Young Voters A Huge Opportunity for Democrats in 2018

Simon Rosenberg
6 min readApr 10, 2018

The Pew Research Center recently released some new data about younger voters in the US that was eye popping. It is long been known that younger voters lean towards the Democrats. But there is a post Trump shift manifesting among younger Americans in these midterms that should be scaring the Rs, and causing Democrats to be thinking about how to best to take advantage

Let’s look at a few graphs from the new Pew study. First, Congressional vote intent. In 2014, Dems led this age cohort 50–41, 9 points. In 2018, it is 62–29, 33 points. Yes, 33 points.

Next, the total number of Millennials and Post-Millennials eligible to vote has increased from 60m in 2014 to at least 76–77m this year.

Let’s do a little math here. In 2014, the 60m eligible Millennials broke 50/41 D/R, yielding 30m Dem eligible voters and 24.6m Rs. In 2018, the 77m eligible Millennials and Post-Millennials are breaking 62/39 D to R, yielding a 48m to 22.3m Dem advantage. The net Dem advantage among eligible voters of this age cohort has grown from 5.4m to in 2014 to a whopping 25.7m this year.

Even at a 30% to 40% turnout rate that is an awful lot of new voters available for Democrats this cycle. At 40% turnout it is a net gain of 8m new voters, at 33% it is 6.6m, at 20% it is still 5m. Importantly Pew isn’t picking up as big a difference in vote intent this time between younger and older voters, so the Millennial/Post-Millennial turnout is likely to be closer to the historical midterm average of 40% for all voters.

In the 2014 and 2016 elections the GOP received about 5 million more votes for the House each time, so this net pick up of between 5m and 8m votes for Democrats among this age cohort is no small matter.

Seem extreme to you? It did to me at first, but these large spreads for younger voters also appeared in recent elections in Virginia, Alabama and PA-18. According to the 2016 and 2017 exit polls in Virginia, there was a very big shift of younger voters in the 2017 Governor’s race. In 2016 Clinton won 18–44s 54%–38% (16 points) and 18–29s 54%–36% (18 points). In 2017 Northam won 18–44s 64%-34% (30 points) and 18–29s 69%-30% (39 points). This is a huge shift.

There aren’t such easy apples to apples comparisons in AL and PA-18, but we did see similar spreads. In Alabama, according to the exit poll, Senator Doug Jones won 18–44 year olds, 61%-38%, 23 points. It was 60%-38% with 18–29s and 61%-30% with 30–44s. The final independent poll taken in PA-18 race had Lamb winning 18–49 year olds 68%-30%, though the poll was a little more Lamb than the final tally. So let’s say it was a 33–35 point spread, not 38; but factoring out the Gen Xers here could easily have had under 37 year olds in the high 30s in a plus 11 GOP House district.

So, yes, if these numbers hold there are 20 million more eligible voters under the age of 37 this year who consider themselves Democrats than in the 2014 midterms. 20 million. For context, 20 million is 6% of the total population of the US. If 8m of these 20m vote in 2018, they would be equal to 11% of the 75m who voted for House candidates in 2014; at 5m 6%. So no matter how you measure it, the movement of young voters this cycle appears to be shaping up to be a consequential political and cultural development.

It should be noted that a new poll just released by Harvard’s Institute of Politics has very similar findings, including 30 plus net advantage for Democrats and dramatically elevated 2018 vote intent.

A few thoughts on what all this means for the 2018 election:

Democrats Need to Lean Into This Opportunity — Democrats should be having a big and loud conversation about what this big shift means for their 2018 strategy, and how to begin to remake the Party for a rising new generation in earnest. This movement obviously won’t play out the same in every state or district, but Millennial heavy places like California and Texas and even some mid-Western cities are looking at a very different electoral landscape than in 2014 or 2016. These newly available voters need to be brought into the polling and modeling of the campaigns, and campaign resources — adspend, candidate time, turnout targets — need to be adjusted to make sure these voters are being touched and asked to vote. Democrats can increase the turnout of these voters by designing campaigns crafted to speak to them, and in the process also accelerate the transformation of these new and irregular voters to more regular and reliable members of the emergent Democratic coalition.

Recent reports by CIRCLE at Tufts University’s Tisch College provide interesting insights into both places where the youth vote could make the biggest difference in 2018, and the chronic underinvestment made in reaching these voters in recent elections.

As these voters are less accessible by traditional television advertising, other ways of targeting them, including both paid and organic digital content (think Beto O’Rourke) will have to be more widely deployed. And efforts should be made to put younger, compelling political and cultural leaders out in front this cycle (Joe Kennedy III for example). If the movement begun by the courageous Parkland students is still going strong this fall it too could really matter, as younger voters will see their direct contemporaries taking bold action and encouraging voting in ways we’ve haven’t seen in the Millennial era; and every high school and college will be in session at the time of the November election, making mass school based mobilization easier.

Republicans See This Data Too, Will Not Let These Gains Go Uncontested — Democrats should also expect very aggressive traditional and digital campaigns coming from the Rs this cycle, designed to disqualify their candidates with this age cohort. It is likely to come not just from the GOP campaigns themselves, but the many dark money groups out there and whatever it is that Trump and his new campaign manager Brad Parscale are cooking up (#ArmyofTrump). While Cambridge Analytica may not be a player in 2018, the Republicans and their allies, here and abroad, learned a lot about how to damage Democratic politicians using these new digital tools in 2016. We should expect many locally tailored, copycat digital efforts in 2018, ones that will feed into a localized right wing media ecosystem that not only includes millions of dollars of dark/independent television ads, long established local talk radio show hosts, but now dozens of new Sinclair television stations too.

For all the talk of the Trump base and Obama-Trump voters, there are also signs of backlash to Trump out there this year. I’ve written about the erosion of the GOP brand in the Southwest Border region, and clearly women are driving a great deal of the big shift in US politics these days. But the scale of the rejection by younger Americans of Trump’s GOP is huge by any measure, and will impact not just 2018 but American politics for years to come.

(A note on the data in this post — see here for how Pew defines Millennial, which is a bit different than others. For 2018 Pew has Gen Xers 38–53 years old, Millennial 22–37, Post-Millennials 18–21. In this post, we treat Post-Millennials as Millennials as there is not a lot of data about their political views out there, and initial evidence is that they are tracking Millennials in political orientation).



Simon Rosenberg

I run NDN/NPI, a DC think tank. Clinton & DNC alum, Tufts grad, Aspen Crown Fellow. Father of 3 great kids, truly lucky husband. Proud globalist.