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Teens started March for Our Lives, but all ages participated

A new survey of the Washington, DC, protest suggests that the demonstrations have reached much further than young people.

Lin-Manuel Miranda performs at the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, on March 24, 2017.
Lin-Manuel Miranda performs at the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, on March 24, 2017.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The March for Our Lives was launched by a bunch of bold teenagers — particularly survivors of the Parkland, Florida, shooting like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg. But a survey of participants in the Washington, DC, protest suggests that these teens have attracted a much broader kind of crowd.

Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland professor who studies protest movements, found that the majority of participants at the march in Washington were 26 years old or older. Of the 308 people sampled, 40 were 19 or younger (13 percent) and 52 were 25 or younger (17 percent).

“The youth really sparked people’s interests,” Fisher told me. “I think what they’ve done is captured the imagination of the general population.”

Fisher’s survey, which she first detailed in the Washington Post, was conducted at the DC march — in which her team sampled every fifth person at designated areas, getting them to fill out a questionnaire on a tablet.

Fisher noted a few caveats: A lot of teens were concentrated in a single area near the stage, and the survey ended at 1 pm, potentially undercounting the number of teens and kids by a small amount. Many of the children also may have attended the event with parents, slightly inflating the true level of adult interest.

Still, the results are surprising. The media describes the new anti-gun energy as a youth movement. But it’s really a youth-led movement that’s captivated a more general audience.

And this is just one of several interesting data points that Fisher’s team uncovered.

Attendees were often interested in more than gun violence

Fisher’s team also asked adults (18 and older) why they attended the march, allowing them to pick multiple reasons. Most of them — about 57 percent — selected “social welfare,” which was described in the survey as “including gun violence, health care, benefits, etc.” About 54 percent said “peace,” and 49 percent said President Donald Trump. (Protesters under 18 were not surveyed in detail due to privacy and legal concerns.)

But Fisher found an interesting split: Most people who were new to protests — 27 percent of the crowd — did not explicitly say that gun violence was a motivator. Their top two issues, instead, were “peace” (56 percent) and Trump (42 percent). Only about 12 percent picked the social welfare option.

In comparison, 60 percent of people who had attended at least one previous protest chose the social welfare option.

Fisher said that this split between why attendees were there and the march’s main purpose is unusual. For example, nearly 61 percent of attendees at the Women’s March in 2017 were there for women’s rights — and there was no statistically significant difference, Fisher said, between veteran protesters and newcomers.

This may indicate that the March for Our Lives attracted a lot of new people who wanted to take part in broader resistance to Trump rather than a gun violence–specific movement. “It piggybacked on the broader resistance movements in a lot of ways,” Fisher said.

Fisher’s data doesn’t definitively prove this, but she said that it’s also possible that many new protesters saw the March for Our Lives as a kind of Live Aid, referencing the huge 1985 benefit concert for African famines. After all, much of March for Our Lives’ advertising focused on the performances — touting musicians like Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and so on. (“Everybody in their 40s likes Lin-Manuel Miranda,” Fisher said.)

“It was designed to turn out a very big crowd, and very much focused on this concert,” Fisher said. As an example, organizers, she added, “never listed the speakers — only the performers.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you attract a bunch of people for a concert but end up pulling them in with your political message, it could still buy you some devotees. And by making the crowd bigger, it also demonstrates to the broader public that the movement really is mainstream — and, therefore, plausible.

“My spin instructor was going to go, and she never goes to anything,” Fisher said. “That’s great. It got her out. She was one of those new people.”

Other interesting findings from the surveys:

  • The March for Our Lives attracted more new protesters than many previous protests: 27 percent were new at the March for Our Lives, 16 percent at the 2018 Women’s March, 18 percent at the March for Racial Justice, 24 percent at the People’s Climate March, 30 percent at the March for Science, and 33 percent at the inaugural Women’s March in 2017.
  • The March for Our Lives attracted more political moderates than the past protests in the Trump era that Fisher has studied: About 16 percent of the crowd identified as moderate, compared to 6 percent at the 2017 Women’s March and 11 percent at the 2018 Women’s March.
  • About 89 percent of surveyed attendees voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, while 1 percent voted for Trump. The rest voted for a third party, did not vote, or weren’t eligible to vote.
  • The great majority of the participants — 70 percent — were women.
  • About 78 percent were white, 8 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic or Latinx, 3 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 3 percent multiracial, and 3 percent other.

A big catch to all of the data: This comes from one survey. It’s possible it was biased in some way, although Fisher has been doing this kind of work for years and is respected in her field.

Ultimately, the findings show that our initial assumptions about March for Our Lives might not capture the full picture — and that beyond attracting a big crowd, the movement also brought in different kinds of people than previously thought.