top 8 takeaways about young voters and the 2014 election

In lieu of a post of my own, here are CIRCLE’s eight summary points about youth voting in 2014:

Each election year, the headlines about youth voters tend to be the same. The relatively low turnout rate is usually lamented, and sometimes there is some analysis of whether one party (usually the Democrats) benefited from youth support. But it is important to see complexities and derive subtler lessons. Here are our eight takeaways from the 2014 election, each of which suggests only the beginning of a story about young people and politics.

#8. Youth turnout in 2014 election was around 21.5%.

Our estimate of youth turnout in 2014 (based on the Exit Polls and the number of votes counted two days after the election) is 21.5% of youth. In other words, about one in five young adults who were eligible to vote did vote.

#7. Turnout of youth in 2014 was pretty standard, and comparable to previous midterms.

Voter turnout among all age groups is lower in midterm elections when compared to presidential election years. The drop has been consistently more pronounced among young people, so that midterm elections are best compared to previous midterm elections. By that standard, 2014 was highly typical, right near the average for the last 20 years. Note that some analysts are estimating that 2014 was the worst turnout year for the population as whole since 1940.

#6. Midterm exit polls don’t define a generation.

It is unwise to draw generation-wide conclusions based on 21.5% of youth. For example, as indicated in the graph below, while young people with a bachelor’s degree or higher make up 20% of the overall young citizen population, they made up 40% of voters in 2014. It is likely that the non-voters held somewhat different opinions of issues and candidates from the voters.

#5. Neither party has a lock on 18-to-24 year olds.

There has been some discussion of a possible shift to the right among the latest cohort of Millennials. The oldest Millennials were first-time voters during the 2004 election, so their formative experience was the George W. Bush Administration. People turning 18 in 2014 are fully ten years younger and have come of age under Barack Obama. It would stand to reason that their views would be different.

Small differences do emerge by age among the young voters who participated this year, but the differences indicate both more liberal and more conservative attitudes with slightly more of the latter. Comparing youth who voted in 2010 and 2014, there is no clear sign of a shift.

In the past few election cycles, people have been more likely to vote Democratic the younger they are. In 2010, there was a substantial gap in preferences for House candidates between voters under 30 and those 30 or older. In 2014, the gap seemed to fall around age 45. Compared to 2010, voters under 30 were one percentage point less likely to vote Democratic this year, but voters between 30 and 44 were four points more likely to vote Democratic. It could be the case that some of the youthful Democratic voters of 2004 and 2008 are still voting Democratic as they enter their 30s. There was no difference at all in partisan preference between the 18-24s and the 18-29s.

In some respects, the youngest cohort might be seen as somewhat more liberal than older Millennials, and considerably more so than voters 30 and older.

  • On abortion, the 18-24 and the 18-29s held similar views (59% and 60% favoring legal abortion), while to a lesser degree the older age groups were for legal abortion.
  • Asked whether they believed that immigrants should have a path to citizenship, the strongest support came from 18-24s (71%) followed by 18-29s (68%), compared to 57% of all voters.
  • On the general question of whether government should do more to solve problems, there was a steep age gradient. Fifty-three percent of 18-24s but only 35% of 60+ voters agreed. The 18-24s were slightly more favorable than the 18-29s.

Yet members of this younger cohort were less likely to report being enthusiastic or satisfied with the president and his administration than the overall youth voting bloc (42% vs 45%) and were more likely to cast their vote as a sign of opposition to the president (26% vs. 22%). Offered a choice between Hillary Clinton and an unnamed Republican presidential candidate in 2016, young people who voted in 2014 were more likely to answer “It depends” than other age groups. However, compared to 18-29s, 18-24s were also more likely to indicate that they would vote for the Republican candidate in 2016 (36% vs. 31%) and they were slightly more likely indicate a preference for a candidate like Rick Perry than Rand Paul in 2016 than the overall youth voting cohort.

#4. More differences emerge among youth by race and ethnicity.

While 54% of youth (18-29) nationally voted for Democratic House candidates, significant differences consistently emerge by race and ethnicity. In both 2010 and 2014, Black and Latino youth were considerably more likely to choose Democratic House candidates than White youth were. In 2014, White youth gave a majority to the Republicans in House races (54% to 43%).

Slightly more than a majority of young men and women of color who voted considered themselves to be Democrats. After Democrats, young Latinos who voted were next-most likely to identify as Independent/other, and 22% of Latinas who voted identified with the GOP.

#3. Gender also matters.

While White youth looked more conservative than people of color in 2014, White women approved of Congress and President Obama at a higher rate than White men. At the same time, White women were slightly more likely to see the Republican Party favorably than White men were (54% vs.49%), but largely split their vote between parties (50% for Republicans in House races, 47% for Democrats), while young white men overwhelmingly supported House Republican candidates (58% vs. 39%). Young White men were more likely to identify as Independents (40%) followed closely by GOP (36%), while young White women’s top choice was the GOP (41%), and 30% identified themselves as Independents.

Forty-six percent of young voters in 2014 felt that Secretary Clinton would make a good president, compared to 49% who did not. Thirty-two percent said they would vote for her in 2016, 31% for “the Republican candidate”, and 35% said “it depends.” Thirty-seven percent of White men who voted in 2014 said that Secretary Clinton would make a good president, compared to 48% of White women. (Unfortunately, sample sizes were too small to estimate responses to this question for people of color by gender.)

#2. Youth propensity for being independent poses a conundrum for political parties and democracy

While party identification among youth who voted in the 2010 or 2014 election has not changed dramatically, a larger issue for parties is how to draw in youth who are not already affiliated. Even among voters in 2014, 33% identified as Independents or “something else” (as compared to 37% who were Democrats and 31% who were Republicans). Young voters were split in their opinion of the Democratic Party and slightly more were unfavorable to the Republican Party. Gallup polling suggests that close to half of 18-29 year olds identify as Independent. The Pew Research political typology released earlier this year shows a considerable proportion of youth part of the independent, “Young Outsiders” group.

Since party affiliation is related to voter turnout, the lack of identification among youth poses problems for parties as well as future democratic participation.

#1. Missing Mobilization?

We know from previous research that outreach and mobilization of youth does have an impact on turnout. Yet, in 2014, young people were the age group least likely to be contacted, according to Pew Research data from October. The reason that youth turnout was comparable to previous midterm years may be that there was no more outreach this year. In 2010, 11.3 million youth were registered to vote but did not cast a ballot, and many of those were not contacted. To raise the level of youth electoral participation, we can give more attention to drastic gaps among youth.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.