Despite what was considered record turnout in the 2020 presidential election, a third of the voting age population did not participate. Youth turnout was higher in 2020 than in 2016, but that does not mean we should assume that youth turnout in the 2022 midterms will be higher than in the 2018 midterms, which had the highest midterm turnout in over 100 years.
Many things have changed since 2018 and 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic continues across the country. There is continual political turmoil related to abortion, civil rights, police violence, immigration, and student debt relief. The midterms will take place against the backdrop of recent mass shootings, recent Supreme Court decisions, including the overturning of Roe v. Wade, rising gas prices and inflation, and behind it all the cloud of the events of the last election with the false claims of voter fraud, election subversion, and the storming of the Capitol building on January 6, 2021.
Given the complicated social landscape we find ourselves in with the 2022 midterm elections fast approaching, Public Wise and HeadCount wanted to better understand where young potential voters stand and what kind of messaging speaks to them in this political climate. We also wanted to know what key issues are top of mind for these voters today, what kind of civic participation they engage in, and what they know about the midterm elections. We partnered with Change Research to field a survey and message test to answer those questions.
Summary of Key Takeaways
- Young people are very politically aware and civically engaged, but there is a disconnect between that and feeling motivated to go to the polls.
- Young people know how many electoral votes it takes to win the presidency and that electoral votes don’t always reflect the popular vote.
- Most report posting their political views online. Almost half say they have contacted their elected officials.
- But ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, only 43% of 18 to 29 year olds felt highly motivated to vote.
- From our message testing, we found that voting as an act of accountability was the most welcoming framing of civic duty, but young potential voters also expressed skepticism for any messaging that wasn’t accompanied by concrete action. The lack of effective outreach may be a barrier to motivation and it will be difficult to truly hold politicians accountable without increased young voter participation.
- We also found that young Americans feel most worried about protecting access to safe abortions, the economy/cost of living, and climate/the environment. There is an opportunity to connect progress on these issues to democracy.
- Despite three-quarters reporting that they already express political opinions online, very few are willing to say they are likely to share the tested message frames on social media.
- Despite being very concerned with a lot of social issues, the Issues that Matter Most message did not resonate as well as we expected, given that it was the top message for all age groups, including young adults, based on the Ad Council’s 2019 message testing prior to the 2020 elections – open-ended responses indicate that the kind of neutral language necessary for nonpartisan messaging is not specific enough to capture their approval.
- While messages playing on the Power of the Youth Vote may empower some young voters, about a third who saw this frame reacted negatively, indicating that they found it to be disingenuous, patronizing, or pandering.
- While none of the messages played particularly well, the Voting as Accountability message had a slight edge over the others when considering a combination of evidence from the open- and closed-ended responses.
- Young potential voters generally agree with the positive sentiments of the messages, albeit to varying degrees. However, they express skepticism that they can come to fruition in the existing system, which they perceive to be broken.
- Lack of trust in the system may be a barrier that is difficult for positive GOTV messaging to overcome.