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Young Voters to America: You're Welcome
The perennial scapegoats of U.S. politics staved off a Red Wave
As of this writing, we don’t know who won this week’s midterm elections. Both halves of Congress are still up for grabs: The Democratic Party appears likely to maintain (and maybe even expand) their slim majority in the Senate, while the Republicans are favored (but not guaranteed) to flip control of the House. But even without knowing the final results, two things are already clear. The first is that the Democrats have done remarkably well, given the circumstances. It’s a near-iron law of American politics that the President’s party loses ground in the midterms, especially when the Commander-in-Chief is unpopular. Yet despite Joe Biden’s low approval ratings, even a GOP sweep of the as-yet-uncalled races would mean this was the best midterm performance for an incumbent party in 20 years.
The second major immediate takeaway is that the reason the dreaded Red Wave failed to materialize was the exact demographic who had already been set up as the electoral scapegoats had it occurred: Young voters.
Despite our reputation as lazy citizens who would rather complain than show up to the polls, you may recall that the youth vote overcame our collective lack of enthusiasm for the ticket and delivered the White House and a federal trifecta to the Democrats in 2020. Since then, as frustrations mounted with the party’s stalled agenda, the young voters who started out as Biden’s most-supportive age group became his strongest disapprovers by last fall, and have remained as such or nearly so ever since.
Broadly speaking, the establishment pols have not been interested in mollifying this segment of the base. In keeping with the party’s all-too-common impulse to delegate work to the voters instead of elected officials, older Democrats mostly responded to our critiques by hectoring us to shut up and go to the polls — even with several months of governing time left before the next elections. Our ungratefulness for the shreds of watered-down progressivism the Democrats could manage, we were repeatedly scolded, was playing right into the Republicans’ hands. So it would be our fault when the Red Wave ushered them back into power.
Well, the results are in, and every liberal Gen-Xer and Boomer who expressed such condescension to their younger relatives and neighbors owes us an apology — and a whole lot of thank yous.
According to the National Election Pool’s current exit polls1, 55% of voters under 45 pulled the lever for Democrats, versus 42% who punched their ballots for Republicans. Meanwhile, voters 45 and up went for the GOP, 54%-44%. If young people had indeed stayed home, as pundits at least pretended to believe we might have, Republicans would have won a 10-point mandate and a Red Tsunami. The reason why older Americans’ choices didn’t result in a comfortable GOP victory is that Millennials and Zoomers went so strongly for the Democrats. As the cohort in question gets younger, the effect becomes even more apparent. Voters between 30 and 39 went blue by an 11-point margin. Those under 30 (a group that I keep forgetting I am no longer part of) chose Democrats by a whopping 28-point margin, 63% to 35%.
The trend was magnified in the states that will decide the Senate. In Georgia, incumbent Raphael Warnock is heading to a runoff with Herschel Walker Jr. because Warnock’s 29-point win among voters under 30 offset Walker’s 17-point edge among people 65 and older. In Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto may survive a challenge from Adam Laxalt and his 14-point lead among seniors because Masto has more than a two-to-one lead among young Millennials and Zoomers. In Arizona, the best hope to stop Blake Masters from unseating Mark Kelly is the latter’s astounding 56-point lead in the youth vote. And here in Pennsylvania, it was the over-40-point margins from the under-30 crowd that kept a Christian nationalist out of the Governor’s Mansion and a snake-oil-selling tourist out of the Senate.
There’s a related fascinating nugget in a different set of exit-poll splits: Vote breakdowns by Biden approval rating. As you’d expect, the Democrats did very well with respondents who either “strongly” or “somewhat” approve of Biden’s performance, 94% to 5%. The GOP cleaned up among strong-disapprovers, 95% to 4%. Yet voters who said they “somewhat” disapproved of Biden narrowly but decisively broke for the Democrats, 49% to 45%. Not only did this hold up in the swing Senate races of Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania — and by a more-than two-to-one margin in the Pennsylvania Governor’s race — but the trend persisted even amidst clear Republican victories in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio. Perhaps Democrats’ reflexive scorn towards those who are underwhelmed by the party’s accomplishments is unwarranted.
In a just world, older and moderate Democrats would heed these numbers going forward. They would redirect their complaints about Millennial and Gen-Z turnout towards how their generational peers cast their ballots. They would be less quick to dismiss intra-party critiques as utopianism or disloyalty. They would sing paeans to the young folks and lesser-of-two-evils voters who did their duty and staunched the Red Tide. On behalf of the unsung pragmatists of the Democratic coalition, we eagerly await not just our due gratitude but a lasting change in attitude from the party establishment. I won’t be holding my breath.
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The specific numbers could change by the time you read this, as exit polls may be reweighted to align with the official results as more votes are counted.