The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Kansas bombshell shows how Democrats might fix a big 2022 problem

People cheer at a watch party in Overland Park, Kan., on Aug. 2 after learning that voters in the state had rejected a ballot initiative that would have allowed the legislature to restrict or ban abortion. (Angie Ricono/KCTV5/AP)

By now, the problem Democrats have with young people is familiar: Not only are they less likely to vote than older people; they haven’t exactly been excited with Joe Biden’s presidency and what Democrats have been able to deliver in Congress.

But might all that change — say, before the November midterms?

If there is any reason to think it will, it’s this: Two issues that happen to be of disproportionate importance to young voters have suddenly been elevated in our politics in a big way. We’re talking about abortion and climate change.

This is driven home by two developments. First, and most important, Tuesday’s remarkable referendum in Kansas delivered a decisive victory to the pro-choice side in a deep-red state. Second, Congress is on the verge of passing perhaps the most significant climate bill in U.S. history.

Take those together, and it’s at least possible that young people will provide Democrats with the lift they need to stave off a midterm defeat, or at least to avert a catastrophe in which youth turnout falls off a cliff.

Biden was never likely to be a hit with the youth, but if anything, it has been worse than anticipated. The Democratic Party’s leadership is often referred to as a gerontocracy, one whose key leaders were already adults when the Vietnam War was the issue that animated young people.

Beyond their numeric age, Biden and others, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), don’t seem made for contemporary politics and culture, and sometimes seem uninspiring and ineffectual on issues of great interest to younger voters. Polls have found the president’s approval dropping further among young voters than with any other age group.

But the Kansas referendum results help demonstrate that the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade might be altering the dynamics of the election, energizing Democratic constituencies.

And the two issues at play now — abortion rights and climate change — are among young people’s top priorities.

John Della Volpe, the director of polling for the Harvard Youth Poll, says extensive data has confirmed the importance of both issues to Generation Z voters and millennials alike.

Jason Willick

counterpointThe democratic lessons of Kansas’s pro-choice upset

“They are at the very core of these generations’ personal and political values,” Della Volpe told us, adding that those two generations add up to “approximately a third to 40 percent of the electorate.”

We don’t yet have breakdowns of the Kansas turnout by age. But generally speaking, young voters are both more likely to be liberal and support Democratic candidates than older voters, while also showing more sporadic involvement in election. When their turnout goes up, it’s usually because everyone’s turnout has gone up (as in 2020), which means they still punch below their weight.

But that can change. In 2018, for instance, they closed that gap. Between 2014 and 2018, turnout among voters under age 30 increased by 16 percentage points, more than for any other age group. They still turned out at lower rates than their elders, but their own increased turnout helped Democrats win a huge victory.

We do know that turnout in Kansas was enormous; nearly twice as many people voted as in the 2018 primary. As Tom Bonier of the Democratic political data firm TargetSmart noted, among Kansans who registered to vote after Roe was struck down on June 24, Democrats enjoyed an eight-point advantage.

That might not sound like much, unless you know that among all registered voters, the Republican advantage is a huge 19 points. Even more striking, 70 percent of Kansans who registered after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision were women.

There is reason to believe young voters have been galvanized. A CNN poll taken after a draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe was leaked — but before the final ruling — found that a whopping 66 percent of voters aged 18 to 34 would be angry (48 percent) or dissatisfied (18 percent) if the precedent were struck down.

Indeed, Della Volpe says Democrats have an opportunity. If the Biden administration uses its power to defend abortion rights — such as Justice Department lawsuits targeting abortion bans and executive actions in defense of those seeking abortions across state lines — it would energize such voters, he says.

“Any show of strength by this administration on issues related to abortion — specifically, standing up for the vulnerable and connecting government with the values of Generation Z and millennials — would almost assuredly improve [Biden’s] approval numbers,” Della Volpe said.

On climate, a new poll by the progressive firm Data for Progress finds that 73 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 support the component of the new bill providing tax incentives for the production of renewable energies and green technologies. And young voters say they’d support congressional candidates who back the bill in substantially higher percentages than overall voters do.

Meanwhile, Della Volpe says the Harvard Youth Poll has shown a steady rise in support over the course of years among voters aged 18 to 29 for government action on climate even at the expense of economic growth.

So while abortion has young people feeling threatened and angry, the disappointment they might have felt about Democrats not delivering on issues important to them might be attenuated at the same time. Which makes it at least possible that this midterm election could defy historical patterns, or at least not be a massacre for Democrats.