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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Did Youthquake Swing VA Election?

It’s important that Democrats look at all possible explanations for their landslide upset in the Virginia gubernatorial election, even though common sense says that no one factor alone can explain it adequately. Toward that end, The Center for Information & Research on Civic learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) presents some instructive data making the case that youth voter turnout was a (not ‘the’) pivotal factor in the Democratic victory.

According to CIRCLE,

In what could be an early indicator of young people’s political engagement and mobilization after the contentious 2016 presidential race—and ahead of the 2018 midterms—youth turnout surged in Virginia, and in both gubernatorial races young people strongly preferred the Democratic candidates.

If the Virginia and New Jersey exit polls captured precise and accurate estimates of the proportion of voters who were young, then youth turnout was 34% in Virginia and 18% in New Jersey, according to CIRCLE’s calculations.[1] These turnout estimates are based on CIRCLE analysis of Edison Research exit polls conducted in both states with Census population data…

CIRCLE does acknowledge that “in recent elections, exit polls have not always captured accurate age demographics and preliminary exit poll results are subject to revision,” as Ruy Teixeira has also pointed out. But the turnout numbers CIRCLE provides are striking nonetheless, 222,000 voters age 18-29 in New Jersey, compared to 366,000 in Virginia — especially considering that New Jersey’s population is about a half-million larger than that of Virginia. According to CIRCLE, these young voters are 11 percent of the electorate in New Jersey and 14 percent in Virginia. It appears that titanic exit poll errors or impressive youth voter GOTV made a big difference, or perhaps both factors were in play. Further,

The 18% youth turnout in New Jersey equaled the 2013 rate and follows a very stable trend in New Jersey youth turnout, which has hovered just below 20% in the past three off-year elections. Meanwhile, Virginia’s 34% youth turnout is 8 percentage points higher than in 2013 (26%)—and double what it was in 2009 (17%).

In addition to the turnout edge, 73 percent  of youth in New Jersey voted for Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, while 69 percent of young voters cast ballots for Democrat Ralph Northam in Virginia. Teixeira notes that “Democrats carried the youth vote by 39 and 48 points, respectively, in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections.”

Unfortunately, the data doesn’t provide a breakdown of youth voters by key subgroups, such as race, education or gender, which may be pivotal factors. But my hunch is that Virginia’s Democratic GOTV strategists have a pretty good idea, via precinct analysis, of how these subgroups of youth voters turned out and voted. And we do know that Northam benefitted from larger than expected turnouts and/or margins from African Americans and Women.

Here’s hoping Virginia’s Democratic GOTV wizards are already in Alabama, offering tips to the U.S. Senate campaign of Democrat Doug Jones.


[1] The estimated percent of young people who voted in the governor’s’ races were calculated using: (1) the number of ballots cast in each race according to the media, (2) the youth share of those who voted, based on the exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research for the National Election Pool, (3) the estimated number of 18-29 year old citizens taken from the Census Current Population Survey, March Demographic File of that year.  Edison Research estimates that its exit polls have a margin of error rate of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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