The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women and young voters will decide the 2018 elections. If they actually vote.

Protesters participate in a Women's March on Jan. 20 in Cincinnati. (John Minchillo/AP)

President Trump continues to define the political conversation of the country with Twitter blasts, public statements and often alarming reports of his behind-the-scenes behavior and moods. But two groups of voters — women and young people — will define the politics of this year, and probably 2020 as well.

These are the voters who stand most apart from the president and who are most at odds with many of the priorities he has advanced in office. Their opposition and energy will determine the level of losses Republicans suffer in the November midterm elections. Come 2020, they are likely to determine whether the president wins a second term, should he indeed seek reelection.

There has long been a gender gap in politics, with women more supportive of Democratic candidates in comparison to men. In the latest Gallup poll tracking of the president’s performance, 44 percent of men give Trump a positive rating compared with just 31 percent of women.

Former vice president Joe Biden on Feb. 7 vowed to help Democrats win a majority in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. (Video: Reuters)

But there is something materially different about the gap between men and women when it comes to judging this president that polls alone cannot fully capture. Many women have a visceral and negative reaction to Trump, and that has changed little during his time in office. They appear less forgiving of the president than many men are.

This was true when Trump was a candidate, and women have led the resistance since the start of his presidency, beginning when huge numbers of women turned out for marches in Washington and around the country the day after his inauguration.

In a period in which reports of sexual abuse and sexual harassment by prominent men have led to the powerful #MeToo movement, the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against the president — as well as a $130,000 payment by his personal lawyer to a porn star with whom Trump was alleged to have had an affair — have helped widen the gap further between Trump and many female voters.

During a speech in Blue Ash, Ohio, on Feb. 5, President Trump said he had “a feeling that we’re going to do incredibly well” in the midterm elections. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump’s deficit among college-educated women is especially serious. At the one-year mark in his presidency, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 71 percent of white college-educated women disapproved of Trump’s job performance, with 61 percent of them saying they strongly disapproved.

Among white women without college degrees, a group with which Trump has consistently enjoyed more support, half said they disapproved of his job performance, and 44 percent said they strongly disapproved.

For both groups of women, the assessment of the president was markedly more negative than within comparable groups of men.

But there is a big question mark about what will happen in the upcoming midterm elections, and that is the issue of just who will show up to vote. Trump’s success in 2016 owed in part to the fact that non-college-educated voters — both women and men — turned out in greater numbers than did those with college degrees.

If that’s the case again this year, then Democrats could fall short of their expectations. But if the anti-Trump sentiment propels significantly more college-educated women — white and nonwhite — to vote, then Republicans will probably suffer significant losses. So far there appears to be more energy among those most intensely opposed to Trump, a contrast to sentiments that shaped the 2016 electorate.

Polling has sometimes been a misleading indicator of who will actually vote, and exit polls have turned out to be unreliable on who actually showed up. The 2016 exit polls badly misstated the composition of the electorate based on education levels, overstating the percentage of voters with college degrees and understating the percentage without degrees.

The online polling firm SurveyMonkey cast doubt on the exit poll findings shortly after the election, highlighting the degree to which non-college voters outnumbered college-educated voters. Subsequent analyses, including from the Pew Research Center and the Census Bureau, showed the same thing.

Given the issues that have risen to prominence early in this election year — school safety and guns — along with the continuing focus on sexual misconduct in the workplace and elsewhere, women could be more motivated to turn out, especially women in suburban districts that will play a big role in deciding who controls the House in January.

Last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and the public visibility and lobbying activity of high school students since has again highlighted the potentially important role young voters could play this November and beyond. They are an increasingly important part of the electorate, with the one big caveat being whether they will turn out to vote. Often, young voters haven’t turned out in numbers that matched their share of the population.

Evidence continues to accumulate highlighting the degree to which the attitudes of younger voters differ from those of older Americans, especially on cultural and social issues. A new Pew study finds that the two youngest groups of voters — millennials and Gen Xers — have markedly different attitudes than the two oldest groups — baby boomers and those in the “silent” generation — and that the gap is wider than ever.

Just 27 percent of millennials and 36 percent of Gen Xers approve of Trump’s job performance in the Pew survey, while 44 percent of baby boomers and 46 percent of those in the silent generation approve. Among millennials, the shift from being, by far, the most enthusiastic generation toward President Barack Obama at this point eight years ago to their low opinion of Trump is a swing unlike anything seen during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The percentage of millennials who have views that are liberal or mostly liberal on issues such as the value of immigration or the role discrimination plays in holding back progress for black people rose from 38 percent in 2011 to 57 percent in 2017.

Among Gen Xers, the percentage who hold liberal or mostly liberal views on such issues jumped 10 points in that same period, to 43 percent. This is a pattern across all generations — a general rise in liberal attitudes on issues — but it is most apparent among those in the two youngest groups.

Millennials are now the most Democratic-leaning group in the population, with 59 percent identifying or leaning toward the party, according to Pew. They also support or lean toward Democratic candidates in the upcoming election by a wider margin than others, with 62 percent saying they prefer Democratic House candidates in their districts this fall.

Most striking in that finding is the shift since the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, both of which resulted in sizable Republican gains. In 2010, 53 percent of millennials said they preferred Democratic candidates; in 2014 it was just 50 percent.

There is also an increase in interest in this midterm election among millennials, up 16 points compared with 2014 and up 23 points versus 2010.

Among many women and younger people, attitudes toward Trump and the issues he has made his own appear relatively hardened. Absent dramatic events, they aren’t likely to change much between now and November. But Democrats can’t take this to the bank. The key will be whether those attitudes result in a surge in turnout among those voting groups. That remains the most important question for this year’s elections.