A revolution delayed: Young people trend left, but stay home on Election Day

Even Republican millennials are less conservative than older GOPers, who maintain majorities in both houses

By Sean McElwee
September 4, 2016 5:56PM (UTC)
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Supporters cheer Hillary Clinton at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, May 16, 2016. (Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein)

According to the latest YouGov data, Donald Trump would narrowly win an election if only those 65 or older voted. But if just people under 30 voted, he would not only lose in a landslide, he would also come close to being eclipsed by the Libertarian third-party candidate, Gary Johnson.

During the Democratic primary, one of the most important divides was along age lines: Young people across race and gender lines were more supportive of Sen. Bernie Sanders than older folks. Is this just a fluke, driven by opposition to Trump and the outsider appeal of Sanders, or does it portend an important change in American politics?


Analyzing several data sets that included tens of thousands of respondents, I have found that young people are indeed more progressive, on a range of important issues. But few are voting, which means that the more progressive America they seem to support may take longer to arrive.


In a 2016 American National Election Studies survey, 48 percent of those 18 to 29 identified as Democratic, compared with 35 percent of those 70 and above.


The results from a 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies survey are similar: Forty-nine percent of young people (ages 18 to 29) identified as Democratic, compared with 37 percent of those 70 or older. Nearly half of those older than 70 said they are Republican, compared with just more than a quarter of those 18 to 29.

On issues like the minimum wage, government-provided child care and expansion of government services, young people were more progressive than those of older generations, according to the American National Elections Studies data.

Trump scored more than 20 points lower among young people than among people in the oldest age group when the arithmetic mean of scores quantifying their general feelings is calculated. (Their feelings were assigned scores from 0 and 100, with 0 being the coldest sentiment and 100 the warmest.) Young people were also more supportive of the idea of Syrian refugees entering the United States, even when only the attitudes of young whites were examined.


“Without action on climate change, the millennial generation as a whole will lose nearly $8.8 trillion in lifetime income,” a new Demos and NextGen Climate report found. Perhaps unsurprisingly, young people are far more likely to support action on climate change (see chart). In another Cooperative Congressional Election Studies survey, from 2012, 48 percent of those over 70 support government action on climate change, compared with 65 percent of those 18 to 29.



On issues related to race and gender, the evidence is more mixed. Political scientist Ashley Jardina and I have shown that on many key questions about race, young people are more progressive. These younger individuals are less likely to endorse feelings of racial resentment and stereotyping (among whites only and among all respondents). But the shift on racial resentment appears to have happened recently.

In addition, as I previously wrote in Fusion, young people believe that society has already moved past sexism and this could prompt them to be less likely to support policies to bring about equity. For instance, according to the 2016 American National Election Studies survey, young people were not much more likely to support requiring employers to provide women equal pay for equal work. One reason could be that young people already believe society has attained gender equity, so further policy action is not necessary. After President Barack Obama was elected, young people were more likely to believe America was a post-racial society, though recent events have led many to reconsider their views.

While there are many reasons for optimism, some evidence suggests that young people today might not immediately usher in a progressive revolution.


Public policy tends to be determined more by those who vote and donate to campaigns than those who do not. But young people turn out to vote at a lower rate, though these turnout gaps aren’t distributed equally. Using 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies data, I have found that young nonvoters are more progressive than voters.  

Among young nonvoters aged 18 to 29, 51 percent were Democrats and 29 percent were Republican. Among the voters, 48 percent were Democrat and 43 percent Republicans.

While 44 percent of young nonvoters said they supported the Bowles-Simpson budget bill of 2013, 54 percent of young voters did. This 2013 legislation concerned a deficit reduction package that included tax increases and cuts to Social Security and Medicare.  



Young people were less likely to report having been contacted by an electoral campaign (32 percent did, compared with 75 percent of those 65 or older). They were also less likely to report being registered to vote, an essential step in their participation in the electoral process. Young people were more likely to report have registered to vote via an Election Day registration system.   

New work by John Holbein and D. Sunshine Hillygus has found preregistration (a policy that enables eligible young people to register when receiving a driver’s license) can dramatically increase turnout among young people.

Another solution could be automatic voter registration: to automatically register eligible voters when they interact with, say, a department of motor vehicles or public assistance agency and that would dramatically increase voter rolls (and turnout).


As I’ve written based on my research, extensive literature suggests that voting influences policy and higher turnout could lead to a more progressive county. A new study of Burgenland, Austria, has found that opening polls earlier boosted voter turnout, increasing the vote share for the Social Democratic Party and the populist right.

Given all the trends that I've mentioned above, boosting turnout among young people would likely bolster the vote share for Democrats.

Nonetheless, as I’ve noted previously, young campaign donors in 2014 tended to be on the liberal side: Sixty-one percent of young campaign donors were Democrats; only 48 percent of young non-donors were Democrats.  

These young donors were also more supportive of abortion rights: Seventy-one percent said women should always be able to obtain an abortion, compared with 59 percent of young non-donors. Young donors were also more supportive of easing the path to citizenship (65 percent were in favor, compared with 55 percent of non-donors).


In a recent exhaustive study of public opinion, political scientist Gary Jacobson showed two key trends: Young Americans were far less likely to identify as Republican, and those who did were less conservative than older people who were Republican (see charts below). The nation is becoming more diverse, and among whites, the youngest generation is more liberal on issues of race, gender and economics. 

Young people are more supportive of wealth redistribution and an active government, and this is true across gender, class, race and party identifications. One reason may be the financial crisis: A new generation that has grown up in an economy perpetually delivering below its potential will push young people to the left. By  fighting the economic stimulus, the GOP extended the length of the recovery, likely fostering more left-wing views among young people.


There are reasons to believe that these trends will have long-term effects on politics. Research suggests political attitudes tend to be quite sticky and they’re formed while people are young. A new working paper by Bastian Becker has found that expected income affects attitudes toward income redistribution; it’s unlikely that there will be a dramatic reversal on views about income redistribution as millennials age.


At the same time, change won’t happen quickly. Republicans are likely to hold the House after the 2016 election. They will be well-positioned for gains in 2018 and, depending on how they react to Trump’s likely defeat, 2020.

The low-turnout midterm and off-cycle elections reduce incentives for the GOP to moderate its views. Yet over the long term, today’s young people will become a force for progressivism. It’s unlikely that they will push for radical, sweeping change, but instead will opt for incremental steps towards social democracy.

But I’m left wondering, how can a movement gain a progressive majority if the majority doesn’t vote?

Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is founding executive director of Data for Progress. He tweets at @seanmcelwee.

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