The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If young voters sit out 2022, Democrats will be in a world of hurt

University of Mary Washington students help run a campus voter-registration drive on Oct. 7, 2021 in Fredericksburg, Va. (Teo Armus/The Washington Post)
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President Biden and the Democrats would do well to spend a lot of time over the coming weeks talking with young Americans. It’s a matter of survival. If younger voters remain as turned off as they are now, Democrats will get clobbered in November.

Generational differences don’t always play a major role in politics, but they do now. Democrats are unusually dependent on support among the young, and if youth turnout in 2022 regresses to levels closer to those in the 2014 midterms, a lot of Democratic incumbents will be looking for new jobs.

The facts are plain. In five key swing states in 2020, Biden needed young voters to prevail. According to exit polls, Biden won voters under 30 years old by 31 points in Arizona, 27 points in Pennsylvania, 24 points in Michigan, 23 points in Wisconsin and 13 points in Georgia.

Young people tend to vote at a lower rate than older people, partly because our electoral system’s registration rules make it harder on those who move around (a characteristic of the young) than on those with settled residency. But youth turnout varies enormously.

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According to Census Bureau figures, only 19.9 percent of voters 18- to 29-years old cast ballots in the 2014 midterms, which produced a GOP sweep. But, inspired in part by the anti-Trump movement, under-30 turnout soared to 35.6 percent in 2018, helping Democrats win control of the House. Turnout was also up substantially among 30- to-44-year-olds.

The problem for Democrats now is that Biden’s numbers among young people are down, and so is enthusiasm for voting. Sean McElwee, executive director of the think tank Data for Progress, noted in an interview that Biden’s ratings among the young were low during the 2020 primaries but rose steadily once he secured the Democratic nomination. Since the election, McElwee said, there’s been “a slow but steady erosion” in the president’s standing, back toward his more desultory early 2020 numbers.

Young voters are affected by some of the same issues as older voters, including inflation and the persistence of covid-19, But among the Democratic-leaning young, there is a particular sense of disappointment. “Despite Democratic accomplishments and the Republicans building barriers to additional achievements,” Democratic pollster Molly Murphy told me, “younger voters feel they’re not getting much from Democrats that’s changing their lives.”

Murphy also noted that while young Americans are far closer to the Democrats on issues, they do not have the same sense of party loyalty that older voters have, which makes mobilization in purely partisan terms more difficult.

“I’m not worried about defections to Republicans,” she said. “Young people are with Democrats on social issues, environmental issues, and role-of-government issues. But they have less loyalty to Democrats as a party. They’re issue Democrats, not partisan Democrats.” And younger progressives “have found other ways to express their activism” beyond electoral politics.

John Della Volpe, director of polling for Harvard’s Institute of Politics and the author of “Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America,” said that in his research among young Americans on which elements of their identity motivated their voting choices, Republicans tended to emphasize two: their religious faith and the party itself. Younger Democrats offered a far more diffuse list, including gender, race, ethnicity, ideology and sexual identity. “And within these categories, there are subcategories,” he added. “It’s a far more complex basis on which to start a political relationship.”

What can Democrats do? Getting more stuff done would be a start. McElwee’s priorities would be enacting a reconciliation bill that included substantial investments in climate action, followed by student debt forgiveness at the $10,000 level that Biden is leaning toward. Della Volpe, who took leave to consult for the Biden campaign in 2020, also supports student debt forgiveness and suggests that addressing the “lack of options young people have in owning a home” would have appeal among both college and non-college young voters.

But in the end, Murphy said, “the glaring reality of what is at stake” if the Republicans win may prove to be the Democrats’ strongest card, especially if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade. The “idea that Republicans are very extreme,” McElwee said, is widely held among the younger voters Democrats need to bring to the polls.

No doubt some older Democratic officeholders will wax impatient with the impatience of the young. After all, Biden and his party have had to deal with a wall of Republican obstruction, the president has made a big dent in judicial appointments, and he has pursued broadly progressive regulatory policies.

But with their party facing a potential catastrophe this fall, Democrats don’t have the luxury of lecturing their younger supporters on the need for patience. They will either turn them out, or they’ll lose.

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