The young are much less likely to vote, a perennial problem, but signs suggest participation levels could soon rise.
Young Americans have been moving left and leaving the G.O.P. in recent years, but a successful Democratic coalition built on the backs of liberal youth is far from a sure thing, especially in the short term.
The party’s problem is straightforward: getting them to actually go to the polls. Politicians know which part of the electorate still butters their bread — and there’s no avocado on it. Those aged 18 to 29 vote at far lower rates than older groups, decreasing their electoral power. But there are at least some signs that their participation levels will improve. And if an increasingly left-leaning voting bloc does become more politically active, there are huge potential gains for the Democratic Party.
The obvious positive news for Democrats is reflected in the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (C.C.E.S.), a survey of 64,000 adults. Fifty-four percent of American adults younger than 30 identified as Democrat or leaning-Democrat in 2016 — that’s six percentage points higher than among the rest of the public. Young people also call themselves “very liberal” or “liberal” more often than Americans older than 30, by five and seven percentage points.
Roughly 60 percent of this group reported voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to the C.C.E.S. (This is higher than the 55 percent reported in exit polls after the election.)
This may warm Democrats’ hearts, but it’s still a far cry from the hyper-left youth vote some like to think exists. President Trump won the white youth vote last year, after all. A significant part of the Democratic lean among the young can be simply explained by their increased diversity — but not all of it. The youngest voters have been leaning Democratic since 2004.
That doesn’t mean they have the same party loyalty of older left-of-center generations. They’re more likely to register as independent.
The young were nearly three times as likely as voters over 30 to vote for a third-party candidate last November. About one in 10 voted for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, or the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, or another candidate or write-in option. This could be a reflection of the fact that many young Americans had their first glimpse of national politics during the hotly contested ideological battle between Bernie Sanders and Mrs. Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary election.
Young millennials — and I’m one of them — have experienced Democratic Party infighting practically since their political life began.
The infighting has continued in recent months: Should Democrats allow anti-abortion candidates? Is single-payer insurance the one “true” path forward for health care? Should the party make its main priority courting working-class whites?
As important as it would be for Democrats to unite and to keep left-of-center voters from straying, it would be even more helpful to win Republican converts. A recent report from Pew Research Center found that 23 percent of young Americans who identified as Republican or independent-leaning-Republican switched to identifying as Democrat or independent-leaning-Democrat from 2015 to 2017.
The same report estimated that just 9 percent of young Democrats or those who lean Democratic switched to the G.O.P. My analysis of survey data from the 2010-2014 C.C.E.S. panel survey finds that these recent levels of Republican-to-Democrat switching are around 11 percentage points higher than past levels.
The 2016 C.C.E.S. data corroborates this story, showing that about 75 percent of young Republicans voted for Donald J. Trump — about 20 points lower than the level of Republican voters older than 30.
That all sounds promising for Democrats. But you might have noticed something in November 2016: This trend wasn’t enough to produce a victory for Mrs. Clinton.
The turnout among those 18 to 29 was just 43 percent in 2016, compared with 60 percent for the entire electorate. And in recent midterm elections, they have voted at rates no higher than 21 percent, which is less than the 36 percent overall average.
If those turnout patterns hold true in the 2018 midterms, young millennials will cast a measly 10 percent of total ballots. So even if the Democrats do add 25 percent of young Republicans to their ranks, it will amount only to roughly 3 percent of the electorate in 2018.
What may be more important than the level at which young Republicans are switching parties are their reasons for doing so. The Pew Research Center report found that 84 percent of the Republicans-turned-Democrats (regardless of age) disapproved of President Trump. Fifty-four percent strongly disapproved. A recent poll conducted by Gallup found approval of Mr. Trump among millennials to be near 23 percent. This would equate to a decline of 10 percentage points since Inauguration Day, slightly outpacing the nine-point decline among all Americans.
Not only is the president an unpopular figure with young Americans, but he has been also been growing more unpopular over time. Could President Trump be turning away the young in such a way that it could cause the Republican Party long-lasting harm?
Millennials tend to have more fluid partisanship, maybe because they haven’t cemented political attachments yet. But there’s evidence that your early political years are your most formative: Once you settle on a party, you tend to stick with it.
Another hope for Democrats is that the young have been activated by the Trump presidency, and there is some evidence of this. They could match the rise in turnout in the highly publicized special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District in the spring. Voters 18 to 29 represented 10.6 percent of the electorate in that contest, up from 6 percent in the 2014 midterms. (The Democrat, Jon Ossoff, still lost.)
Across the Atlantic, too, there are clues that young people are more politically active, after being stunned by the Brexit vote. Sixty-four percent of voters 18 to 24 turned out in the 2017 British elections, an increase of 16 percentage points since the most recent contest in 2015. What’s more, that age group supported the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist, by 20 points more than it did in 2015.
But Democrats still shouldn’t count on the young to rescue them in 2018 or 2020. The 2020 election is supposed to be the first presidential race in which millennials outnumber baby boomers. The 2016 turnout numbers, however, offer a stark reminder: Boomers, who lean Republican, turned out to vote at a rate 23 percentage points higher than that of millennials. And in the 2014 midterms, they outnumbered the millennial electorate by a factor of three.
Unless that changes, boomers, though they may be outnumbered by millennials, may continue to decide their future.