The Myth of the Younger Voter

Vice President Suzanne Morse

Vice President Suzanne Morse

Stop me if you’ve heard these before – or thought them yourselves:

  • Young people are the most political across generations.
  • Young people are supposed to change the world.
  • You’re a member of Generation X? You’re too apathetic.
  • You’re a Millennial? You’re too idealistic.
  • You’re a Baby Boomer? You’re too selfish.
  • “If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”

These myths about younger voters, along with many others, have been kicking around politics for at least five decades (and in the case of the last statement – a quote attributed to Winston Churchill – even longer).  Members of the media often like to focus on candidates who excite younger voters because they represent a reliably new and fresh take on the electorate, and signal where the country is going politically… or so they believe.

But the reality is that those statements truly are just myths.  By and large, younger people are among the least political of age cohorts – for the most part, if you are in your late teens and twenties, you are moving around quite a bit, settling on a career, determining your family life.  Consistently, younger people vote at lower rates than their older counterparts – and this has been true for decades, going back to the Baby Boomers.  Similarly, these ideas – that the current generation of young voters is too (fill in the blank – apathetic, idealistic, entitled, selfish), that all young people want to change the world, and that they have set ideological inclinations – have been repeatedly debunked.

So it’s worth looking a bit skeptically at an overemphasis by the media on the power of younger voters to win elections.  It’s not that younger people don’t matter to elections – they do.  A study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University showed that young people determined the outcome of at least 80 electoral votes in the 2012 election.  But even in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, younger people voted at significantly lower rates than older people – 45 percent for 18 to 29 year-olds compared to 68 percent for 45 to 64 year-olds and 72 percent for 65 years and older.

Throughout the last several decades, from President Clinton in 1992 to President Obama in 2008 and 2012, the candidate who explicitly directed messages to young people – and did so in ways that ensure that young people pay attention – tend to win those younger votes.  And when you’re scrounging for every last vote, it makes sense.  But the media often tend to mistake the generational outliers – the highly engaged young people who participate in campaigns or who begin voting at the age of 18 – as representative of every other young person in their age cohort.

It’s a good thing for our democracy that the media and campaigns are focusing on young people because ultimately, ensuring that they are part of the body politic is important for our future as a democracy.  But as you’re watching the campaign continue to unfold leading up to November, be on guard for the assertions about the younger voter that claim that they are the only determining factor in this election or sweeping generalizations that proclaim all younger voters are alike.

Vice President Suzanne Morse creates communications campaigns designed to engage and motivate diverse target audiences. While a graduate student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, she focused on the civic engagement of young people.