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The midterms did not show a ‘red wave.’ That’s thanks to Gen Z voters, experts say

Concerns about abortion bans and human rights may have driven record numbers of voters younger than 30 to vote blue in the midterm election.

(CN) — Experts say widespread wins for Democrats on Tuesday night are defying early poll predictions of a “red wave” because Gen Z voters turned out in high numbers, signaling their concern for the rights of all Americans.

Across the U.S., while control of Congress is not yet settled and early results leave many ballots — including those mailed in — uncounted, Democratic wins are already being called. Candidates who embraced former president Donald Trump’s "big lie" about the 2020 election were widely defeated, while those Republican candidates who did triumph Tuesday largely did so by distancing themselves from the former president. And 25-year-old Democrat Maxwell Frost looks to have secured Florida's House of Representatives seat based in Orlando, as the first Gen Z member of Congress — after working for the anti-gun violence group March for Our Lives. 

Antonio Arellano, vice president of the youth mobilization organization Next Gen America, said on Twitter that the Edison Research National Election Pool exit poll is showing that voters aged 18-29 were the only age group where more than half supported Democrats. The Tufts Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement reported Wednesday that 2022 youth turnout is likely the second-highest for a midterm election in the past 30 years, behind only the historic 31% turnout in 2018. Votes from young people made up 12% overall in this election, nearly matching the 13% youth share of the vote from the 2014 and 2018 midterms.

Young voters overwhelmingly vote Democrat over Republican, particularly Black and Latino voters. (CIRCLE Tufts University poll via Courthouse News)

Those results align with a Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics poll of 2,123 18-to-29-year-olds this fall which indicated that 40% would “definitely" vote in the midterm elections, and 57% said they preferred Democratic control of Congress.

The Harvard poll predicted that young Americans under 30 who live in battleground states were more likely to vote than those from traditional red or blue states. The majority of these voters agreed that their rights and others' rights are under attack. About 28% of voters said inflation was the most important issue to them, but when adjusted to only women voters, abortion rights became the most important issue at 24%, with only 21% considering inflation to be their top priority. 

Most young Americans believe their rights and the rights of others are under attack, and indicated they would vote accordingly. (Harvard IOP Youth Poll via Courthouse News)

The majority of Americans under 30 support the recent cancellation of $10,000 in student debt, the bipartisan gun law and the Inflation Reduction Act. And 47% said that the decision in Dobbs to undo Roe v. Wade will have a negative impact on their lives, with 54% being young women. Additionally, only 4% believe America has a healthy democracy, with 29% expecting their vote to be undermined in some way.

When the poll results were released, Harvard Public Opinion Project student chair Alan Zhang said "For many young Americans, abortion rights, the future of our planet, and our democracy itself are all on the line this November — and they are acting accordingly."

The Project's Interim Director Setti Warren added, “Across geography, race, gender, and background, young Americans view the world from a starkly different lens than older generations. Elected officials should pay attention.”

Robert Alexander, founding director at the Institute for Civics and Public Policy, said in an interview that while young voters are "notoriously fickle," they have started to turn out in high numbers for midterm elections. 

"Their participation is necessary in order for Democrats to fare well in any election," he said. 

Alexander said pollsters do try to ensure that young voters are contacted using digital or text surveys, and establish quotas to make sure all age groups are represented in samples. And Gen Z has access to more information about elections than previous generations through social media. 

"They are also coming of age politically in a particularly turbulent time where there is great interest in politics and the stakes for who wins or loses appear to be incredibly high," he said. 

Kamy Akhavan, executive director at the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, said they think it is too soon to know how much of a difference Gen Z voters made. Some exit polls show only 10% of voters were under age 30, slightly less than the last midterm. 

However, “Gen Z made its voice heard by showing up in nearly record numbers and voting overwhelmingly for Democrat candidates who support issues they care about. Most Gen Z people are more anti-Trump and anti-Republican than they are pro-Biden and pro-Democrats,” Akhavan said. 

All of the experts agreed that polling is more difficult than ever because most people ignore spam calls, emails, texts and front door visits during election season — except for senior voters. But Akhavan also said Gen Z is better educated than prior generations and has experienced the Great Recession, record political polarization, a pandemic, worsening climate change and “racial unrest.”

“The reason we had a red ripple versus a red wave was because women, Gen Z, people of color and independents who support abortion rights, showed up in slightly higher numbers to partially offset the historical trends of the president’s party losing a big number of seats in a midterm," Akhavan said.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor and director at the University of Mary Washington's Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said he thinks Republicans’ focus on economic insecurity may not have overcome Democrats’ concern over the Roe v. Wade overturn and threats to democracy. The right to abortion may prove the single most important issue for Gen Z, and may have been overlooked by media coverage predicting a “red wave” using surveys that may not have been reliable. 

“I'm not sure a lot of journalists have the training in evaluating survey research to know which polls are junk and which ones are not,” he said.

Farnsworth also thinks that for the 2024 elections, Republicans should notice that many candidates who tightly align with Trump and the “big lie” are not making big wins, especially among young voters. 

“The election is already showing that candidates' experience and character matter a great deal," he said. "The Trump backlash is at least as strong as the Trump endorsement.”

Republican strategist John Feehery of EFB Advocacy said “As a group, they (Gen Z) don’t usually participate in polls, so perhaps that is why most pollsters didn’t pick up their voting preferences in their surveys.  It’s a real surprise, to say the least.”

Asked if Republican strategists have learned anything from the results, he said “Don’t trust the polls!”

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