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Young people say they plan to vote at near-historic highs

Young voters are notoriously difficult to get to vote in midterms, but 2018 could change that.

Attendees go to Party at the Polls on October 20, 2018, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Erika Goldring/WME IMG/Getty Images for WME

A high number of young voters could turn out in the 2018 midterms, according to a new poll from the Harvard University Institute of Politics.

The recently released biannual poll showed that 40 percent of 18- to 29-year olds said they will “definitely vote” in the 2018 midterm elections, a substantial increase from the 2014 and 2010 midterms.

“We believe there is a marked increase in youth turnout, unlike anything we’ve seen in 32 years,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling for the Institute of Politics.

Young people who identify as Democrats are more likely to say they will definitely vote; 54 percent of Democrats, 43 percent of Republicans, and 24 percent of independents told Harvard researchers they would vote. That’s good for Democrats, but there’s also evidence that young Republican voters are becoming more enthusiastic as the election nears.

With an eye ahead to 2020, the majority of the nearly 2,000 young people Harvard polled also seem to have an intense dislike of President Donald Trump — just 11 percent of young Americans said they are “sure to” vote for Trump, eclipsed by the 59 percent said they will “never vote for him.”

The big question is whether that anger against Trump will trickle down to the 2018 midterms.

Youth turnout could hit a historic high in 2018

Young voters are a notoriously tricky bloc to get to turn out; older voters are a much more reliable demographic to get to the polls. This dynamic is pronounced during midterm elections, without a presidential race in the mix. But that could change in 2018.

“We’ve been hearing about a potential blue wave ... we’re here to talk about a youth wave,” said Harvard student Teddy Landis, the leader of the Harvard Public Opinion Project.

The highest turnout percentage for the youth vote in midterms is 21 percent, which happened in 1986. The last midterms in 2014 had lower youth turnout, at just 16 percent.

Of course, there’s a substantial caveat here — Harvard pollsters aren’t saying 40 percent of America’s young voters will definitely get out and vote on Tuesday. In past polls, there’s typically a substantial gap in the number who say they will get out and vote, compared to people who actually do.

In 2014, 26 percent said they would definitely vote, a 10-point gap with the 16 percent that actually voted. There was about a 7-point gap in 2010 between the 27 percent who said they would vote and the 20 percent who did.

But Harvard researchers said that gap between the poll and Election Day has remained fairly consistent since the poll was first conducted in 2000. Given that 40 percent of young people plan to vote in 2018, it could still be record-breaking, even with a 10-point gap.

“The number to beat is 21,” Landis said. “The low turnout we’ve seen in the past few years isn’t a Gen Z problem or a millennial problem, it’s something young people have been doing for quite a while.”

Young people aren’t sold on socialism, but they want Medicare-for-all and a job guarantee

As the Democratic Party’s base is having a progressive resurgence, the Harvard poll also asked young people what they thought about capitalism, socialism, and Democratic socialism.

Pollsters found that 43 percent of young voters support capitalism, fairly close to the 39 percent who said they support democratic socialism. Socialism was noticeably less popular, at 31 percent.

“It is not accurate to say this is a generation that endorses socialism as a label per se,” said Della Volpe. “The more they learn about capitalism, the more they approve. Things change, however, when we ask about democratic socialism.”

So while young people aren’t sold on socialism (especially when they were shown the textbook definition of what it means), they are excited about proposals from Sen. Bernie Sanders and other progressive politicians including Medicare-for-all, a jobs guarantee bill, and getting rid of tuition and fees for public colleges.

“They like the policies democratic socialism stands for,” said Harvard student and researcher Richard Sweeney. Sweeney noted the level of enthusiasm on his campus for a jobs guarantee bill and other measures to assist recent graduates and others who need employment.

“We need more discussion on this; it’s very popular with youth,” he said.

It’s worth noting that question wasn’t even on the survey in 2016 — a measure of how quickly democratic socialism is surging in American politics since the rise of Sanders in the 2016 presidential election and the senator’s influence on other candidates in 2018.

“I think Bernie Sanders ... [had] probably the most significant losing presidential campaign in terms of the legacy it’s having [regarding] how young people are thinking about policy,” said Della Volpe.

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