Will young voters show up in the midterm elections?

Midterm elections are typically lower turnout affairs. Younger voters are a big piece of that drop-off. So given the data we have, what can we expect young voters to do in the 2022 midterms?


Kristen Soltis Anderson


This week, I've been thinking a lot about young voters and the role they'll play in this year's midterms.

Part of this is because lately I've been working on a research project about the other side of the coin - voters aged 50+, especially women and their impact on the midterms - for AARP.

Part of this is because this week I'm coming to the end of my fellowship at Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service, where I've spent the spring semester getting to know and hear from a wide range of students who are interested in politics and policy. I've heard from them about their frustrations with our political system generally and their agitation with political figures of both parties.

The research I've seen as of late has underscored a few key things about younger voters and how they're thinking as the midterms approach. The first is that young voters remain relatively left-leaning in their politics. The latest poll from Quinnipiac asks voter for whom they'd vote in the upcoming midterms, and while they show voters over 50 going for Republicans by a notable margin, they show voters age 18-34 breaking for Democrats by a +15 margin. In 2020, voters under age 30 broke for Biden by a 24 point margin according to Pew Research Center analysis.

The second is that they are over President Biden. I wrote about this two months ago and the data keep piling up. In that Quinnipiac poll I mentioned earlier, Biden's overall job approval is 37 percent. But among voters under age 35? It's only 34 percent. Even among young voters who do approve of how Biden is doing, in that poll, the "strongly approve" figure is only seven percent. Seven! Among seniors age 65+, "strongly approve" is 32 percent. (My own Echelon Insights polling shows a similar dynamic, with younger voters being out on Biden.)

This suggests two things: one is that Biden is actually somehow keeping things somewhat more competitive with an older cohort that otherwise leans a teensy bit to the right (in our AARP poll, they break down 47% Republican, 42% Democrat). But the other is that young voters are fairly checked out of politics at the moment, and are completely lukewarm on the current Democratic Party.

During much of the Obama and Trump era, if I knew your age, I could make an educated guess about how you'd vote. The Biden era has erased some of that, with older voters being slightly warmer to Biden and Democrats than you might imagine, but with younger voters being increasingly disillusioned with them. No longer is age as clear a predictor of who you'll vote for, though it remains a strong predictor of whether you'll vote in a non-Presidential election.

The third big finding is that young voters, like older voters, are getting absolutely clobbered by the rising cost of living. But while for older voters cost of things like gas and groceries is the top, number one, absolutely dominant issue, for younger voters, housing costs are a huge piece of the puzzle. Gas prices can come back down, grocery prices can come down, and younger Americans will still be stuck in a situation where they have to shell out a huge proportion of their income to keep a roof over their heads. That Quinnipiac poll tells the story clearly.

Source: Quinnipiac University Poll, Released April 6, 2022

No wonder, then that the number of young people living at home with Mom and Dad has exploded in recent years. This recent Pew Research Center analysis shows nearly one-third of Americans aged 25-29 live in a "multigenerational" household, defined as including more than one adult generation (kids under age 25 don't count). Among men in this age group, it nears four in ten! And this doesn't even count those in their early twenties still living with their parents. Financial reasons are often cited as a reason for this arrangement. (This isn't just a pandemic issue; I remember advising a group called Crossroads Generation in the 2012 election cycle that did a digital ad all about young voters moving back in with their parents after college due to the poor state of the economy at the time.)

All of us leads us to: what will this mean for the midterms? On the one hand, we already know that young voters tend to be a smaller share of the electorate in midterms than in general elections as is. And we also know that in our most recent test case, Virginia's gubernatorial election, analysis from TargetSmart shows voters under age 30 only increased turnout by 18% relative to the 2017 gubernatorial election there, while voters age 75+ had a "silver surge" (to use TargetSmart's speak), rising by a whopping 59%.

But in 2018, there were big leaps in turnout and younger voters were a part of the Democratic coalition that swept a "Blue Wave" into Congress - though that year may have been an outlier. This write-up from Ed Kilgore at New York Magazine covers it well:

But these younger people will only save Democrats if they turn out to vote. And that seems unlikely in 2022, for two reasons. First, the strong across-the-board voter turnout in the 2018 midterm election appears to be an outlier; the election was basically a referendum on Donald Trump, whom younger voters really disliked. Second, while under-30 voters are not a ripe target for the Trump-era GOP, they aren’t very fond of Joe Biden, either.

In 2018, there was something on the ballot (in spirit if not literally) that was motivational to many young people who might otherwise have been checked out of a midterm: Donald Trump. Young voters in spring of 2018 were more likely to disapprove of Trump than older voters, and levels of "don't know/unsure" were lower, meaning fewer were checked out with no view on the issue. And as Tufts University's CIRCLE has noted, turnout among young voters appeared to be up in 2020 relative to 2016, suggesting a lot of young people got into the habit of voting - a reasonably good predictor of future likelihood to vote. On the other hand, it may just be that Trump drives young people to the polls and a Trump-less midterm may be more of a dud, turnout-wise.

I believe politicians and parties are wise to focus on younger voters in general because it can be a valuable investment over the long term. Winning someone to your worldview when they are younger means they are more likely to stick with your party or team or ideology over the long-haul. (I wrote about all of this extensively in my book, The Selfie Vote, which I am shamelessly plugging here!) But most political candidates and parties do not think about the long-term, they think about the next election. And here, it seems neither party is succeeding at doing much to get young voters on their side.

Today, younger voters don't seem to feel particularly connected to anything going on in Washington. Though young people are far from right-leaning, Democrats simply seem to be unable to close the deal. With neither party leaving young voters feeling particularly enthused, at the moment young voters seem far more likely to stay home this November.




(Cover Photo: MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images / Contributor)

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