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A new poll shows how younger women could help drive a Democratic wave in 2018

- March 5, 2018
Pittsburgh high school students Mia Arrington, center, 18, and Cheyenne Springette, right, 17, during a walk-out in solidarity with other high schools across the country to show support for Parkland, Fla, students on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, women’s political activism appears to be on the rise. The Women’s March and related protests were one example. Another is the record number of women running for political office. Organizations that have long sponsored candidate training for women report an explosion of interest.

Now, a new poll finds that the youngest generation of women appears particularly poised for greater political activism, and even more so than younger men.

Women have often been less politically active than men

Historically, women have expressed far less interest in public affairs than men. In 2016, this was still true. According to the American National Election Study (ANES), men were more likely than women to say they pay attention to politics all or most of the time. This was true in every generation. Even among millennials, 43 percent of men said they paid a lot of attention to politics, compared to 28 percent of women. Some research has found that even though girls and boys in high school report almost equal interest in politics, a gender gap in political engagement appears in young adulthood, including among college students.

When it comes to actually taken action, women do better in some ways. For decades, women have voted more often than men. But they have been less likely than men to report trying to influence another person’s vote choice, volunteering for political campaigns, making political donations.

Moreover, it is not entirely clear that this gender gap has been shrinking in younger generations. For example, in the 2016 ANES, millennial women undertook fewer acts of political participation than men. Only among Generation X did women undertake more acts of political participation, on average, then men.

A new poll shows a different pattern

But this pattern could be changing among millennials and the next cohort of young Americans, defined as those individuals born after 2000. A new poll sponsored by the Public Religion Research Institute and MTV interviewed more than 2,000 Americans ages 15-24. It found that young women expressed higher levels of political and civic engagement than young men:

For example, younger women are more likely than younger men to report following a campaign or organization online, posting on social media, volunteering, donating money, or attending a rally.

This greater political and civic engagement of younger women is particularly prominent on the political left. I counted the total number of activities featured above, from 0-7, and compared the average political engagement scores among different groups. The results show that younger women are particularly engaged, relative to younger men among the youngest respondents (ages 15-17), Democrats and independents, among Hillary Clinton voters, and among those who think gender equality is a critical issue.

For example, 41 percent of younger women who voted for Clinton volunteered for a cause they cared about last year, compared with just 32 percent of younger men who voted for Clinton and 25 percent of younger women who voted for Trump. Another example: more than 60 percent of younger women who view gender equality as a critical issue posted on social media about an issue that mattered to them, compared with 44 percent of younger men.

The gender gap extends to other attitudes too

Younger women are different from younger men in other attitudes about gender too. Younger women are more likely to say that when society pressures young men to act in traditionally masculine ways, it leads men to treat women as weaker and less capable and it encourages sexually aggressive behavior, violent behavior or homophobic attitudes. Young women who have these beliefs also report more political engagement. Thus, young women appear to have internalized important lessons from the 2016 election, which some commentators described as rife with toxic masculinity.

These findings among the younger women also echo recent research by political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, who found that a visceral reaction to Trump has fueled political engagement among older, college-educated women, particularly Democrats.

What are the implications of this pattern? In the long term, perhaps the political activism of younger women will translate into a greater willingness to seek political office.

In the short term, their activism could matter for the midterm election. There is already recent polling showing that Democrats are more enthusiastic than Republicans about voting in 2018. The heightened involvement of young women could help build an even bigger Democratic wave in November.

Melissa Deckman is the Louis L. Goldstein professor of Washington College and chairs the board of the Public Religion Research Institute. Her latest book is“Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Leaders, and the Changing Face of the American Right.”