Young voters report feeling an increasing generational divide with older voters and elected officials, and significant majorities of young people in both parties are concerned about the country’s moral direction, according to new data from Harvard’s Institute of Politics provided exclusively to TIME.
Among young Democrats, 66% said they were concerned about the moral direction of the country, up from 42% in 2015. Among young Republicans, 64% expressed concern about the country’s direction, down nine points from 2015. The study found that this concern correlated with increased anxiety.
Some of that anxiety is leading to more political participation. Young voters are more enthusiastic about the 2020 election than they were about the 2016 election. The poll found that 43% of 18- to 29-year-olds said they were likely to vote in their state’s primary, compared to 36% who said so in the spring of 2015.
That electoral eagerness was especially pronounced among young Democrats, whose enthusiasm for voting rose 14 points, from 44% in 2015 to 58% in 2019. Enthusiasm among young independents rose five points, while enthusiasm among young Republicans dropped slightly.
“Almost all of the additional enthusiasm relative to four years ago is coming from young Democrats,” says John Della Volpe, polling director at the Institute of Politics, who oversaw the poll of more than 3,000 18- to 29-year-olds. “Not only are younger people more engaged, but they’re becoming more engaged and more progressive at the same time.”
The poll also found that young voters — mostly millennials and Gen Z’ers — have grown suspicious of the Baby Boomer generation. Only 16% said they thought Boomer elected officials (defined here as between the ages of 55 and 73) cared about people like them, while 18% said they thought Boomer voters cared. Meanwhile, roughly four in ten said they didn’t think Boomer voters or officials had young voters’ best interests at heart.
“As a whole, young people don’t look favorably on the aggregate mass of Baby Boomer elected officials,” said Richard Sweeney, a Harvard student majoring in applied math who helped lead the study. “But young people have no problem voting for an older politician as long as they’re talking to us and they’re listening to us and they’re fighting for the things that we believe in.”
The best example of this exception is 77-year-old Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has so far maintained his overwhelming popularity with young people as he seeks the party’s nomination in 2020. In the 2016 primary, more young people voted for Sanders than for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined, according to an analysis from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
And young voters are increasingly siding with Democrats in the Trump era. The 2018 midterms saw record youth turnout (31%, the highest since the mid-1990s) and two-thirds of young voters picked a Democrat in the midterms. “We’ve been seeing a growing divide between younger and older voters in America,” says Della Volpe. “Folks in their late 50s and older support Republicans 2:1, folks in the millennial generation support Dems 2:1.”
But while young people overall disapprove of President Trump, the Harvard poll found that young Republicans who said they were concerned about the moral direction of the nation weren’t particularly anti-Trump. Instead, they seemed alienated from the political system as whole: these young Republicans were more likely than Republicans overall to believe that elected officials are motivated by selfishness, that politics has become too partisan and that they don’t have a voice in government decisions. They also appear to be more socially conservative than the party as a whole: 55% of young Republicans said they believe same-sex relationships are morally wrong (compared to 44% of all Republicans,) 51% want more religious values in government (compared to 43% of all Republicans) and 48% said recent immigration has done more harm than good (compared to 39% of all Republicans.)
This partisan generational divide hasn’t always existed. Della Volpe, who has been polling young people for two decades, said that young voters were roughly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats in the Bush v. Gore presidential election in 2000. But a series of events over the last two decades — from George W. Bush’s foreign wars to Barack Obama’s inspirational 2008 campaign to the Republicans’ failure to act on climate change — have pushed young people increasingly to the left.
The Harvard poll found a significant uptick in young people’s concern about the environment. In 2015, only 32% of young people said that the government should do more to try to curb climate change, even it came at the expense of economic growth — by 2019, that number had jumped 14 points, to 46% (only 16% of young people said the government shouldn’t do this.) A third of young voters listed “protecting the environment” as either their first or second most important foreign policy concern, along with stopping terrorists and protecting human rights (trade alliances, defending allies and promoting the spread of Democracy seemed to have much less traction). This increased concern correlates with the rise of the youth-led Sunrise Movement to get the U.S. to stop relying on fossil fuels, and the ambitious Green New Deal proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the youngest member of Congress.
“There’s this feedback effect, where your friends are talking about it, you’re hearing about it, you see it in the news cycle, and suddenly you care more,” says Sweeney. “It takes a few years for those scientific reports to really permeate a generation.”
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