Top Five Youth Vote Takeaways

By Ben Wessel (@BenWessel) and Jamison Foser (@JamisonFoser)

The ink is barely dry on the handwritten ballot tallies they’re probably using in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District (where they still aren’t done counting votes) but that doesn’t mean the hot takes about what happened should be delayed. So, without further ado, here’s five key things that we know about the youth vote in the 2018 midterm elections.

1. We just saw the highest turnout in a midterm for young voters since they lowered the voting age to 18 (in 1971). For some of the nitty gritty you can take a look at CIRCLE’s midterm youth vote turnout estimate but this is an incredible achievement. At the beginning of this year, we at NextGen America recognized that, due to Republican gerrymandering, if we were going to take back the House we’d need to beat the previous midterm youth vote record of 26 percent set in 2006. Well, we far surpassed that goal, with CIRCLE estimating national turnout at 31 percent for young voters, age 18-29 -- a huge increase from CIRCLE’s estimate of 21 percent in 2014. That number is likely to be even higher in competitive districts -- we’re already seeing youth vote turnout of about 35 percent in states with competitive gubernatorial races. In Virginia’s hotly contested gubernatorial race in 2017, where NextGen made major gains, we increased young voter turnout by 8 points over previous levels. A 10 point increase nationally is an even more impressive improvement.

What’s more is that the youth vote is so big it can already win elections for Democrats -- we proved that last night. This is just going to keep getting more important, as young voters make up a larger and larger share of the electorate in future elections. Successful campaigns will have to make these voters a central part of their strategy, not a secondary consideration.


2. Young people broke for Democrats by the largest margins since Obama ‘08 -- and maybe even more than that. Exit polls suggest a 67 percent-32 percent split for 18-29 year olds, a margin of 35 points for Democrats and, as CIRCLE shows, the exits have done a pretty good job predicting actual vote choices for young people. This is in line with what we saw in Virginia in 2017, where young people voted for Ralph Northam by +39 points. As the Harvard Institute of Politics recounts, this edge with young voters played a critical role in electing Jacky Rosen to the Senate in Nevada, electing new US House members like Colin Allred and Lucy McBath, and a ton of downballot races. Compared to ‘16 (when Clinton got 55 percent of youth votes) and ‘14 (when Congressional Dems topped out at 54 percent of youth support), the fact that young people support Dems by a 2-to-1 margin now makes them one of the Democratic Party’s most treasured constituencies. In what might be the best example of increased support for Democrats, combining with record turnout, WI Gov.-Elect Tony Evers netted twice as many votes from student wards than Mary Burke did four years ago. At UW-Platteville, 61 percent of the campus voted for Republican Scott Walker in 2014, but 16-point swing this year led to an Evers win on campus by 55%.

But Democrats can’t take young voters for granted if they hope to maintain those margins and maintain -- or increase -- that level of turnout. Democrats are going to have to show these young voters their votes made a difference, not just in the outcome of elections, but in how Democrats behave while in office. The most progressive age cohort helped elect Democrats and it can help keep them there -- but young voters expect to see bold leadership and the will to fight for what’s important.

3. If the first two points above prove anything, it’s that the battle for Gen. Z and Millennials is not between D vs R, its between voting and not-voting. It’s important to recognize that Republicans know this, too -- and that we can expect their efforts to disenfranchise people of color and young people (who are disproportionately people of color) to only accelerate. This means Democrats and progressives have to work harder to protect and expand access to the ballot box -- both because it’s the right thing to do and because everything else we care about depends upon it.

4. Running program matters. NextGen ran the largest youth vote mobilization program in history, with extensive digital, mail, and, most importantly, field organizing efforts in 11 states. We were tracking turnout at 41 youth-dense precincts on Election Day and we’ve surpassed ‘14 turnout levels in 93 percent of places (and that number could still rise as votes trickle in). In some precincts turnout doubled, tripled, quadrupled…and increased by 13x over 2014 levels in one precinct in Orange County. Over the coming weeks and months, as voter files come back, we’ll be able to see the impact of the 257,000+ young people we registered and the 6 million+ people we served digital ads (previous years’ analyses suggest that more than 77 percent of the people we register or commit to vote in person end up casting a ballot).

In NextGen’s pre-election polling, we found that young people in battleground states in which NextGen ran a voter contact operation were more likely to report having been contacted about the election than were young people in comparable battleground states in which NextGen wasn’t active. And that voter contact matters: young voters in the NextGen states were also more likely to be enthusiastic about voting than their counterparts in non-NextGen states. Those who reported having been contacted about the election were nearly twice as likely to say they would definitely vote as those who had not been contacted. There’s some selection bias here, as campaigns and political organizations tend to contact voters who are more likely to vote in the first place, but these differences are striking, and it’s clear that when we talk directly to young people about voting, they’re more likely to show up.

But beyond all the data (and yes, this is a “Data for Progress” post), there’s something intangible about running good program that helped us get to this point. Sure, there’s Analyst Institute studies that can quantify the value of a door knock, etc., but how about the value of an organizer sharing that the reason they’re no longer an apathetic non-voter is because they have the opportunity to help their formerly incarcerated father vote for the first time? Or the thousands of hours our organizers worked on campuses before they could convince last-minute procrastinators to register to vote the day of the deadline -- how can you tally that? These are the sorts of things that candidates’ campaigns decide aren’t worth the investment all the time, and I truly believe that decision will continue to cause trouble for candidates who aren’t willing to meet young people where they’re at and, subsequently, don’t inspire turnout or support. That’s why...

5. Running good candidates matters. We may not be able to quantify the precise relationship between good candidates, good campaigns, and better youth vote numbers, but as someone who has been trying to get young people to the polls for over a decade, last night proved to Ben that this matters. Florida, Georgia, and Texas have been near-impossible for Democrats to win statewide over the last 20 years, and Andrew Gillum, Stacey Abrams, and Beto O’Rourke got closer than anyone else who’s tried in years. They inspired turnout and movement-building from young people who mobilized their own networks.

Beyond those high profile statewide candidates, we’re sending about a dozen new millennials to Washington next week. People who ran campaigns that were unapologetically honest and who campaign staff were chomping at the bit to work for. These are the people who will lead the #youthvote fight in Washington now: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (29), Abby Finkenauer (29), Katie Hill (31), Max Rose (31), Lauren Underwood (31), Joe Neguse (34), Colin Allred (35), Andy Kim (36), Ilhan Omar (36), Sharice Davids (38), Jason Crow (39), and more I’m sure.

Jamison Foser and Ben Wessel work at @NextGenAmerica on getting out the #youthvote.

Ethan Winter