The poll, obtained in advance by The Washington Post, also points to views among younger Americans that could have longer-term implications for future elections and the nation: a desire for more government intervention perhaps born out of their experiences living through an economic recession and an epidemic of mass shootings.
“The good news is they’re more mobilized than they’ve been in many years,” said John Della Volpe, director for polling at the institute, which is set to release its findings Monday. “The bad news is that they’re mobilized because of the trauma they’ve endured.”
According to the survey, 40 percent of voters under 30 said they will definitely vote this year — 54 percent of Democrats, 43 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of independents. Enthusiasm has increased among both parties since the institute’s spring poll and is higher than it was ahead of the last two midterm elections, including 2014, when 26 percent said they would definitely vote.
Republican enthusiasm has grown seven points since the institute’s April poll — and is higher than it was ahead of 2010, when a Republican wave swept the country and led to GOP control of both houses of Congress. Like other polls, that finding suggests uncertainty about early predictions of a Democratic wave this year. Democratic certainty to vote is up three points since April.
“This poll shows some of the highest engagement that this poll has ever seen,” said Teddy Landis, 21, a Harvard junior who helped write the survey questions. “The most important finding is that 40 percent of young people say they’re definitely going to vote. That’s incredibly exciting to me.”
Actual turnout has typically trailed the poll’s findings by “the high single digits,” Della Volpe said. But even if next month’s results follow that pattern, youth turnout will exceed that of recent prior midterms.
Trump holds just a 26 percent approval rating among those age 18 to 29. And two out of three likely young voters said they want Democrats to control Congress.
At least six in 10 likely voters expressed support in the poll for liberal government policies that the Trump administration and GOP-controlled Congress do not favor: universal health care, free college tuition for qualifying families and a federal jobs guarantee.
Of particular interest to Della Volpe and his students, who helped craft the poll, were the findings related to young Americans’s attitudes about the economy, capitalism and socialism. According to the poll, slightly more likely voters, 53 percent, support “Democratic socialism” than do capitalism at 48 percent.
When it comes to how young people view the effectiveness of political engagement, Della Volpe, citing his institute’s surveys from 2000, 2001 and 2013-2018, said he has not seen such a strong shift in attitudes since the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. At that time, souring views of the war in Iraq, combined with the organizing acumen of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, paved the way for historic participation among young voters in the 2008 presidential election.
The findings suggest a potentially parallel opportunity for candidates and parties who choose to make young voters a priority, he said.
Less encouraging are the reasons for heightened engagement among voters under 30, Della Volpe said: a generation that came of age during the financial crisis of the late 2000s and during an era when mass shootings made “active shooter” drills a commonplace reality in high schools throughout the country.
Indeed, 65 percent of likely young voters are more fearful than hopeful about the future of America, the poll found. Fifty-nine percent of them said they would be even more fearful if Republicans retain control of Congress.
These voters want change from government, whether in the form of new curbs to gun violence or in different approaches to economic security through health care, tuition assistance and jobs programs, Della Volpe said.
Support among young people for gun-control measures has been growing since before the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., last February, he said, adding that the wave of political activism by survivors of that shooting has also had an impact this year.
Harvard’s Institute of Politics has been polling young Americans twice a year since 2000, working with undergraduate students to devise questions to capture prevailing attitudes and political engagement of people under 30 from all parts of the country.
“I think the framing of issues and the genesis of ideas on what to poll their fellow generational cohort about is what’s pretty compelling,” said the institute’s director, Mark Gearan.
Richard Sweeney, 19, a Harvard sophomore who worked on the poll, said he was particularly interested in questions of socialism because of the unexpected victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described Democratic socialist from the Bronx who defeated Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) in the Democratic primary in June.
“My friends were talking about it,” Sweeney said. “I wanted to see if it was true nationwide.”
The poll surveyed 2,003 Americans ages 18 to 29 between Oct. 3 and Oct. 17. Forty-five percent of those surveyed are in high school or postsecondary schooling. The poll carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.