Democrats See Young-Voter Surge Growing in 2018
Democrats credited turnout and engagement from diverse coalitions for statewide election wins this year, but chief among these reasons was the increased participation and a large shift in support from a demographic that bedeviled the party last year: millennials.
Though Hillary Clinton won more young voters than President Trump, she underperformed with the group compared to President Obama’s elections, including lower-than-expected support in key swing states that helped Trump win. A year later, in a large part in response to Trump’s victory, surging youth turnout helped Democrats win key statewide races, and the party is counting on similar results in next year’s midterms.
Republicans generally dismiss the notion that Democratic wins in 2017 represented a pattern, arguing that Alabama’s unique circumstances and Virginia’s increasingly blue electorate are not indicative of a cresting wave of young, Democratic support.
Yet despite the unique nature of Alabama’s Senate contest on Tuesday -- a controversial Republican nominee losing in a deep red state on an Election Day squeezed between two major holidays -- Democrats saw encouraging signs among young voters.
“You’re really seeing millennial voters really leading now and millennial voters really taking the reins of this democracy and starting to drive it in the right direction,” said Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who rallied with Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama the weekend before the election.
“I’m really proud of this generation and how they’re taking these elections seriously. I think they’re going to be a deciding — not the, but a -- deciding factor in the outcome of the 2018 elections,” Booker added.
In his narrow 1.5 percentage-point victory over Roy Moore, Jones won voters aged 18-29 by a 60 percent-38 percent margin, and won among voters aged 30-44 by a similar tally, according to exit polling data. This represents an enormous shift from previous elections in the state. In 2012 -- the most recent year for which exit polls are available -- President Obama lost 18-to-29-year-old voters to Mitt Romney by a 52 percent-48 percent margin (the margin was larger for voters ages 30-44).
In particular, Democrats saw a major surge in college areas. In Tuscaloosa County, home to the University of Alabama, President Trump won last year with 57.7 percent of the vote. Jones won the county with 57.2 percent, improving over Hillary Clinton’s total there by nearly 19 percentage points. In Lee County, home of Auburn University, Trump won last year with 58.5 percent of the vote. Jones won it with 57.4 percent, a 21.5 percentage-point gain over Clinton.
Jones’ campaign carefully targeted young voters, according to an Al.com report. Beyond traditional outreach like tailgating at Auburn and Alabama football games, Jones used texting and digital ad programs to turn out the youth vote.
Those efforts were done in tandem with the Democratic National Committee, which quietly worked to give the party a presence in areas with high youth concentration. In a conference call Tuesday, Chairman Tom Perez said all of the $1 million the committee spent in Alabama went toward boosting African-American and millennial voter turnout. The DNC had five campus organizers to target historically black colleges and universities for registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, including providing rides to county clerks for registration, and to the polls. They also ran a text program that sent over 1 million texts to voters and volunteers.
“We went to college campuses because we knew that Doug’s message would resonate with millennial voters,” Perez told reporters.
Republicans, however, didn’t betray much concern over Jones’ support with young voters, arguing that it was simply antipathy for Moore, who had been accused by multiple women of inappropriate sexual behavior decades ago, when they were teenagers.
“They’ll be right back in the party,” said Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, who did not support Moore. “They get a candidate, a Republican candidate, they believe in, they’re going to be with the Republicans.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham said despite the fact that President Trump went all in supporting Moore, enough Republicans did not back the controversial candidate that voters would view it as an outlier over time.
But Democrats believe Alabama, paired with elections in New Jersey and Virginia earlier this year, shows a deeper trend among young voters. Ralph Northam, the Democrat who won Virginia’s gubernatorial election, outperformed both Clinton and Obama with millennial voters.
Sixty-nine percent of voters aged 18-29 supported Northam to just 30 percent for Ed Gillespie, the Republican. By comparison, Clinton won just 54 percent of that voting bloc last year, and Obama won 61 percent in 2012. (Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe won young voters in 2013, but a substantial margin went to a third-party candidate.)
More importantly for Democrats was that turnout doubled from 17 percent in 2009 to 34 percent in 2017, according to a research center at Tufts University. Northam’s support surged in the area around Richmond and in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, both pockets of young voters, helping fuel his larger-than-expected win.
Republicans recognize the problem as 2018 approaches, and are hopeful they can curb the trend by securing more legislative victories in the coming months, and messaging those gains better to young voters. Rep. Steve Stivers, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, cited the GOP tax plan set to be voted on next week, and said it would benefit young voters who are new to the workforce.
“One of the things we have to do is help millennial voters understand the things we’re doing for them,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job communicating that as of the 13th of December.”
That sales job may prove difficult: A Quinnipiac Poll earlier this week showed that voters aged 18-34 disapproved of the tax overhaul by 40 percentage points.
Republicans have dismissed negative public polling on their tax plan, saying that once individual voters see changes in their paychecks, they’ll be supportive. The plan lowers tax rates for all income categories, and analyses have shown that the majority of individuals would see a tax cut, though a small percentage could see increases.
“They’re going to see more dollars in their pocket and that is going to be an important moment for them to decide which party, which ideas, are better for their long-term prosperity and financial future,” Sen. Steve Daines said.
The GOP has also stepped up its effort to bring younger voters into the party. The Republican National Committee launched the Republican Leadership Initiative in the last election cycle, training 5,000 organizers for the 2016 elections and 4,500 in 2017. The RNC also partnered with 40 colleges to allow students to earn class credit from the program, and is launching a new initiative in the spring to identify leaders on campuses who will help organize and energize local volunteers ahead of 2018.
“Young professionals make up a significant portion of our RLI Program,” said Blair Ellis, an RNC spokeswoman. “Their support for the Republican Party agenda is reflected in the increased engagement and involvement in our party’s programs.”
Still, even if they can stem the tide in 2018, some Republicans worry the youth vote may prove a long-term problem for the party. A survey released earlier this month by the Harvard Institute of Politics showed that by a 2-1 margin, voters aged 18-29 preferred a Democratic Congress next year; just one-quarter of these voters approve of Trump -- including just two-thirds of young Republicans.
Several of the GOP’s long-held policy positions are also unpopular among this demographic: Young Republicans said gun laws should be more strict, not less strict, by a 2-1 margin, according to the Harvard poll. Nearly one-third of Republicans and more than half of independents supported single-payer health care.
Democrats almost universally criticized the Federal Communication Commission decision Thursday to repeal net neutrality regulations, a major issue they believe will ignite youth voters.
Democrats are increasingly counting on that as a weapon in future election cycles. Millennials matched baby boomers as the largest share of the electorate earlier this year, according to the Pew Research Center, and will outstrip them in the coming years. Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times arguing Trump could be fueling an exodus of young voters from the party.
“In the Trump era, young voters may be walking away from the parties themselves,” Anderson wrote, “but they are voting quite like Democrats.”