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Do Democrats have a problem with younger voters?

Different national surveys paint conflicting pictures of the midterms

Shown campaigning on Sept. 24 in Philadelphia, Democratic Sen.-elect John Fetterman outpolled his opponent among younger voters by 42 percentage points, according to one exit poll.
Shown campaigning on Sept. 24 in Philadelphia, Democratic Sen.-elect John Fetterman outpolled his opponent among younger voters by 42 percentage points, according to one exit poll. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — Even though Democrats outperformed expectations in 2022, they may have a problem with young voters. Or they may not, depending on which exit poll data you look at. 

“Young voters’ enthusiasm for Democrats waned during midterms,” according to a headline from The Associated Press. The Dec. 12 story began, “Young voters who have been critical to Democratic successes in recent elections showed signs in November’s midterms that their enthusiasm may be waning, a potential warning sign for a party that will need their strong backing heading into the 2024 presidential race.”

Voters aged 18 to 29 supported Democratic House candidates over Republican House candidates 53 percent to 40 percent, according to AP Votecast, a national survey of voters used by the AP, Wall Street Journal and Fox News. 

That 13-point margin was down from Joe Biden’s 25-point margin (61 percent to 36 percent) over President Donald Trump among younger voters in 2020 and Democratic House candidates’ 30-point margin (64 percent to 34 percent) among younger voters in the 2018 midterm elections. 

“[T]he trend line for younger voters may be an early indicator of the Democrats’ challenge to maintain the coalition of Black people, women, college-educated voters, city dwellers and suburbanites that has buoyed the party in the years since Trump won the White House,” the AP wrote. 

That’s a reasonable conclusion based on that data, but another set of exit poll data tells a different story.

According to exit polling conducted by Edison Research for ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC News, Democrats did better with younger voters in 2022 than Biden did in 2020. 

Eighteen- to 29-year-old voters supported Democratic House candidates over Republican candidates by 28 points (63 percent to 35 percent) in 2022 compared to Biden’s 24-point margin (60 percent to 36 percent) in 2020, according to the Edison exit poll. 

There was a drop in 2022 among younger voters compared to the 2018 midterms, when they supported Democratic candidates by 35 points (67 percent to 32 percent). But that 4-point slip from 2018 to 2022 is considerably smaller than the 11-point drop picked up by the AP Votecast survey.  

Both surveys agreed that voters aged 18 to 29 made up about the same segment of the electorate. AP Votecast put younger voters at 13 percent of the electorate, while that age group was 12 percent in the Edison survey. (For a reference point, younger voters made up 17 percent of the electorate in 2020 and 13 percent in 2018, according to Edison, and 13 percent of the electorate in 2020 and 12 percent in 2018, according to VoteCast.)

So which one is right?

Rather than try to decipher which exit poll is correct, it’s probably best to use this conflicting data as a reason to tread carefully when making grand conclusions. That doesn’t mean that either exit poll is incorrect — just that there isn’t necessarily one clear narrative coming off of exit poll data. 

Election results in some parts of the country provide evidence that younger voters boosted Democrats. Democrats organized students to register and vote at Michigan State University in East Lansing to turn them out for a state referendum on abortion rights and to boost Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin in Michigan’s 7th District. That effort yielded long lines at the polls, and some students stayed in line up to three hours after the polls closed to cast votes, according to Politico

Considering Slotkin’s fairly wide margin of victory (52 percent to 46 percent) over GOP state Sen. Tom Barrett, it’s difficult to say younger voters made the difference. And it’s just one race out of hundreds around the country. 

Despite the conflicting data, one thing is clear: Republicans are losing younger voters. Whether it’s by a little or a lot, Democrats are consistently winning voters aged 18 to 29; it’s just a matter of by how much.

Not only have Democrats shown an edge with younger voters nationally, but they also outpaced GOP nominees with that segment of the electorate in all of the key 2022 Senate races including Arizona (by 56 points), Florida (16 points), Georgia (29 points on Nov. 8), Nevada (33 points), New Hampshire (51 points), North Carolina (8 points), Pennsylvania (42 points) and Wisconsin (40 points).

Republicans can take some solace in the trend from the VoteCast survey, but it’s evident that the GOP has work to do to bring younger voters into their tent. 

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