CIRCLE finds young people more civically engaged than ever

Tufts students register to vote at Civics Fest, an event celebrating National Voter Registration Day, on Sept. 26, 2017. Ruby Belle Booth / The Tufts Daily Archives

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life released a series of findings recently that suggest that young people are more engaged in the upcoming midterm elections than perhaps ever before. The results, three sets of which have been released to the public, reveal that America’s youth are planning to head to the polls in large numbers to make a difference in 2018, according to Director for Communication, Strategy and Planning at Tisch College Jennifer McAndrew. 

CIRCLE partnered with polling firm GfK to survey 2,087 people, aged 18–24, through an online questionnaire from Sept. 5–26, McAndrew said. She also explained that the poll contained a representative oversample of people aged 1821 who are new to voting, as well as black and Latinx young people.

The first finding of the series, released on Oct. 9, focused on young people’s likelihood to vote, how campaigns contacted young people and voter choice, according to McAndrew.

Reynol Junco, a senior researcher at CIRCLE, found this part of the poll results to be extremely encouraging about the youth vote. According to the poll, 34 percent of young respondents are “extremely likely to vote” in the upcoming midterm election.

According to McAndrew, this would be a historic turnout for young people in a midterm election, who have not turned out in a rate higher than 31 percent for a midterm election since the Census Bureau began recording such data in 1966. She thought it promising that the youngest voters are planning to turn out in greater numbers.

The high youth turnout numbers are also reminiscent of participation in presidential elections, according to Junco.

“That comes really … close to the levels of engagement we saw in [a similar poll] for the 2016 elections,” Junco said. “Which is surprising because usually there’s not that level of engagement for midterms because people are usually uncaring — not just youth, but in general.”

Junco added that while black and Latinx youth overwhelmingly favor Democratic candidates, young white voters are more evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with white men actually favoring Republican candidates.

The second finding, released on Oct. 11, focused on generational efficacy by asking young people if they believe that their generation can make a difference, McAndrew said. Despite a majority of young people reporting that they are more cynical about politics than they were two years ago, the poll also demonstrated a growing optimism in the power of the young generation. Overall, the survey showed that 81 percent of young people believe that they have the power to create change.

“It’s really interesting to me that young people tend to be cynical and they don’t really trust institutions and they don’t really trust party elites, yet they really seem to be making political change and are trying to advocate for political change in a way that’s outside that system,” Kristian Lundberg, an associate researcher at CIRCLE, said.

The third finding, on Oct. 15, centered around the idea of “slacktivism,” the concept that easily supporting a candidate or campaign online does not count as or lead to true activism, according to CIRCLE’s website.

Junco reported that, despite the ease of online political action, engagement in offline activism is trending up. In fact, he said that young people are three times more likely to attend a march or demonstration than they were just two years ago. 

“Youth are more engaged than ever, which I think is a really great thing,” Junco said. “I think there really is this feeling like youth aren’t interested and they aren’t engaged and one of the things that we find is you would be surprised. All you have to do is ask youth and they will participate.”

According to the survey, young people have connected most with movements to stop gun violence and climate change, as well as the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.

Junco also suggested that celebrities like Taylor Swift and Rihanna, who have told their fans to register to vote, are raising young people’s awareness of political issues.

He further pointed out that the political activism is clearly divided along party lines, with Democrats more than twice as likely to engage in activism than Republicans or independents.

“These data suggest that the Democratic youth are more fired up,” Junco said.

The survey further found that youth tend to be cynical about the major political parties and are not enthusiastic about affiliating with them, a potential holdover from the divisive primaries of the last election cycle, according to Lundberg.

“It could in part be a reaction to 2016 where young Republicans tended to oppose Trump’s nomination overall and young Democrats overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders,” he said.

Lundberg added that already 30 percent of youths are unaffiliated with a party. He noted that an exception to this trend is young people of color, who said that being part of a party makes their voice more powerful.

“It could be that young people of color could see the benefits more of voting as a block as opposed to young white voters,” Lundberg said.

The survey additionally found that, for the most part, young people still inherit their political affiliations from their parents.

Lundberg also noted an interesting finding about which youth voters switch parties.

“One interesting thing is that the group of people who switch parties more tend to be part of the LGBT community,” Lundberg said. “I feel like that’s one lever for change right there — that people who switch parties might be doing so because they have disagreements on that issue.”

The final portion of the series, about local media, will be released by Oct. 29, according to McAndrew.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement’s poll found that youth engagement in online activism is increasing. It is youth engagement in offline activism that is increasing. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily regrets this error.