In early May of 2020, the political and social landscape of the United States was engulfed in the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic forced most people into a stay-at-home order in March and April. While former Vice President Joe Biden held a stable lead over President Donald Trump, it was only around five points. Trump was still within the margin of error in critical swing states such as Wisconsin and North Carolina.
However, by late May and early June, the polling leads started to gravitate in favor of Biden. He built up a larger lead in the polls, peaking at a 9.6 point advantage on the 4th of July. This lead has started to stabilize in recent weeks. At first, one would question where that boost would come from. The coronavirus was occurring in March and April but it did not seem to tank Trump’s numbers as drastically. In addition, the economy was making a slow, yet somewhat optimistic, rebound from the economic hell of mid-March.
A New Generation
After the tragic death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, a new generation started to speak up about politics. They become more emboldened in the face of the injustices they saw all across America. For weeks, millions of users posted on social media in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. This included personal contributions from black content creators who shared their personal stories. Many allies posted links to bail funds and criminal justice reform sites in the wake of these tragedies.
This observation is nothing that is necessarily new within politics. Younger generations, who see much of the injustice and cruelty of the world, become more politically active in times of chaos. This was true in 1968 with anti-Vietnam supporters of Eugene McCarthy and in 2008 after the controversial Iraq War with supporters of then Senator Barack Obama. Most recently, it happened in 2016 and 2020 with supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Does the 18-29 Voter Matter?
Politically, the young vote has been constantly discarded as being relatively minor in terms of elections and public opinions. Besides the anomaly of the 2008 presidential election, there have only been three times where the 18-29 age group eclipsed 40% in total turnout (1992, 2004, 2016). In addition, in midterm elections, 18-29 voter participation is at an even lower rate. The 2014 midterm elections received only 19.9% 18-29 voter participation, one of the lowest rates in years.
However, the 18-29 voter demographic, which largely favors Democrats, is slowly growing in size. It’s experiencing a sharp uptick due to overall disdain of the Trump administration and controversial current events. In 2018, 18-29 voters experienced a 15.7% increase from 2014 in
participation, rising to a turnout rate of up to 35.6%. In addition, while 2016 was not a great year for Democrats and a majority of young voters, voter participation amongst 18-29 year olds actually increased from the previous election. They became the only age group to see an uptick in voting engagement that year.
With these observations, I posed a question: has voter turnout amongst 18-29 year old voters truly had an impact on races in the most recent 2018 statewide elections across numerous swing states? By looking into exit polling data and the composition of the electorate in numerous competitive states and competitive Senate and gubernatorial seats, I sought out to try and find any association between 18-29 voter swings towards Democrats and overall wins by Democrats in 2018. To compare most effectively, I decided to look at the 2014 midterm statewide elections with exit polling.
Results in 2014
Ultimately, the divide between 2014 and 2018 data on 18-29 voters is staggering. It shows a somewhat clear association between 18-29 year olds voting favorably for Democrats and races becoming tighter. This occurred even in years where Democrats were heavily favored to lose. The data was collected from a mix of exit polling done by Edison Research in the 2008-2016 presidential elections as well as the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections.
As certain states were not exit-polled in certain years (namely safely Republican or Democratic states such as Arkansas or Kentucky), the shifts are from the most recent election where exit polling has taken place. In addition, exit polling for 18-29 year olds in Arizona was not available, which leaves the state off my analysis. Ultimately, I decided on creating a youth voter index, which was a measure of whether or not a Democrat over-performed or underperformed both the 18-29 shifts from previous elections and the total shift of the electorate. A 1 indicated a candidate who over-performed both. 0.5 indicated a candidate who only over-performed once, while a 0 indicated a candidate who couldn’t over-perform either.
In 2014, Republicans shifted the country in the rightward direction by 9.6 points. This was reflected accurately in the datasets. Only three states shifted towards the left in the 18-29 vote, and many competitive states such as Wisconsin, Florida, and Michigan’s gubernatorial race had extreme underperformances by Democrats among young voters. This led to otherwise close races yielding Republican victory. The only states to receive a 1 in the YSI index of overperformance amongst youth voters were Alaska and Georgia. These were two states in which President Obama underperformed amongst 18-29 voters in previous elections. Additionally, Democrats had greater coattails downballot due to entrenched Democratic incumbents in these traditionally Republican states.
A few bright spots did remain downballot in 2014 for Democrats. These bright spots were held up in part due to margins amongst 18-29 voters not shifting tremendously towards Republicans in states such as New Hampshire and Virginia.
The Michigan Anomaly
This is also exemplified in the striking difference between the Michigan runs of Democrats Mark Schauer and Gary Peters. The fundamentals of the races were different; Schauer took on an incumbent Republican governor in a R-leaning year while Peters beat a lackluster candidate on the Republican side in Terri Lynn Land. However, the difference in the shift of 18-29 voters from 2012-2014 was 18 points more Republican in the gubernatorial election than in the Senate election. This was a margin that ultimately helped Schauer lose.
In fact, if the Democrats kept the same margin in the gubernatorial race as they did in the Senate race of 2014 with 18-29 voters, with all other factors such as turnout held constant, their deficit would have gone down from over 120,000 votes to almost 40,000 votes. This is a sharp decline and essentially creates an even race. This anecdote shows the critical importance of the 18-29 voting demographic, even as overall turnout surged downward in 2014.
Yet, it is also important to notice that there were a few anomalies outside of the expected hypothesis. For example, in the state of Maine, youth voter composition actually went up. Republican Susan Collins cruised to victory in the Senate while Republican Paul LePage squeaked by in a close gubernatorial race. This could potentially be explained by the lack of true Democratic opposition in the Senate and the high approval ratings across all parties for Susan Collins in 2014. This could have led to Democrats and younger voters to vote for Collins and LePage downballot. Collins’s personal brand, coupled with an anti-Democratic year in 2014, could have been a unique situation that led to increased voter engagement and worsened results in Maine for Democrats.
A Democratic Rout
2018 proved to show some signs of greater voter engagement amongst 18-29 year olds. It also marked a shift towards Democratics throughout the country. Outside of the Georgia gubernatorial race, the New Jersey Senate race, and the New York gubernatorial race, the 18-29 voter block shifted towards Democrats. While the Georgia gubernatorial race is a curious situation that needs future analysis, the New Jersey Senate race and New York governor’s race could be explained due in part to incumbent officeholders Bob Menendez and Andrew Cuomo being seen as corrupt. Additionally, New Jersey and New York are both solidly Democratic states.
In addition, while youth voter composition did ultimately decrease from previous presidential elections as expected in a midterm election, states such as Nevada and Montana were home to either a non-changing voter composition rate or an increasing rate. This helped lead Democrats Jacky Rosen and Jon Tester to Senate victories. Most swing states, such as Nevada, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, experienced complete overperformances by Democrats in the 18-29 demographic. This led to wins in both the Senate and gubernatorial races in all four of these battleground states.
Notably, a few Democratic candidates in largely competitive states, such as Florida and Michigan, exhibited different rates of young voter engagement which played a large role in their margins. One of the few dark spots for Democrats in 2018, Florida, flipped to the Republicans on the Senate level. It also stayed with Republicans in the gubernatorial race, even as the country shifted sharply to the left. However, the margins in the race can potentially be explained by the youth vote margins and shift.
For example, in the Senate race between incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Rick Scott, 18-29 voters shifted 16 points to the left from 2016. The race was decided by less than 10,000 votes in favor of the Republicans. The gubernatorial race between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis, however, received only a 6 point shift to the left in the 18-29 voting demographic. This was an underperformance of the overall shift that occurred across the country.
Similarly, Michigan’s gubernatorial and Senate races, both of which were won by Democrats, had vastly different levels of performance in the 18-29 voting demographic; in the Gubernatorial race, Democrats actually underperformed in comparison to 2016 in both metrics. Democrat Gretchen Whitmer held on even with relatively reduced enthusiasm from younger voters. Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, on the other hand, actually overperformed with 18-29 voters in general. Even though she ran behind Whitmer, her increasing support from the 18-29 voting demographic and their willingness to shift her way was a potential major reason why Democrats were able to keep this seat.
Even Republican States Saw Gains
It is important to note that 18-29 voter engagement in states such as Tennessee, North Dakota, and Missouri all shot up and shifted considerably towards Democrats. However, these races still favored Republicans. These three states all had 18-29 voter composition at or below 15%. These states favor older demographics that tend to vote more Republican in comparison to younger generations.
In addition, in a state such as Indiana (another solid Republican state), the lack of engagement from 18-29 voters coupled with underperformances in 18-29 margins led to a Republican gain in the Senate. Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly only shifted the 18-29 vote Three points in his favor in this traditionally Republican state. This wasn’t nearly enough to offset Republican gains amongst older demographics. It can be argued that Donnelly’s relative lack of engagement at universities across the state helped Republicans unseat him.
Notably, there is one other anomaly: West Virginia. Manchin improved upon performances from previous presidential election years in West Virginia and swept through the 18-29 voting demographic. However, this could be as a result of his name recognition and support among some Republicans. Notably, Manchin improved in every single demographic by excessive amounts in comparison to previous Democrats. This is a true anomaly in a state where national Democrats rarely receive any semblance of support today.
Confounders and Further Study
Ultimately, this exploration is grounded in a hypothesis. In any state, increased engagement on the behalf of Democratic campaigns with younger voters can lead to closer elections. This belief is grounded in the idea that even in safe states, there are still competitive downballot races. Even these can be tilted in favor of Democrats as a result of increased 18-29 voting engagement.
In addition, this helps make the case that Democratic operatives and consultants should be focused on grassroots, personable campaigning to 18-29 voters on the issues that matter to them. One can deduce that if the 18-29 voting demographic experiences an expected increase within its slice of the general electorate as a result of the upcoming general election, coupled with the vote increasingly favoring Democrats, Democrats can expect to overperform both nationally and locally and surprise in some races on election night.
A Strategy for 18-29 Voters
For future studies, more emphasis needs to be placed on finding a direct correlation between increased 18-29 voter representation in the general electorate and Democratic victories on the federal and local level. In addition, there are many potential confounders that could lead towards bias within these results; for example, how would one measure the personability rating of a specific candidate towards the 18-29 voting demographic? In addition, each Democrat or Republican is not the same on policy and their favorability within the 18-29 voting demographic. Certain Democrats or Republicans prioritize certain issues. If a Democrat who does not prioritize issues that the 18-29 voting demographic prioritizes still overperforms and wins, we could receive a more nuanced answer on the importance of the 18-29 voting demographic in general.
These upcoming 2020 elections could become one of the most monumental in shaping the discourse for the next generation. Not only is the Presidency important, but control over Congress dictates which bills are signed into law. Moreover, gubernatorial and legislative races can control the agenda of a state for the foreseeable future. In order to enact the change that 18-29 year old voters have been hoping for recently, it is necessary to vote downballot and understand the significance that their vote has. A handful of votes can decide extremely close and significant elections, even in very red or blue states.
Attached here is a link to getting your absentee ballot no matter where you are in order to vote in the upcoming 2020 elections.