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Young Voters Are More Moderate Than You Think
Youth voters are far more middle-of-the-road, less partisan, and more nuanced in their views than the dominant media narrative lets on.
In the days and weeks after the 2022 midterms, we heard a common refrain from pundits, prognosticators, and even the president himself: hordes of progressive young people turned out in near-record numbers and stopped an anticipated red wave dead in its tracks.
In close elections, do sizable voter segments like “young voters,” “married men,” or “black women” really make the difference between winning and losing? Absolutely. But despite the upbeat headlines, young voters not only turned out at a lower rate in 2022 than in the last midterm—they voted Democratic at a lower rate, too.
Stories claiming that “the youth vote blocked a red wave” reinforce a certain mythology that has taken hold among many national Democrats, bolstering the narrative that young voters are the party’s not-so-secret weapon. With every new headline, readers are left with the impression that young voters are a demographic silver bullet just waiting to be unleashed against Republicans in every passing election.
But as readers of The Liberal Patriot are aware, demographics are not destiny—and voters are more varied and volatile than the media tends to acknowledge. Contrary to the dominant media narrative, young people are a mainstream cohort, have nuanced perspectives on major issues, and should not be taken for granted by Democrats.
We write this as members of the two youngest generations—Gen Z and millennials—who fall into the age group that political scientists and demographers formally deem “youth voters” (18-29 year olds). As political practitioners who have worked to mobilize our peers on behalf of mainstream, center-left candidates and campaigns, we know firsthand that our peers don’t fit neatly into the rigid archetypes projected onto us by older generations and the media.
Not only is the median young voter a self-identified moderate, but young Americans are more moderate than the general public.
It’s common practice in the media to define entire groups by their most zealous members, and the same applies to young voters. There’s a tendency among the chattering class to paint young people as a disproportionately far-left and uber-progressive cohort, a portrayal that obscures the bigger picture of a middle-of-the-road generation.
We’ll start with what the media gets right: young people do skew more liberal than the public at large. The newly-released Spring 2023 Youth Poll from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that 30 percent of 18-29 year olds identify as liberal on a three-way scale (“liberal,” “moderate,” or “conservative”). By comparison, survey research from Gallup has found that 25 percent of the general public identifies as liberal on the same scale. To the extent that liberal self-identification is associated with increased social tolerance, this makes a lot of sense: Gen Zers and millennials are the most racially diverse generations in American history and more identify as LGBTQ than members of other generations.
But this means that liberals still make up a minority of young voters. While you’re unlikely to hear it on the news, not only does the median young voter identify as a moderate, but the Harvard Youth Poll found that 18-29 year old Americans are a more moderate cohort than the public at large:
The largest group (44 percent) of 18-29 year olds identify as moderate, while Gallup has found that 37 percent of the general public share the same identification.
Young voters of color are more likely to place themselves in the middle than their white counterparts: 50 percent of African Americans aged 18-29 identify as moderate, along with 47 percent of Hispanics and 42 percent of white respondents.
Finally, we are not a very conservative cohort: only one in four 18-29 year olds (24 percent) identifies as conservative, compared to 36 percent of the general public.
Young voters have nuanced views and are not a monolith.
While we do skew more liberal than other generations, the breadth of moderation among young voters means that we hold a range of nuanced views that you’re unlikely to hear about in between “youth voters saved the Democrats” segments on the news.
Take climate change, for example, where young people are often typecast in line with vocal progressive activists such as Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise Movement and portrayed as overwhelmingly opposed to natural gas projects. But while the vast majority (80 percent) of 18-29 year olds believe that “global warming is an existential threat to human life as we know it,” we have mixed attitudes on what it will take to address the issue. According to the 2022 Cooperative Election Study (CES), young voters are split on whether we should “increase fossil fuel production in the U.S. and boost exports of U.S. liquefied natural gas,” with 53 percent in opposition and 47 percent in support—hardly an overwhelming youth consensus on the hot-button issue of drilling.
Then look at the issue of immigration, where youth activists and next-generation progressive crusaders like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have touted the slogan “Abolish ICE” and bolstered the impression that young voters aren’t concerned about border security. Contrary to the dominant narrative, the 2022 CES found young voters evenly divided as to whether we should “increase the number of border patrols on the U.S.-Mexican border,” with 51 percent in opposition to the measure and 49 percent in support.
On the issue of public safety, young people have often been portrayed as being on the front lines of the movement to “defund the police.” But while such depictions might ring true for activists, they do not apply to young voters as a whole. According to the Harvard Youth Poll, well over half (57 percent) of 18-29 year olds oppose defunding the police, with just 27 percent supporting the measure.
Finally, when it comes to our religiosity, the media has a tendency to traffic in attention-grabbing headlines proclaiming that “Gen Z Is the Least Religious Generation,” “Millennials Are Leaving Religion And Not Coming Back,” and “Young Adults Are Losing Their Religion.” These headlines are technically correct and important to take into consideration, but they ultimately create a distorted impression of young voters as being overwhelmingly irreligious by only telling part of the story.
While it is true that young people are comparatively less religious than older voters, the vast majority of us still prioritize our faith. According to data from the latest American National Election Studies (ANES) survey, more than two in three 18-29 year olds (70 percent) say that religion is “at least a little important” as a part of their lives, with more than half (53 percent) saying it is at least moderately important to them. This is even more pronounced among black 18-29 year olds, with nine in ten (89 percent) saying that religion is at least a little important and well over half (59 percent) percent saying it is “very” or “extremely” important.
Young voters are not a silver bullet for Democrats.
Young voters have comprised an important part of the Democratic coalition in recent election cycles—especially in 2020, when 18-29 year olds preferred Joe Biden to Donald Trump by a gaping margin of 61 percent to 36 percent—but are not a “Vote Blue, No Matter Who” cohort.
Indeed, young voters do not view the world through the lens of partisan affinity and tend to vote based on their values instead. In recent cycles, that has meant a majority of young people have voted for Democrats, but this voting bloc isn’t particularly hot on the Democratic Party and remains very much up for grabs.
When it comes to party identification, young voters have the weakest partisan affiliations of any generational voting bloc. For many, there’s a real difference between voting for Democrats and being Democrats. Not only do a clear majority (57 percent) of young voters believe that “politics has become too partisan,” but we are more likely to identify as independents than older voters.
The Harvard Youth poll found that more 18-29 year olds (40 percent) identify as independents than as Democrats (35 percent), while only 24 percent identify as Republicans. Of the 35 percent who identify as a Democrat, they were evenly split as to whether they identify as a “strong Democrat” (18 percent) or “not a very strong Democrat” (17 percent). Only 39 percent of young people surveyed gave congressional Democrats a favorable rating—higher marks than they give congressional Republicans (29 percent), to be sure, but by no means a resounding show of support.
That brings us to 2022. Despite the onslaught of viral headlines arguing otherwise, young voters were not the Democrats’ saving grace. Yes, many of us turned out, and yes, we played an important role. But as some analyses have noted, young voters did not “save the Democrats” in 2022, nor did they “block the red wave.”
Just 27 percent of 18-29 year olds turned out in 2022—almost six points below our 2018 turnout levels and nearly 20 points behind overall population turnout. More notably, it appears that youth voter enthusiasm for Democrats declined last cycle, with AP VoteCast data showing that the 2022 youth electorate preferred Democrats by a smaller margin than it did in 2018 and 2020.
What does this tell us?
All in all, young Americans are a diverse cohort with a broad and nuanced range of ideologies and perspectives. We are far more varied—and far more middle-of-the-road—than we are often portrayed by the media and older generations.
The bottom line is that some of us are on the left, many of us are in the middle, and just a few of us are on the right. This means that, in aggregate, we are a center-left generation. Most of us want to see lasting social progress made—after all, we stand to lose the most if America continues backsliding—but we are at least as pragmatic as we are progressive when it comes to how we get there.
Just because we are a center-left cohort does not mean we can be counted on as automatic votes for Democrats. Young voters’ pragmatism drives us to care more about results than partisanship or posturing. To sustainably mobilize young people, Democrats must cast aside overhyped media myths about who we are and what moves us and deliver on a mainstream agenda that combines liberal politics and policies with everyday common sense.
Lauren Harper (@laurenjhharper) and Hugh Jones (@hughjonesiv) advocate for a mainstream, big-tent Democratic Party at The Welcome Party and support center-left Democrats who can put Republican districts into play at WelcomePAC.