“If you accept the status quo with young people, it’s not going to go great,” says Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin. “Turnout is not going to be good.”
“We are seeing that younger voters who were voting in some of these elections because of Trump don’t seem to be inspired by Biden, and I think their turnout will fall back to traditional levels,” says GOP consultant John Brabender.
Some structural dynamics may help to sustain youth turnout this fall. Many experts note that the large youth turnout of 2018 and 2020 creates momentum for continued participation, because people who register and vote in one election are more likely to vote in the next. Over the past two elections, Democrats and nonpartisan groups have built a significant organizational infrastructure to engage more young voters, and those efforts are continuing through 2022.
Yet many strategists focusing on the youth vote agree that these factors may not be enough to prevent a significant fall-off without changes in the political environment. One key for Democrats will be finding ways to raise the visibility of Trump, who was deeply unpopular with the youngest voters. Even more important may be Biden finding ways to generate more progress than he has so far on issues important to younger generations, particularly combating climate change and reducing the burden of student debt.
“My stern warning to the Biden administration and Democrats is you have to take this seriously, because if we do go back to a 2010 or 2014 model where they really fall off it’s going to make it very difficult for us in November,” says Tulchin, who served as the pollster for Bernie Sanders during the 2020 primary campaign, when the senator from Vermont dominated Biden among younger voters.
A coming shift in electoral power
Inexorably, the balance of electoral power is shifting toward these younger generations. William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, told me that he projects about 17 million young people will turn 18 between the 2020 and 2024 elections, and that fully 49% of them will be kids of color. Simultaneously, more of the predominantly White baby boomers and members of the Silent Generation are aging out of the electorate.
But the electoral impact of these demographic shifts has been diluted by low turnout among younger voters — a problem that has been especially acute in midterm elections.
“We have seen two important election cycles in a row where young people have been leading,” says Abby Kiesa, CIRCLE’s deputy director.
The enthusiasm factor
Almost everyone working with young voters agrees it will be challenging to replicate the turnout surges of 2018 and 2020. But most also say it’s too early to concede that a decline is inevitable, especially to the very low levels of the 2014 and 2010 midterms, when Republicans made enormous gains.
“There is still time to impact them,” says Tulchin. “We are not locked in from here to November.”
The biggest asset for those working to nudge younger voters to the polls is that so many of them have voted in the recent past. Prior registration and voting are among the best predictors of future participation.
Kiesa says that while the current political climate is unlikely to generate record turnout among young people, neither does she believe that Biden’s lagging approval rating with them “means going back to 2014 levels of midterm turnout.”
“The increase in youth voter turnout in the 2020 election means there are more young people on the voter rolls than at any time in recent elections,” she told me. “We know that young people who are registered to vote are dramatically more likely to turn out than people who start the year not registered to vote. That is a huge opportunity … for young people to be reaching out to each other and for parties and campaigns to be reaching out to them.”
Figures provided to CNN by Catalist, the Democratic targeting firm, underscore her point. In the 2018 midterms, the firm calculates, the elevated youth turnout resulted in about 27 million millennials and members of Generation Z casting ballots. But in the historic overall turnout of 2020, the number of voters from the two youngest generations swelled to more than 49 million. Since then, according to Frey’s calculations, about another 8.5 million in Generation Z have turned 18, the vast majority of them citizens eligible to vote. Those figures suggest the size of the pool Democrats have available to try to match — or at least approach — the number of young voters in 2018.
After all the exertions of 2018 and 2020, the organizational structure for that kind of outreach has also grown much more robust. NextGen America, a group founded by former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer that focuses on youth mobilization, is looking to turn out 9.6 million adults aged 18-34 this year in eight battleground states (including most of those likely to decide Senate control). Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the group’s president and executive director, says one of its principal targets will be the more than 2 million young people across those states who voted in 2020 but not in the previous midterms of 2018.
Ufot says a majority of the targets for the New Georgia Project’s turnout efforts in those contests will be voters younger than 35. Though many of those younger adults have been disappointed by the failure of Biden and congressional Democrats to deliver on many of their promises during those campaigns, she says, the group is confident it can mobilize a robust youth turnout anyway.
“We are not relying on enthusiasm (for Biden) at all,” she says. “We are relying on organizing, connecting the power of the vote to the things that young Georgians told us they are willing to fight for, that they are willing to take to the streets for.”
“I don’t think it’s enough for Democrats to simply point to the other side and say, ‘Life could be worse,'” says Tzintzún Ramirez. “Ultimately they also need to show people how their lives could be better.”
Nothing would send that message more powerfully, she says, than canceling more student debt, as Biden promised during the campaign. “There is deep, deep economic pain for many young adults across the country, and there is nothing I can think of that the Biden administration could do that is a real campaign promise fulfilment, is obviously politically advantageous and is advantageous to the lives of millions of people,” Tzintzún Ramirez says in a view echoed by many of those in the field.
“We’re not sure what they are waiting for,” says Tzintzún Ramirez.
But those benefits, for many, have been overshadowed by the many promises Democrats haven’t fulfilled on issues important to their voters.
“Young people turned out in huge numbers, basically they won the election” for Democrats, says Brandon. “And what have they seen delivered? That’s the issue. Unfortunately, like the public at large, all the stuff that has been delivered just doesn’t feel like it.”
Unless that changes for more young adults before November, Democrats may be left lamenting a lost opportunity — and facing the sort of depressed youth turnout that battered them so badly in 2014 and 2010.