Gen Z leave their mark on midterms, quelling “red wave” of Republican control

Voted printed papers on white surface

By Jean Paul Azzopardi

Boston University News Service

An estimated 27% of youth voted in the 2022 midterm election, the second-highest voter turnout among the demographic in three decades, according to a report from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

On a national level, youth – defined as those aged 18 to 29 – accounted for 12% of total votes, according to an analysis of several exit polls.

Youth voter turnout proved instrumental in quelling what political media and pollsters called a “red wave” of Republican dominance in both the House of Representatives and Senate.

Instead, Democrats managed to keep control of the Senate, and lost the House by a far less margin than originally predicted.

Part of the Democrats’ success can be attributed to young voters, a majority of whom voted for the party in the midterms.

“Youth are a group that is growing in size, and when they grow in size, they grow in influence,” said Nancy Thomas, the director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University.

According to data from the Edison Research National Election Pool exit poll, youth choice for the House was 63% for Democrats and 35% for Republicans, with a 28 point margin separating the two, slightly less than the largest margin ever of 67% to 32% seen in 2018 among young voters.

High youth voter turnout comes off the back of a tumultuous year that has seen threats to abortion rights, same-sex marriage and a rise of political extremism.

Available exit poll data suggests that youth voter turnout was fueled by several factors, including antipathy toward Trump-backed election deniers. 

This proved fundamentally true in six key battleground states where election deniers backed by former President Trump were on the ballot.

“What we’re witnessing is a terrible backsliding of hard-fought civil rights,” Thomas said. “We have a long list of things that have been reversed and I don’t think it’s the direction the young generation wants to go. It’s the whole image of the lack of free and fair elections and lack of equity.”

In Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, youth voter turnout was higher than the national average with an estimated 31% of 18 to 29-year-olds going out to vote.

In all six states, youth voters favored Democratic candidates over Republicans, with Arizona showing the biggest margin of difference at 76% to 20% and Georgia the smallest at 63% to 34%.

The end result translated into Democrats winning or retaining seats in five of the aforementioned states, with a runoff election being held in Georgia between Senator Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker on 6 December, where Warnock ultimately won with 51.4% of the votes.

“It’s not just young people, it’s the platform,” Thomas said. “It’s about time that politicians start adjusting their platform for their constituents and young people are their constituents.”

In close elections decided by a few percentage points, youth voter margins influenced the outcome of a decision where Republican candidates were backed by older-generation voters.

In the Pennsylvania Senate race, 70% of youth aged 18 to 29 preferred Democrat John Fetterman over Republican Mehmet Oz, compared to 55% of voters aged 30 to 44.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Governor Tony Evers won reelection by a slim margin over challenger Tim Michels, with data showing 70% of youth voting in favor of the incumbent.

In the 1990s, youth voter turnout sat at a measly 20%. However, the rise of civic organizations and a flurry of social and political crises over the past decade has fostered an environment where youth feel compelled to vote.

“Civic organizations are stepping up,” Thomas said. “I think we have generational divides. I don’t think they’re irreconcilable and I don’t know [that] that’s the biggest divide we have,” Thomas said.

According to John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, this trend can be attributed in part due to the divisiveness of society today.  

“Over the course of the last 22 years, we’ve seen the generation gap develop to the extent of being one of the most profound and interesting aspects of America today,” Volpe said at a press call. “We live in a divided country but it’s really divided based upon generation.”

According to the Harvard Youth Poll, which was conducted prior to the midterms, 73% of youth feel that the rights of others are under attack.

This is emblematic of the zeitgeist that has come to define pockets of youth today, including the LGBTQ+ community, 73% of whom felt their rights were under attack this election cycle.

Among the issues that influenced youth to vote, abortion rights was most prominent followed by inflation, crime, gun policy and immigration.

Meanwhile, of those aged 30 and above, inflation proved to be the issue of most concern, followed by abortion. 

The poll also concluded that those who felt their rights were under attack where 9% more likely to vote compared to those who disagreed. 

A similar pattern of youth voter sentiment was apparent in the 2018 midterm election, where a surge of activism following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida galvanized youth to go out and vote at an unprecedented rate of 28% – the highest in recent history. 

In 2020, issues of racism, police violence and the coronavirus pandemic inspired youth to yet again go out and vote, with the demographic effectively helping Joe Biden win key purple states such as Georgia and Arizona. 

“For the first time in history, in 2020, the majority of people under the age of 30 voted in a presidential election,” Volpe said. “On college campuses in 2020, it was close to the rate of all American adults.”

A deeper dive into youth voting trends indicates more complex splits pertaining to social justice issues, showing Democrats’ advantage across race and gender lines.

Young women preferred Democratic candidates compared to young men, with 71% voting for a Democratic House candidate compared to 53% respectively. 

Democrats were also favored among Black and Latino communities, with 87% and 67% of youths voting in support of the party, compared to 57% of white youth.

However, the Democrats saw the most support among the LGBTQ+ community, which saw 93% of youth vote for Democrats, compared to 5% for Republicans. 

Exit polls don’t ask whether voters are enrolled in higher education, which means definitive polling data across colleges and universities won’t be readily available until 2023.

“Of traditional undergraduate students, only 13% voted in the midterms of 2014,” said Thomas. “That’s a really shockingly low number, but it didn’t seem to do much.”

Following the election of Trump in 2016, 40% of college students voted in the 2018 midterm elections, compared to 28% of youth overall, according to a report by the IDHE.

At Boston University, voter turnout increased by almost 50% from 2018 to 2020, according to TurboVote data. 

According to Katy Collins, co-president of BU Votes, a voter engagement initiative run by the university, “We want to make sure that students start practicing civic engagement now, so that when they graduate, they continue that practice wherever they go. 

“We’re filling a gap that exists, because there just isn’t civic education anymore,” she said.

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