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Can young voters help Democrats hold Congress?

Both Gen Z and millennials are just as motivated to vote as they were in 2018, the GenForward survey found.

- November 3, 2022

In 2018 and 2020, young people turned out to vote in historically high numbers, helping to defeat Donald Trump and push the Democratic Party into power.

With voting in progress and the midterm election days away, young people’s turnout — or lack thereof — may again influence key races that will determine control of Congress.

So will they vote — and if so, how do they lean? Our research suggests that they’re highly motivated — and especially concerned about both inflation and abortion.

Young adult interest in the 2022 midterm election is similar to 2018

Millennials (ages 25-40) are now the largest generational group, and Gen Z adults (ages 18-24) are the most racially diverse generational group in the nation’s history. Turnout for this age group of 18-to-40-year-olds surged decisively in 2018, reaching 41 percent compared to only 26 percent in 2014, according to the Current Population Survey.

To provide a closer look at the views of these critical generational groups, we draw on data from a large survey of young adults.

Our data comes from the GenForward Survey, directed by Cathy Cohen at the University of Chicago. The survey focuses primarily on young adults and oversamples Black, Latino and Asian American young adults. GenForward surveyed 2,294 young adults (ages 18-40) online from Oct. 16 through 28. The survey uses a combination of a random sample and an opt-in sample, and is weighted to match population estimates for race, age, gender, education, region and partisanship. GenForward has been conducting similar large surveys since 2016, allowing us to examine trends over time.

GenForward data suggests that young people are interested in the upcoming election. Young adults’ engagement in midterm elections usually trails that of older generations. While this was true in 2018, a record 41 percent of voters ages 18 through 40 nevertheless voted. Recently, some observers have suggested that early voting trends may mean lower youth turnout than in the presidential election of 2020. But as political scientist Michael McDonald noted, early youth turnout in 2022 has not lagged far behind that in 2018, the last comparable midterm election.

Our October 2022 survey found that 39 percent of young adults were interested in midterm election news, the same level we found in October 2018. In October 2022, 43 percent of young adults said they definitely planned to vote or already voted, including 51 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans. In both cases, that’s more than we found in 2018, when it was 39 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

Racial and ethnic groups express different levels of intentions to vote: 46 percent of White and 41 percent of Black young adults say they definitely plan to vote (or had already voted), compared to 36 percent of Latino and 34 percent of Asian American or Pacific Islander young adults.

These self-reported rates of intention to vote have stayed fairly steady across our three surveys in 2022, in April, July and October.

These data only tell us individuals’ stated intentions to vote, and are unlikely to translate directly into actual turnout, which can be affected by such factors as campaign mobilization efforts, ease of access to voting and candidate quality. They do, however, suggest that young people’s motivation to vote is similar to that in the last midterm election, even if their interest in current events trails older generational groups, as it always does.

Inflation and abortion rights are top-of-mind for young adults

Our results also reveal that young adults share many political concerns with older generational groups. When asked about the most important issue for the midterm elections, 1 in 4 named inflation, the top choice for young adults. Fully 87 percent of young adults agreed that inflation is affecting them and their families; 85 percent expected it to rise further in the next six months.

Young adults are also concerned about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. GenForward data suggests that this issue motivates many young people, especially young Democrats. Eleven percent of young adults selected abortion and reproductive rights as the most important midterm election issue, making it the second-most selected issue and the top choice among young Democrats (18 percent). Fully 65 percent of young adults opposed the court’s decision; almost half, or 49 percent, hold an unfavorable view of the court, compared with 28 percent who see it favorably.

We asked respondents how either the Dobbs decision or inflation would affect their midterm vote choice. For each issue, 32 percent of respondents said it would not affect their vote. Sixty percent of young Democrats said that Dobbs would make them more likely to support Democratic candidates; 38 percent of Black and 37 percent of AAPI young adults said the same. Fifty-eight percent of young Republicans said that inflation would make them more likely to vote for Republicans, and 32 percent of White young adults said the same.

Who do young people think is responsible for inflation? Fifty-five percent of Republicans and 36 percent of White young adults blamed President Biden or Democrats in Congress; only 13 percent of Democrats and 18 percent of Black young adults agreed.

In other words, young adults aren’t changing their minds about whom to vote for based on prominent issues of the day; rather, those issues are motivating partisans. Democrats have emphasized abortion rights in their election messaging in recent months, and it could help them mobilize young Democratic partisans — particularly the young people of color at the core of their coalition — to return to the polls in 2022.

Kumar Ramanathan (@kumarhk) is a PhD candidate in political science at Northwestern University and a GenForward Research Fellow at the University of Chicago.

Matthew Nelsen (@nelsen_matt) is assistant professor of political science at the University of Miami.