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Youth turnout could save, or sink, Democrats in 2022

By Ronald Brownstein, CNN Politics | March 22, 2022

(CNN) — Soaring turnout and big margins among young voters were central to the Democratic victories in the 2018 congressional and 2020 presidential elections. But with many young people expressing disenchantment with President Joe Biden's performance, preserving those advantages looms as one of the biggest challenges facing Democrats in the 2022 midterms.

There's widespread concern among Democrats that turnout for young people this November could fall back from its gains in 2018 toward the meager levels that contributed to the party's crushing losses in the 2014 and 2010 midterm elections.

"If you accept the status quo with young people, it's not going to go great," says Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin. "Turnout is not going to be good."

Most Republicans are expecting exactly that sort of decline, driven both by waning enthusiasm for Biden and diminishing concern about Donald Trump, whose visibility has dimmed since he left the White House.

"We are seeing that younger voters who were voting in some of these elections because of Trump don't seem to be inspired by Biden, and I think their turnout will fall back to traditional levels," says GOP consultant John Brabender.

Some structural dynamics may help to sustain youth turnout this fall. Many experts note that the large youth turnout of 2018 and 2020 creates momentum for continued participation, because people who register and vote in one election are more likely to vote in the next. Over the past two elections, Democrats and nonpartisan groups have built a significant organizational infrastructure to engage more young voters, and those efforts are continuing through 2022.

"The elevated youth turnout and the elevated youth registration and participation that we saw from '16 to '18 to '20 is not magic," says Nsé Ufot, chief executive officer of the New Georgia Project, a non-profit voter registration and mobilization group founded by Stacey Abrams. "It is absolutely a direct result of our investment and our labor and targeting that particular group."

Yet many strategists focusing on the youth vote agree that these factors may not be enough to prevent a significant fall-off without changes in the political environment. One key for Democrats will be finding ways to raise the visibility of Trump, who was deeply unpopular with the youngest voters. Even more important may be Biden finding ways to generate more progress than he has so far on issues important to younger generations, particularly combating climate change and reducing the burden of student debt.

"My stern warning to the Biden administration and Democrats is you have to take this seriously, because if we do go back to a 2010 or 2014 model where they really fall off it's going to make it very difficult for us in November," says Tulchin, who served as the pollster for Bernie Sanders during the 2020 primary campaign, when the senator from Vermont dominated Biden among younger voters.

A coming shift in electoral power

On paper, the increasing electoral influence of the millennial generation and Generation Z could be one of the Democrats' most significant assets through the 2020s. Each of those generations is much more racially and culturally diverse than older Americans, especially the baby boomers, who are about 80% White and now lean mostly toward the GOP. Nearly half of Generation Z (currently defined as young people born between 1997 and 2012) are kids of color, more than one-third identify as secular without affiliation to any organized religion and a striking one-fifth in a recent Gallup survey identified as LGBTQ. Millennials (generally defined as those born between 1981 and 1996) don't tilt quite so far toward change but are still far more diverse on each metric than older generations.

Inexorably, the balance of electoral power is shifting toward these younger generations. William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, told me that he projects about 17 million young people will turn 18 between the 2020 and 2024 elections, and that fully 49% of them will be kids of color. Simultaneously, more of the predominantly White baby boomers and members of the Silent Generation are aging out of the electorate.

The nonpartisan States of Change project (which Frey advises) calculated that in 2016, millennials and their younger Generation Z counterparts accounted for a little less than one-third of eligible voters, far less than the nearly 45% represented by the baby boomers and older generations. By 2024, those numbers will more than flip: The group projects that millennials and Generation Z will account for nearly 45% of eligible voters, while baby boomers and older generations will shrink to about one-fourth. (Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980, stay constant at about one-fourth of the electorate throughout that period.)

But the electoral impact of these demographic shifts has been diluted by low turnout among younger voters -- a problem that has been especially acute in midterm elections.

Those trends, though, dramatically reversed in the past two elections, enormously boosting Democrats in the process. In the 2020 presidential election, exactly half of eligible voters younger than 30 cast ballots, according to a detailed study by CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), an institute at Tufts University that studies younger voters. That was still less than the number for older generations, but it constituted a huge jump from their 39% turnout rate in 2016. Youth turnout, the group found, did not decline in any state from 2016 through 2020 and multiple states saw double-digit increases -- including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada, states that keyed Biden's victory.

The 2018 upsurge may have been even more striking. Voter turnout is much lower for every group in midterm elections, and it has been especially bad among young people. But in 2018, CIRCLE found, more than twice as large a share of eligible young voters turned out than in 2014, the previous midterms. That pushed youth turnout in 2018 past 28%, up from 13% four years before. Once again, the changes were broad-based, with CIRCLE finding that youth turnout increased in every state.

"We have seen two important election cycles in a row where young people have been leading," says Abby Kiesa, CIRCLE's deputy director.

For Democrats, the benefits of this expanded youth turnout were compounded by widening margins. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was held below 60% of the vote among young adults not because they preferred Trump but because so many of them defected to third party candidates, according to most data sources about the election results. But in 2018 and 2020, Democrats swelled that advantage. In 2018, they carried at least two-thirds of voters aged 18-29, according to sources such as the exit polls conducted by Edison Research, the Pew Research Center's validated voters study and the analysis by Catalist, a leading Democratic targeting firm. In 2020, all three of those sources (as well as CIRCLE's analysis) found that Biden carried around three-fifths of young adults.

Still, Biden's showing represented a decline from the Democratic performance among young voters in 2018 and extended the difficulty he had connecting with them during the 2020 Democratic primaries -- when they broke for Sanders over him by about 4 to 1, according to a cumulative CNN analysis of exit polls at the time. Public opinion polls show that Biden's troubles with young voters have persisted into his presidency. In the latest CNN national survey, just 40% of those aged 18-34 said they approved of his job performance, and fewer than 3 in 10 described him as a strong leader. Other polls, like last week's Monmouth University survey, have registered similar weakness.

The enthusiasm factor

The fall-off between Biden's 2020 vote share among younger people and his current approval rating may be larger than for any other major group. That gap is the principal reason why many in both parties believe Democrats will struggle to match the elevated youth turnout during the past two campaigns. "They are not going to show up in a midterm election to support a president that they are not ... enthusiastic about," Brabender predicts. The surge of laws Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed since 2020 making it more difficult to vote could also disproportionately deter younger voters. Analyses by CIRCLE and the Fair Elections Center have found that 2020 youth turnout was highest in states that facilitated voting -- including Colorado, Oregon and Washington, states with accommodating registration laws and universal mail balloting.

"All of the things we see that make it more difficult to vote early, or vote by mail, they affect a number of different communities, but students are very much up there on that list," says Bob Brandon, president and CEO of the Fair Elections Center, which recently published a study on barriers to youth voting.

Almost everyone working with young voters agrees it will be challenging to replicate the turnout surges of 2018 and 2020. But most also say it's too early to concede that a decline is inevitable, especially to the very low levels of the 2014 and 2010 midterms, when Republicans made enormous gains.

"There is still time to impact them," says Tulchin. "We are not locked in from here to November."

The biggest asset for those working to nudge younger voters to the polls is that so many of them have voted in the recent past. Prior registration and voting are among the best predictors of future participation.

Kiesa says that while the current political climate is unlikely to generate record turnout among young people, neither does she believe that Biden's lagging approval rating with them "means going back to 2014 levels of midterm turnout."

"The increase in youth voter turnout in the 2020 election means there are more young people on the voter rolls than at any time in recent elections," she told me. "We know that young people who are registered to vote are dramatically more likely to turn out than people who start the year not registered to vote. That is a huge opportunity ... for young people to be reaching out to each other and for parties and campaigns to be reaching out to them."

Figures provided to CNN by Catalist, the Democratic targeting firm, underscore her point. In the 2018 midterms, the firm calculates, the elevated youth turnout resulted in about 27 million millennials and members of Generation Z casting ballots. But in the historic overall turnout of 2020, the number of voters from the two youngest generations swelled to more than 49 million. Since then, according to Frey's calculations, about another 8.5 million in Generation Z have turned 18, the vast majority of them citizens eligible to vote. Those figures suggest the size of the pool Democrats have available to try to match -- or at least approach -- the number of young voters in 2018.

After all the exertions of 2018 and 2020, the organizational structure for that kind of outreach has also grown much more robust. NextGen America, a group founded by former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer that focuses on youth mobilization, is looking to turn out 9.6 million adults aged 18-34 this year in eight battleground states (including most of those likely to decide Senate control). Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the group's president and executive director, says one of its principal targets will be the more than 2 million young people across those states who voted in 2020 but not in the previous midterms of 2018.

In no state was youth turnout more critical to recent Democratic gains than Georgia, where strong turnout by young people helped key both Biden's narrow win in 2020 and the stunning twin Senate runoff victories in early 2021 that provided Democrats control of the chamber. This year, the state is facing closely contested races for both governor and Senate, with Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock seeking a full term and Abrams making her second bid for governor.

Ufot says a majority of the targets for the New Georgia Project's turnout efforts in those contests will be voters younger than 35. Though many of those younger adults have been disappointed by the failure of Biden and congressional Democrats to deliver on many of their promises during those campaigns, she says, the group is confident it can mobilize a robust youth turnout anyway.

"We are not relying on enthusiasm (for Biden) at all," she says. "We are relying on organizing, connecting the power of the vote to the things that young Georgians told us they are willing to fight for, that they are willing to take to the streets for."

Unfulfilled promises

Still, political operatives agree that even the most expertly constructed turnout machine needs some enthusiasm to fuel its engine. Those focusing on the youth vote say progress on criminal justice or climate change might help engage more young people this year -- as might Democrats focusing more attention on the threats across Republican-controlled states to abortion, voting and LGBTQ rights, and the proposals to censor teachers and ban books.

But without exception, each activist and operative I spoke with said the most important thing Biden could do to energize more young voters would be to cancel more student debt.

"I don't think it's enough for Democrats to simply point to the other side and say, 'Life could be worse,'" says Tzintzún Ramirez. "Ultimately they also need to show people how their lives could be better."

Nothing would send that message more powerfully, she says, than canceling more student debt, as Biden promised during the campaign. "There is deep, deep economic pain for many young adults across the country, and there is nothing I can think of that the Biden administration could do that is a real campaign promise fulfilment, is obviously politically advantageous and is advantageous to the lives of millions of people," Tzintzún Ramirez says in a view echoed by many of those in the field.

Biden has repeatedly extended a moratorium on student loan payments that the federal government imposed when the pandemic struck in 2020, and he is expected to extend it again later this spring. He's also instituted other changes that reduced debts for some borrowers. But to the frustration of activists and some prominent Democratic senators, he has refused to move further on actually canceling debt while the Education Department studies whether he has the authority to do so unilaterally. The President seems skeptical that the answer is yes and many advocates now view the study as essentially a delaying tactic.

"We're not sure what they are waiting for," says Tzintzún Ramirez.

Biden's hesitancy about canceling debt has left advocates for young voters in the same frustrated position as many groups in the Democratic coalition, from civil rights lawyers to climate activists. All can point to actions Biden and the Democratic-led Congress have taken to advance their causes and benefit their constituents; young people, for instance, received critical economic benefits from many of the provisions in the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 recovery plan Biden signed last year.

But those benefits, for many, have been overshadowed by the many promises Democrats haven't fulfilled on issues important to their voters.

"Young people turned out in huge numbers, basically they won the election" for Democrats, says Brandon. "And what have they seen delivered? That's the issue. Unfortunately, like the public at large, all the stuff that has been delivered just doesn't feel like it."

Unless that changes for more young adults before November, Democrats may be left lamenting a lost opportunity -- and facing the sort of depressed youth turnout that battered them so badly in 2014 and 2010.

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