The other 2018 midterm wave: A historic 10-point jump in turnout among young people

Voter turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds in the 2018 midterm elections was 31 percent, according to a preliminary estimate by The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

That’s the highest youth turnout my colleagues and I have observed since we started collecting data in 1994. It’s also a major increase from turnout in the 2014 midterms, which was 21 percent.

Young people showed decisive support for liberal candidates and ideas. About 67 percent of young people supported Democratic House candidates, compared to just 32 percent for Republican candidates. This 35-point gap is even larger than their preference toward Democrats in 2008, when President Barack Obama was first elected.

This preference no doubt helped some Democratic candidates in states such as Wisconsin, Montana and Nevada.

For example, Senator Jon Tester of Montana won his reelection by a narrow margin of less than 6,000 votes. Young Montanans, by favoring him by 67 percent to 28 percent, gave him a relative vote advantage of over 25,000 votes. If young Montanans voted like older Montanans did on Tuesday, Montana would have a Republican Senator today.

In many ways, this election cycle showed how different groups can create diverse paths to political engagement. It shows in the numbers, and importantly, in young people’s faces. Young people should be feeling powerful and hopeful that they can in fact exercise their votes to affect American politics.

Going back 40 years, young voters have a reputation of not showing up to the polls, especially in midterm elections. So how do we explain this year’s enthusiasm?

This fall, my colleagues and I conducted two large-scale national surveys of 2,087 Americans ages 18 to 24 to document and understand what Gen Zs are thinking, feeling and doing when it comes to politics.

Here’s what we found.

All signs pointed to wave of young people

The proportion of young people who joined protests and marches tripled since the fall of 2016, from 5 percent to 15 percent. Participation was especially high among young people who are registered as Democrats.

We also found that young people were paying attention to politics more than they had in 2016. In 2016, about 26 percent of young people said they were paying at least some attention to the November elections. This fall, the proportion of youth who reported that they were paying attention to the midterm races rose to 46 percent.

It’s clear that more young people were actively engaged in politics this year than 2016.