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In 2018, the turnout gap between young and old people didn’t really shrink at all

- February 11, 2019
Voters cast ballots at Hoyt Park Grand Hall in Wauwatosa, Wis., on Nov. 6, 2018. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

A recent Pew Research Center study of young Americans has led many political observers to warn of a coming storm for the Republican Party based on the increasingly liberal leanings of the youngest Americans. As Colby Itkowitz of The Fix summarized it here at The Washington Post, “The next generation of voters is more liberal, more inclusive and believes in government.” Data like these recently led Republican consultant John Brabender to write in RealClearPolitics that he is starting to panic the more he reviews the data on young voters. Most notably, he writes that “their apathy seems to be fading and their participation increasing.”

But is there really so much reason for the Republicans to be fearful and the Democrats to be gleeful? My book “Is Voting for Young People?” shows that over the past four decades, politics and voting have, more and more, become the province of older people.

Was this still the case in 2018, given the substantial increase in the nation’s turnout rate? The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University produced a widely quoted report estimating that young Americans’ turnout had risen to the highest level it had ever recorded. This study led to headlines such as, “Watch Out 2020: Young Voters on the Rise” and “Young Voters Turned Out in Historic Numbers.

No doubt this CIRCLE study is correct in asserting that the turnout rate of young Americans increased markedly in 2018, compared with recent midterm elections. But so did the turnout rate of all other age groups.

The crucial question, then, is this: Did 2018’s massive increase in turnout reduce the wide gap between the turnout rates of young and old Americans?

No. Official records of participation in three states between 2006 and 2018 show that this was not the case.

For the past dozen years, six states have reported official counts of how many votes were cast by people within various age categories. These reports employ actual computerized records of who has voted, as the very fact of casting a vote is public record in the United States. The number of people who voted in each category can then be divided by the Census Bureau’s highly reliable estimates of the total population within each age range to calculate a highly accurate turnout percentage. Thus far, the states of Georgia, Iowa and Delaware have posted reports of actual 2018 voter participation by age that can be compared with previous midterm elections. You can see the results below.

As you can see, although turnout in 2018 rose substantially, it did so fairly equally in all age categories — leaving the age turnout gap unchanged. The average turnout difference between the youngest and oldest age groups in these three states was 41.3 percent in 2018. That’s not much different from the 42.6 percent gap in 2006.

Did that age turnout gap in 2018 make a difference in the election? Yes, definitely. Americans tended to have different preferences by age group. Democratic candidates in 2018 would have done better had a larger proportion of younger people voted, because seniors were so much more likely than young people to vote — and to vote Republican.

For example, the age gap in support for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia was 24 percent in 2018 as compared with just 8 percent in 2006 — meaning that 64 percent of the youngest group voted Democratic, while only 40 percent of the oldest group did. If those percentages held true and young people had gone to the polls at the same rate as older people in Georgia, the proportion voting for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams would have increased from 48.2 percent to 50.7 percent — and she would be governor, not Republican Brian Kemp.

If young people can ever climb out of last place in turnout rates, it will change the American political landscape. But for now, they are still far less likely to vote.

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Martin Wattenberg is a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine and the author of “Is Voting for Young People?” (Routledge, 2016).