due to the fact that more than a third of white youth are unaffiliated with a political party. Young white people unaffiliated with a party, whose independent streak we noted was a major factor in the 2016 election, divide their generic ballot support broadly across party and ideologies, with 27% favoring Democratic candidates, 23% Republican candidates, 15% favoring an independent progressive candidate, and 17% an independent libertarian candidate. This underscores the importance of understanding how youth perceive the major parties and whether those perceptions impact how they view and judge candidates—an issue we will tackle in a subsequent post.


While the Democratic Party may be struggling to connect with young white men, and with young white independents, they have conducted extensive youth outreach overall. Young people in our survey who are registered Democrats are considerably more likely to report being contacted than registered Republicans or unaffiliated youth. Over 40% of all youth who are registered Democrats have been contacted. Meanwhile. three-quarters of youth who are registered as Republican say they have not been contacted. Compared to 2016, young Republicans are being contacted at roughly the same level, Independents or unaffiliated youth are being contacted considerably less, and young Democrats more.

Family Matters: Relatives Most Common Way Youth Hear about Election, Most Effective in Encouraging Vote

Young people are hearing about the election from a range of sources. Their level of trust in those sources—along with other factors like their exposure to political parties and information—can influence how they perceive any election-related messaging and what, if anything, it encourages them to do. Among our survey respondents, family is the most common way young people are learning about the midterms (42%), and 57% of youth who say they are  extremely likely to vote are hearing from family. In fact, young people who are more likely to vote, have been contacted by campaigns, and are paying some or a lot of attention to Congressional elections are all more likely to hear about the midterms from family than from any other source. Additionally, young people who agree that they are qualified to participate in politics were also most likely to hear about the election from family.

The importance of trust, and the impact of longer-term voter socialization processes like being part of a family that discusses elections and voting, are borne out by our previous polling. For example, in both our 2012 and 2016 pre-election polls, youth reported being more likely to cast a ballot if someone in their family asked them—the highest among all  options for that question.

The importance of hearing about elections from family shows that there are many influences on youth voter engagement, including the importance of peer culture, and that it is possible to overestimate the influence of online news and social media. We should also not underestimate it: for example, among young people, Facebook alone is now roughly an equal source of election information as network television and news websites.

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.