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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Brownstein: Why Youth Vote Could Determine Midterm Outcomes

Ronald Brownstein explains how “Youth turnout could save, or sink, Democrats in 2022” at CNN Politics:

Soaring turnout and big margins among young voters were central to the Democratic victories in the 2018 congressional and 2020 presidential elections. But with many young people expressing disenchantment with President Joe Biden‘s performance, preserving those advantages looms as one of the biggest challenges facing Democrats in the 2022 midterms.

There’s widespread concern among Democrats that turnout for young people this November could fall back from its gains in 2018 toward the meager levels that contributed to the party’s crushing losses in the 2014 and 2010 midterm elections….”If you accept the status quo with young people, it’s not going to go great,” says Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin. “Turnout is not going to be good.”……..”My stern warning to the Biden administration and Democrats is you have to take this seriously, because if we do go back to a 2010 or 2014 model where they really fall off it’s going to make it very difficult for us in November,” says Tulchin, who served as the pollster for Bernie Sanders during the 2020 primary campaign, when the senator from Vermont dominated Biden among younger voters.

….Inexorably, the balance of electoral power is shifting toward these younger generations. William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, told me that he projects about 17 million young people will turn 18 between the 2020 and 2024 elections, and that fully 49% of them will be kids of color. Simultaneously, more of the predominantly White baby boomers and members of the Silent Generation are aging out of the electorate.

….In the 2020 presidential election, exactly half of eligible voters younger than 30 cast ballots, according to a detailed study by CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), an institute at Tufts University that studies younger voters. That was still less than the number for older generations, but it constituted a huge jump from their 39% turnout rate in 2016. Youth turnout, the group found, did not decline in any state from 2016 through 2020 and multiple states saw double-digit increases — including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada, states that keyed Biden’s victory.

It might be a good idea for Democrats to take a closer look at the Georgia elections of 2020 and the 2021 run-off for some clues. As Brownstein reports,

In no state was youth turnout more critical to recent Democratic gains than Georgia, where strong turnout by young people helped key both Biden’s narrow win in 2020 and the stunning twin Senate runoff victories in early 2021 that provided Democrats control of the chamber. This year, the state is facing closely contested races for both governor and Senate, with Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock seeking a full term and Abrams making her second bid for governor.

“The elevated youth turnout and the elevated youth registration and participation that we saw from ’16 to ’18 to ’20 is not magic,” says Nsé Ufot, chief executive officer of the New Georgia Project, a non-profit voter registration and mobilization group founded by Stacey Abrams. “It is absolutely a direct result of our investment and our labor and targeting that particular group.”

Ufot says a majority of the targets for the New Georgia Project’s turnout efforts in those contests will be voters younger than 35. Though many of those younger adults have been disappointed by the failure of Biden and congressional Democrats to deliver on many of their promises during those campaigns, she says, the group is confident it can mobilize a robust youth turnout anyway.

“We are not relying on enthusiasm (for Biden) at all,” she says. “We are relying on organizing, connecting the power of the vote to the things that young Georgians told us they are willing to fight for, that they are willing to take to the streets for.”

But not all states have Georgia’s tradition of Black activism, anchored in the experience of MLK’s voting rights movement. Many of today’s voting rights organizers based in Georgia were trained by King’s S.C.L.C. lieutenants and staff members, including James Orange, whose “blue crew” was instrumental in electing all of Atlanta’s Black mayors and members of congress, and Ella Mae Brayboy, whose mastery of voter registration rolls, regulations and turnout mechanics continue to influence Georgia’s GOTV. Sen. Warnock himself, who is up for re-election in November, is pastor at King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, which is likely the most politically-engaged congregation in the state.

Brownstein adds that “Some structural dynamics may help to sustain youth turnout this fall. Many experts note that the large youth turnout of 2018 and 2020 creates momentum for continued participation, because people who register and vote in one election are more likely to vote in the next. Over the past two elections, Democrats and nonpartisan groups have built a significant organizational infrastructure to engage more young voters, and those efforts are continuing through 2022.”

However, “Public opinion polls show that Biden’s troubles with young voters have persisted into his presidency. In the latest CNN national survey, just 40% of those aged 18-34 said they approved of his job performance, and fewer than 3 in 10 described him as a strong leader. Other polls, like last week’s Monmouth University survey, have registered similar weakness.”

Biden is surely aware of the oft-voiced suggestion that he and Democrats do something more substantial to reduce burdensome student debt, which Brownstein notes is a frequently-voiced concern of young voters. But that is a tricky issue. An Obama to Trump voter I know in one of Georgia’s conservative counties complains that he and his wife each worked multiple jobs to put their kids through college, and now Democrats are talking about free tuition for the current generation, which feels like a rip-off to his family. I didn’t have a good response at the time. But maybe it’s “at least your grandkids wouldn’t be putting a huge tuition loan burden on your kids.”

Brownstein concludes, “Young people turned out in huge numbers, basically they won the election” for Democrats, says Brandon. “And what have they seen delivered? That’s the issue. Unfortunately, like the public at large, all the stuff that has been delivered just doesn’t feel like it….Unless that changes for more young adults before November, Democrats may be left lamenting a lost opportunity — and facing the sort of depressed youth turnout that battered them so badly in 2014 and 2010.”

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