Inside Story

Trump’s generation gap

Young voters look like playing a bigger role than usual in this year’s election

Lesley Russell 8 September 2020 2139 words

Turning out: students voting at Colorado State University during the 2018 midterm elections. Austin Humphreys/The Coloradoan

Forty-seven million Americans aged eighteen to twenty-nine will be eligible to vote in November’s elections, and for fifteen million of them it will be their first chance to vote for a president. That group — a mix of millennials (those born 1981–96) and the oldest of generation Z (born in 1997 or later) — makes up almost one-fifth of the estimated 240 million eligible voters this year.

Its members are more ethnically diverse and more progressive than older generations. In their relatively short lifetimes they have experienced the 9/11 terrorist attack, the global financial crisis, a series of extreme weather events and the impact of global warming, and now a global pandemic and a nation rent by racial, civic and hyper-partisan divisions.

They also turn out to vote in consistently lower numbers than older generations. In 2018, though, fired up by gun control, immigration, student debt, climate change and other issues they took personally, and supercharged by their opposition to president Donald Trump, their turnout increased substantially at the midterm elections. The figure is variously given as 36 per cent by the US Census Bureau, 42 per cent by Pew Research, and 46 per cent by the Harvard Institute of Politics: the differences appear to lie in the fact that data are only available from forty-two states so the national figure must be estimated.

Two-thirds of them supported the Democratic candidate for Congress, the widest partisan gap in this group for the past twenty-five years.

With this year’s presidential election widely seen as a pivotal point for both American democracy and international politics, experts say young voters could have a significant impact on the result. Is that accurate? Will their concerns and the candidates’ responses get them out to vote this time around?

The United States has one of the lowest rates of youth voter turnout.

Despite the boost in 2018, the early evidence from the 2020 presidential primaries suggested that figure wouldn’t rise this year. Fewer than one in five young people cast ballots in the Super Tuesday states.

These young people aren’t turned off by politics — in fact, they are surprisingly engaged. During the 2016 campaign, three-quarters of Americans aged under thirty professed an interest in politics, and a survey conducted in 2019 by the Kennedy School at Harvard found that 43 per cent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds said they were likely to vote in their party’s primary.

To date, though, those intentions haven’t translated into actions. Key among the reasons is the fact that first-time voters are often confused by complex and unclear voter-registration rules.

Voting is a fraught process in the United States, even in the best of circumstances, and young people are less likely to know where they should vote and more likely to be negatively affected when polling places get moved. It is particularly difficult for those from families that don’t see voting as a priority, for those whose parents may not themselves be eligible to vote, and for those who are moving from home to college or work. Young Americans are also less likely to have the necessary driver’s licence, passport or other voter identification.

Young people often miss the deadlines to register to vote, which is required in every state except North Dakota. Four million teenagers turn eighteen in 2020 and each state has varying laws about when they can register. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia allow pre-registration for seventeen-year-olds, and sometimes even sixteen-year-olds, but some states require people to be eighteen. Same-day registration is available in twenty-one states and the District of Columbia, and several states, including California and Oregon, have some form of automatic voter registration. In states that have implemented these types of reforms the turnout gap between older and younger voters has closed by about a third.

College and university campuses would normally be expected to help students vote, although this year many campuses are closed because of Covid-19. Between 2014 and 2018, the rate of student voting more than doubled, from 19.3 per cent to 40.3 per cent. In 2018 that was some 7.5 million students whose voting preferences leant strongly to Democrats. Female students, especially those who were Black or Latina, voted at the highest rates.

Students have a right (protected under a 1979 US Supreme Court decision) to register and vote where they attend college. Colleges and universities are also obliged by the federal Higher Education Act to make voter registration and voting available to all their students. That hasn’t stopped legislatures in several swing states, including Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and New Hampshire, from imposing rules that make it harder for college students to register and vote.

Campus closures combined with active suppression efforts are creating the “perfect storm,” especially with the alternative, mail-in voting, itself under threat. A recent poll found that more than half of young voters feel they don’t have the resources or knowledge they need to vote by mail in November.

On the other side of the ledger, a plethora of action groups is seeking to engage young people in the political processes. Those with a progressive focus include the Alliance for Youth Action, Kids Voting USA, NextGen America and Young Invincibles. Conservative group Turning Point USA, meanwhile — which aims to “educate, train and organise students to promote freedom” — is closely linked to the Trump family, and founder Charlie Kirk has acknowledged its focus on waging political warfare on campuses, in particular those in swing states.

Young voters care about a range of issues, including college debt, affordable healthcare, expanding voter rights, gun violence, immigration, climate change, and jobs and the economy. Polling shows they are less likely to approve of President Trump’s performance, more likely to think government has a role in solving society’s problems, more likely to think African Americans are treated less fairly than white Americans, and more likely to attribute climate change to human activity. College students cite Covid-19 and race relations as the two most important issues facing the nation.

The pandemic will most heavily affect the future prospects of young Americans, who are bearing the brunt of job losses in those businesses — restaurants, bars and retail — that typically employ younger people and seldom provide benefits, or who have had their education interrupted. For older millennials, the economic disruption is especially difficult because many have never fully recovered from the global financial crisis. The pandemic also makes access to affordable health insurance top of mind, especially with the Trump administration supporting the current attempt to have the US Supreme Court strike down the Affordable Care Act.

But while millennials and generation Z agree on many issues, this age group is by no means a liberal monolith. In particular, the voting patterns of young white men stand out. In 2018, more than a third of voters under age thirty were white men; in some key states like Iowa, Ohio and New Hampshire they make up a sizeable share of the electorate. They are the only subgroup of young voters to consistently vote Republican, although this support fell significantly over the first two years of Trump’s presidency.

In 2016 young white men preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton by twenty-two percentage points while young white women and young women and men of colour preferred Clinton by margins ranging from fifteen to sixty percentage points. Two years later young white men still preferred the Republicans, but by only seven percentage points. By contrast, young white women and young men of colour voted for Democratic candidates by a margin of thirty percentage points and young women of colour by a margin of over eighty.

Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, classifies this group of young white men as potential swing voters in 2020. Its research found that nearly one in five young voters who backed Republicans in 2018 plan to support Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden this year.

Who speaks to and for this generation of young voters? Many millennials cast their first votes for Barack Obama, and members of generation Z began entering the electorate just as his term was ending. For them, his administration is a reference point for who is electable and what is achievable. Small wonder that many in 2020 don’t see anyone offering what they want.

A series of polls taken in the run-up to the primary elections this year show that it isn’t necessarily the age of the candidates that matter — rather, young people are attracted by the ideas they put forward. That is why Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg ranked so well, although Biden has always been in consideration.

Young Republicans are also speaking out, concerned that the party and its leaders are failing to speak to people like them. In his rants against illegal immigrants, voter fraud and crime, Trump has undoubtedly preyed on the fears of older white voters and dismissed the more socially aware concerns of younger voters. At the same time, more than a quarter of the country’s eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds (29 per cent) say that their lives are worse because of Trump and only 15 per cent say their lives are better.

It is no surprise, then, that this election will be a referendum on Trump and his administration and policies for this age group.

A Harvard Institute of Politics poll in April found that 54 per cent of young voters (69 per cent of Democrats, 64 per cent of Republicans and 31 per cent of independents) intended to vote in November’s general election. This is up from the 50 per cent who, in the spring of 2016, told the same pollster they would vote — although the actual turnout in November that year was lower. (The poll cites 46 per cent and, as previously discussed, it is likely even lower.)

This poll also found that young Americans preferred Biden (then only the presumptive nominee) over Trump by twenty-three percentage points, an advantage that extended to thirty percentage points among those most likely to vote.

More recent polling shows that Biden, as the official Democratic candidate, has kept this level of support among millennials and generation Z, who strongly reject Trump’s management of the coronavirus pandemic and his responses to the Black Lives Matter protests. Differences based on race and education remain, but they are diminishing.

A July Brookings Institute survey of voting intentions among white working-class Americans — those without a college education who are seen as Trump’s key supporters — shows younger voters in this group are more likely than their elders to question Trump’s competence and character. The survey found 45 per cent of these potential 2020 voters aged under forty were leaning to Biden. It can be assumed that this trend is more pronounced in voters under thirty (and has perhaps become even more dramatic with the passage of time and the impact of the pandemic).

An August survey of college students by the Knight Foundation showed Democratic nominee Joe Biden to be their clearly preferred candidate; around 70 per cent said they’d vote for the Democratic nominee, compared with only 18 per cent for Trump. But respondents were not enthusiastic about Biden, and their voting intentions appear to be driven by a dislike of Trump (of whom 81 per cent had an unfavourable view).

Motivated by their social sensibilities and their experience of life in Trump’s America, it is clear that young voters will make efforts to have their voices heard in the November election, even in the face of voting barriers. Seventy-one per cent of the 4000 full-time college students who responded to one survey were “absolutely certain” they would vote in the general election this year. Such a participation rate would be unprecedented for young voters (that’s the level seen in voters aged sixty-five and over), but then the 2020 election will have many unprecedented aspects.

While turnout will be important in determining the outcomes of the November election, the exigencies of the electoral college system mean that where the turnout occurs will be even more important. CIRCLE’s analysis sees youth votes as particularly important for the presidential outcome in a number of states, including Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

These voters will actually have two important roles in 2020. The first is to follow up on the commitments they have expressed so strongly to date by casting their votes. The second is to spearhead a movement that engages their peers and family in the political process.

Projections show that millennials and generation Z will make up more than half of the population by 2030, and more than half of all eligible voters. If they turn out in 2020 at the same rate as older citizens and then stay politically engaged, they can get their elected representatives to pay attention to the policy issues that matter to them and begin the task of uniting a nation bowed down by a pandemic, racial injustice, social inequalities, ultra-partisan politics and the Trump kakistocracy. •