Will young voters be the difference makers in 2020?

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Next year will mark 150 years since ratification of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed voting rights to African-American men and other men of color who had been deprived of this right. The new law added more than 500,000 African-American males to the voter rolls, with most supporting the Party of Lincoln.

2020 also will mark 100 years since ratification of the 19th Amendment, which bestowed voting rights to women.  Three months after becoming law, a majority of newly enfranchised females helped catapult Republican Warren Harding to what remains the widest popular vote differential in presidential election history.

While the circumstances couldn’t be more different, the biggest demographic question heading into 2020 is the influence young people will have on elections that could shape America for a decade or more. 

Last week Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education released its biennial Democracy Counts report, detailing college student voting numbers at 1,031 higher education schools throughout the country. Remarkably, campus voting rates more than doubled in four years — from 19.3 percent in the 2014 midterms to 40.3 percent in last year’s midterms. 

While inclusive of graduate students, the median age for this study of roughly 10 million students was 21; in other words, it’s a compelling indicator of the dramatic rise of young people’s participation in the electoral process. 

Additionally, 73.3 percent of students were registered in 2018, up eight points since 2014, while registered students who voted jumped from 29.6 percent in 2014 to 55 percent last year.

When paired with other studies highlighting young people’s impact on Democrats’ strong showing in 2018—for example, exit polls revealing voters under 30 supported Democratic House candidates over Republicans by a 31-point margin—Tufts’ detailed findings raise an important question: are young people the difference makers heading into 2020? 

To understand their potential impact, we need to examine their role in recent elections. In 2016, 18-29 year-olds accounted for 15.7 percent of voters, which was 0.5 percent lower than the average young-voter turnout in the previous seven presidential elections.

But in 2018, 18-29 year-olds accounted for 13.8 percent of voters, which was 2.5 percent higher than the average young-voter turnout in the previous seven midterms It also marked the highest share for this age group in a midterm election since 1986.  

This bump partially mirrors Tufts’ numbers that show a narrowing voting gap between 18-21 year-old students and students over 30. 

Yet polling does not necessarily capture this potential “Young Person Effect.” Based on Pew Research Center’s criteria for “likely voter” surveys, where a score of “7” equals maximum likelihood and zero means minimal likelihood, a 20-year-old casting her or his first ballot would score no better than a 5. Meanwhile, Gallup’s likely-voter criteria risks excluding even more young people from its surveys; a 20-year-old who doesn’t yet know where to vote on or near campus would top out at a 4 out of 7. 

So here’s what we know: young people overwhelmingly disapprove of the job President Trump is doing, their voting numbers—and share of the total national vote — spiked last November, and many polls quite possibly are undercounting them. 

Most analyses heading into 2020 are underestimating the power of young people to influence the next election and quite possibly transform our government. The Young Person Effect isn’t fading. If anything, it’s growing stronger.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.

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