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Pushing for a ‘youth wave’: Can Democrats channel dissent into action at the ballot box?

Danielle Amir, 22, an organizer for the liberal group NextGen America, passes out pizza to University of Central Florida students in Orlando on Oct. 25. (Willie J. Allen Jr./For The Washington Post)

Just about every time she looks at Twitter, 19-year-old Madison Campbell sees someone urging her to vote on Nov. 6. It was one reason she filled out an absentee ballot a few days ago and popped it in the mail.

“It was super cool to see people like Taylor Swift post about the election and encourage her fans to get out and vote,” said Campbell, a psychology major at the University of Central Florida, who voted a straight Democratic ticket because she doesn’t agree “with what Republicans are doing right now.”

Throughout the country, there are signs that young Americans like Campbell are taking an unusual level of interest in this year’s midterms, prodded by Democratic groups and nonprofit organizations that have spent millions urging them to see state and congressional elections as outlets to express their views.

The share of 18- to 29-year-old voters who say they will definitely vote has jumped from 26 percent in the run-up to the last midterm election in 2014 to 40 percent this fall, according to a new poll released by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. One driving factor: widespread support for government intervention to curb gun violence and reduce college debt and health-care costs.

Young Americans are more likely to vote this year than past two midterms, new poll finds

Whether that will translate into a substantial youth turnout this year remains an uncertainty as Election Day nears. The outcome will serve as a test of this cycle’s costly efforts to channel expressions of dissent into action — and could determine whether Democrats succeed this fall.

“From a civic point of view, they’ve been more engaged” this year, said Guy Cecil, who leads Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC that has inundated social media platforms with ads targeting young voters. “But can we turn their enthusiasm into electoral power?”

With predictions of a "blue wave" on the rise, The Washington Post's polling director Scott Clement dissects the signs pointing to a tough election for the GOP. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

For their part, Republicans acknowledge that the partisan split among youth does not favor the GOP, but they have not relinquished the demographic. The Republican National Committee launched several programs this cycle to target them, including high school fellowships, campus team leaders at colleges and universities, and leadership summits to recruit young conservatives.

“The RNC is running a youth program like we’ve never had before,” said Mitch Freckleton, the committee’s youth engagement director.

GOP claims of voter fraud threat fuel worries about ballot access in November

A national analysis by the Democratic data firm TargetSmart shows voter registration — and voting in primaries — has risen slightly nationally among young voters since the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last February.

In Pennsylvania, youth voters have made up nearly 60 percent of all new registrants, Target­Smart reported in September. The share of the electorate that is under age 30 has grown since 2017 in several key states, including Nevada, North Carolina and Florida, according to state voter registration data tracked by the firm L2. In Virginia, requests for student absentee ballots, at about 30,000, are about 50 percent higher than in last year’s gubernatorial election.

Antipathy for President Trump and a desire to see action on gun control, economic assistance, health care, environmental protection, immigration and racial equality have propelled many to take interest in the midterms, according to young voters and campaign strategists working to mobilize them.

And they are also being lobbied hard to turn out.

Cecil’s Priorities USA has devoted much of a $65 million campaign on ads targeting young people, with hundreds of spots on online platforms such as Hulu, Facebook, YouTube and Spotify in House, Senate and governor’s races throughout the country. The group has also focused on removing barriers to voting for youth and other infrequent voters, winning lawsuits in Florida and New Hampshire to make it easier to cast a ballot.

NextGen America, the liberal group founded by billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, has hired 125 staff members who are rallying young people to vote on more than 40 college campuses throughout Florida. And deeply personal appeals are being made by survivors of the Parkland shooting, who are traveling the country urging voters their age to help curb gun violence by voting.

Meanwhile, celebrities such as Swift are urging their fans to pay attention to the midterms, and Turbovote, a nonpartisan application “that makes voting easier,” has claimed credit for registering more than 400,000 users of the social media giant Snapchat.

There are plenty of reasons for skepticism about an age group that typically performs dismally at the polls. In 2016, young Americans were expected to turn out heavily against Trump, but the actual share of voters under 30 who cast ballots was 43 percent of eligible voters — about the same as the previous presidential election in 2012 and lower than 2008. (Overall turnout in 2016 was 60 percent.)

Midterm performance is typically far worse: Just 16 percent of young Americans cast ballots in 2014. The highest midterm turnout among voters under 30 in the past three decades was a mere 21 percent in 1994.

Even if youth turnout does increase dramatically this year, the age group has limited reach in the voting pool.

In Nevada, young voters’ share of the electorate was 18.6 percent in August, up from 17.5 percent in September 2017, according to L2. In North Carolina, it was 18.3 percent in October, up from 16.7 percent in September 2017. And in Florida, it was 16.6 percent in September, up from 15.6 percent a year earlier.

Nevertheless, organizers said they see a particularly strong opportunity in Florida, where they say the campaign of Democrat Andrew Gillum, the first African American gubernatorial nominee in the state, is exciting young people who are looking for more diversity among elected officials and are drawn to Gillum’s support for single-payer health care, LGBTQ equality and addressing climate change.

In Florida’s burgeoning suburbs, white voters siding with Republicans try to keep a surge of young and minority voters at bay

NextGen has registered more than 50,000 new young voters throughout the state this cycle, according to NextGen spokeswoman Maya Humes. (In all, nearly 1 million voters of all ages have registered in Florida since 2016, according to state records.)

Legal victories have helped Democrats in Florida, as well. Priorities USA financed and won a lawsuit in Florida to require the state to let local governments establish early-voting sites on college campuses, which had been blocked by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D) this year. New early-voting sites are now operating on 11 campuses in Florida, within reach of more than 450,000 students, according to Priorities USA spokesman Josh Schwerin.

The result of those efforts were on display last Thursday at the University of Central Florida, where NextGen was holding a get-out-the-vote pizza party in front of the campus library — about 700 feet from an early-voting location.

Among those planning to cast a ballot on campus last week was first-time voter Alex Zamora, born in New Orleans to Nicaraguan parents who moved the family to Miami after Hurricane Katrina. He said he probably would not have voted otherwise, because he doesn’t have a car.

Zamora said he supports Democratic candidates and considers climate change a pressing issue, especially for his generation. As a son of immigrants, he wants Congress and the nation to move toward more constructive immigration policies based on facts, he said.

“We need more diplomacy and not so much stereotyping, not only against people of Latino descent, but also from the Middle East and Africa,” he said, a backpack slung over one shoulder.

The Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which left 17 people dead and 14 injured, also appears to have boosted young people’s interest in the midterms.

Young voters made up about a quarter of Florida’s new voter registrants in the 2½ months before Parkland, but their share jumped to 34 percent in the 2½ months after the shooting, according to the Miami Herald.

“When it’s close to home like that — or is your home — you don’t want to sit back and do nothing,” said Campbell, the psychology major, who attended Stoneman Douglas and knew some of the victims. “I’m not saying take all guns away. But something has to change.”

March for Our Lives, the nonpartisan organization of Parkland students formed in the wake of the shooting to advocate for gun restrictions, has visited every congressional district in Florida on its Road to Change bus tour — and then traveled to more than 24 states over 60 days registering young voters. More than 100 local chapters have formed throughout the county.

On Friday, the group’s Vote for Our Lives tour was in Minneapolis, with Parkland students knocking on dorm doors at the University of Minnesota and preparing to host a town hall and tailgate party over the weekend. They spend most of their time talking about steps that can be taken to curb violence, such as more regular issuance of protective orders and disarming people who are a risk to themselves or others. Voting is the first step, they say, to put like-minded people in office.

“The real test is going to be Election Day,” said David Hogg, a founder of March for Our Lives, in a telephone interview from Minneapolis. “Young people and Americans in general are angry. Americans are inspired to go out and make this change. And this is just the beginning for a lot of young people.”

The Harvard Institute of Politics survey, obtained Sunday by The Washington Post, underscored the widespread opposition among young Americans to Trump, who notched just a 26 percent approval rating with that demographic. In addition, more than six in 10 young likely voters said they support single-payer health care, government tuition aid and a federal jobs guarantee; more than half of likely voters said they support “democratic socialism” — a potential generational shift that the pollsters said could carry meaningful implications for future elections.

Some Republicans concede that Democrats carry the advantage with younger voters.

“Do they favor Democrats? Absolutely, if we’re going to be honest about it,” said Jason Emert, 34, the chairman of the Young Republican National Federation, which encourages conservatives age 18 to 40 to get involved in politics. “But the truth of the matter is we don’t show up. And that’s across Republicans and Democrats.”

Chandler Thornton, who leads the College Republican National Committee, said his group delivers an enormous army of young conservatives who knock on doors, work phone banks and gather signatures. The group helped the RNC’s Campus Team Leader Program recently pass the 1 million mark of doors knocked and calls made this cycle, he said.

Emert said his volunteers have made more than 5 million voter contacts this cycle (targeting all voters, not just young ones). “We’ve just never had that amount of deployments,” he said.

That activity may also be paying off. Although the Harvard Institute of Politics poll gave the enthusiasm advantage to Democrats, it did log an uptick in engagement among young Republicans, as well.

According to the survey, 54 percent of Democrats said they were likely to vote next month, up three points since the institute’s spring survey in April. For Republicans, the number was 43 percent, up seven points since April — and higher than in 2010, when Republicans won a wave election. That year, 38 percent of young GOP voters said they were likely to vote.

“People are asking, ‘Is there going to be a blue wave and how big is it?’ ” said Teddy Landis, 21, a Harvard junior who helped write the questions for the youth survey, which the institute has been conducting for 19 years. “But we actually think there’s going to be a ‘youth wave.’ ”

Saundra Amrhein in Orlando and Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.