Former first lady Michelle Obama attends a rally in Las Vegas on Sept. 23, 2018, to encourage voter registration. (John Locher/AP)

What issues would drive young voters to the polls — and how are they likely to vote?

That’s a hot topic among election watchers, since Americans ages 18 to 34 make up over 30 percent of the potential electorate — but historically that age group has voted at lower rates. The team at GenForward has been exploring what might drive young adults to the polls. Here’s what we found.

Who’s likely to vote?

First, and most important, it is critical that we differentiate between all millennials and those millennials likely to vote.

Using recent data from the GenForward Survey, we find big differences between millennials who are likely to vote and those who are less likely. For example, when we look at “all” millennials, we find that a significant number of them care about education and income inequality. However, when we drill down and look at millennials who are likely voters, issues such as immigration and racism are particularly likely to motivate their votes in the midterms. And as has been widely reported, millennials’ disapproval of President Trump and the Republican Party makes them likely to support Democrats in November, if they vote.

Here’s how we did our research

Our data, based on 1,910 responses and collected from July 26 to Aug. 13, comes from the most recent GenForward Survey. The survey is a bimonthly, nationally representative poll of young adults ages 18 to 34. GenForward surveys are designed to compare racial and ethnic group attitudes with a higher degree of confidence than most other surveys and are weighted to recent population estimates.

To identify likely voters, we first asked people about their voting history, how often they vote, current interest in following news about the midterms, and their own estimate about how likely they are to vote in November. Using their responses, we then draw from census data on voter turnout by race in four previous midterm elections to categorize people into likely and less likely voters using a procedure familiar to polling firms. Overall, we identify about 23 percent of millennials as being likely to vote in the upcoming midterms.

Millennials care about education — but it’s not the issue that will get them to vote

Our data suggests that when we focus just on which issues millennials care about, education is important. Since many millennials care about education, we asked questions about the topic. For example, we asked young people how they rated Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and education policies being debated in the public sphere. DeVos has been in the news recently for various controversial policy changes, including ending debt-forgiveness programs, reducing protections for sexual assault victims and suggesting that race no longer be considered in admissions decisions.

In general, millennials hold predominantly unfavorable views toward DeVos and the Trump administration. Roughly half of millennials express a “somewhat” or “strongly” unfavorable opinion of the secretary, with nearly an additional third indicating that they “don’t know” enough about her to form an opinion of her. Majorities of millennials also believe that more progress was made during the Obama administration than in the Trump administration in ensuring that all children, regardless of race and ethnicity, are given equal access to a quality education.

To mirror the options discussed in popular debates, we pitted two popular education policies against each other and asked millennials which of the two they believed would do more to improve public education.

For example, when given the choice between creating more charter schools or increasing the pay of teachers to improve public education, nearly 80 percent of African American, Asian American, Latinx and white millennials said paying teachers more would do more to improve public education.

Similarly, overwhelming majorities of millennials believe increasing funding to public schools, expanding access to mental health resources and strengthening teachers unions would do more to improve public schools than initiatives such as expanding voucher programs.

Majorities of millennials do support the use of charter schools and vouchers as strategies to improve education when asked about those policies in isolation. They just don’t believe either approach to be more effective than other options. Their bottom line seems to be that our schools need more money and our teachers need more support.


But when we looked a bit deeper at millennials most likely to vote, we found that education is not one of the key issues motivating them to go to the polls. Only millennials who are less likely to vote rank education as one of their top three issues. When given a list of topics that would motivate them to go to the polls, only about 7 percent of likely millennial voters pick education as the most important.

Likely voters care more about social issues such as immigration, reproductive rights and race

Millennial likely voters are much more interested in such social issues as immigration, the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade and racism. In a potential boon for Democrats, 60 percent of likely millennial voters strongly disapprove of Trump, 59 percent hold very unfavorable views of the Republican Party, and 66 percent say they plan to vote for a Democratic candidate compared with 27 percent who say they will vote for a Republican candidate.

Due to the small numbers of likely voters, we are not able to fully disaggregate these opinions by race. But we do find that white likely voters and likely voters of color are motivated by different issues. White millennial likely voters listed their top motivating issues as immigration, Roe v. Wade and taxes. Millennials of color listed racism, immigration and income inequality.

Whom millennials plan to vote for differs by race and ethnicity, as well. Among likely voters of color, 83 percent plan to vote for a Democratic candidate; 57 percent of white likely voters say the same. In contrast, 35 percent of white likely voters and only 11 percent of millennials of color say they intend to vote for a Republican candidate.

As the midterm elections draw near and organizations increase their efforts to get millennials to the polls, our data is a reminder that different groups of millennials are motivated by different issues. Strategies targeted at millennials may be more effective if they’re fine-tuned by each young person’s likelihood of voting, race and ethnicity.

Vladimir E. Medenica and Matthew Fowler are postdoctoral scholars for the GenForward Survey at the University of Chicago.

Cathy Cohen is founder and director of the GenForward Survey and David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.