The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The young don’t vote? This time they will. And school shootings are the difference.

A new Harvard poll finds that young Americans are ready to believe that voting can further their causes.

Parkland shooting survivors Jorge Flores, second from left, and Carlitos Rodriguez, center, were among those attending a Vote for Our Lives event in Colorado in April. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Few things unite pundits of different political stripes more than their healthy skepticism about the role young Americans will play in the midterm elections. After all, the record of the young has been among the most consistent trends in American politics. According to the United States Elections Project, in five of the previous eight midterm election cycles, between 18 and 20 percent of Americans under 30 voted; in the other three years (2014, 1994, 1986), 16 percent to 21 percent showed up. Voting at less than half the rate of older adults, young Americans representing the baby boomer, Gen X and millennial generations did their part to earn the irrelevance assigned to them by most of our leaders in Washington.

That is about to change.

Anyone predicting outcomes that mirror the last cycle — or the last eight cycles — will most likely wake up on Nov. 7 surprised to see a radical shift in voting patterns, with a modern American electorate more reflective of a younger, more diverse nation. And a big part of what’s animating that change is violence like school shootings — and the willingness of young Americans to believe that government can do something about it.

In a poll released today by the Harvard Institute of Politics, where I am polling director, we find that Americans under age 30 are 54 percent more likely to vote than they were in our 2014 midterm polling. Forty percent tell us they will vote in the midterms next week. While young voters generally overestimate their actual rate of participation by 7.5 points on average, by almost every measure, we are likely to witness an election for the ages. Compared with 2014, engagement from young Democrats is 24 percentage points higher (30 percent likely to vote in 2014 compared to 54 percent today), and Republicans are quickly closing the gap as they try to match that intensity. Six months ago, 36 percent of Republicans expected to vote, and in the weeks after the hearings to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, that percentage increased to 43 percent. We find that white females with a college education are a primary driver of enthusiasm on the left. Compared with 2014, this demographic group is 25 points more likely to vote next Tuesday; their white college male counterparts are only 7 points more likely to turn out. And not only are they more engaged than in 2014, but white females with a college degree also prefer Democratic control of Congress by 34 points, three times the 11-point margin Democrats benefited from with this cohort four years earlier.

The Parkland teens started something. How can it become a social movement?

From a menu of 16 prominent issues developed by younger voters for a project I directed over the summer, views related to school shootings were most highly correlated with likelihood to vote. To my surprise, a full 55 percent rated school shootings a 7 on a 1 to 7 scale of importance; a combined 71 percent rated the issue a 6 or 7. The second and third issues strongly correlated with voting in November were health care and gun violence.

The level of interest in voting feels more like a presidential election cycle than a midterm. Issues alone do not lead to youth voter turnout. Changes in attitude must come first, and our studies show that there is a new attitude about the efficacy of political engagement that matches interest in issues that disproportionately affect the current young generation That’s why I am confident that the underlying factors are in place for what Teddy Landis, the student chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project, refers to as a “youth wave.” It is 19 years of study, and tracking what can be subtle shifts over time, that gives me this assurance. These factors were not in play in 2014 or 2016. Hundreds of thousands of new voters have been persuaded to register in critical states, inspired by pop stars like Taylor Swift and efforts by Snapchat, which urged more than 400,000 of its users to register during a recent two-week period. Our polling indicates that because of these and myriad other efforts by groups like Rock the Vote nationally and our own Harvard Votes Challenge locally, 43 percent of all 18- to 21-year-olds indicate that they have been encouraged recently to register.

For a generation that is anxious and increasingly isolated — that sees more fear than hope for America’s future — we find that its members are beginning to marshal strength to find productive outlets for the causes of their generation, and that means voting. In a recent town hall discussion I conducted with students from 30 colleges and universities, first-time voters described the identity they would carry into the voting booth. I heard almost nothing about political parties or legacy ideologies; instead, young Americans were passionate about voting for those without a voice, the vulnerable and marginalized members of their community. It is the confluence of these and other factors that are making this midterm cycle unique. Young Americans are tuned in to the tangible impact that political participation can make.

Regardless of outcome, young Americans are as engaged in midterms as they have been in decades.