'Young voters delivered for Democrats': How the youth vote blocked a 'red wave' in midterms

In the 2022 midterm elections, more than 8 million young people were eligible to vote for the first time, including Jack Lobel, an 18-year-old in New York City.

Lobel, the communications director of Voters of Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that organizes the youth vote nationwide, says young people were energized and eager to show up to the polls.

“We felt that energy amongst our peers to get involved in the political process. We felt that sense of hope, and that sense of fear that was driving young people to the polls,” he told Yahoo News.

In a preliminary report, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) estimates that 27% of voters between the ages 18 and 29 cast ballots in this year's midterms.

“We see that young people turned out at the second-highest rate in midterm elections that we've seen over the past [50] years, and that’s second to 2018, which saw the highest youth voter turnout that we've seen since the early '70s,” Abby Kiesa, deputy director of CIRCLE, told Yahoo News.

Voters fill out their ballots in voting booths at a polling location in Columbus, Ohio.
Voters at a polling location in Columbus, Ohio, on Election Day. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In the 2018 midterm elections, 36% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, a huge increase from the 20% who voted in the 2014 midterms.

According to the Edison Research National Election Pool exit poll, the national youth vote this year leaned heavily Democratic, with 63% voting for Democrats and 35% for Republicans. Experts say young voters prevented a “red wave” — the big wins for the GOP that Sen. Ted Cruz and other Republicans predicted before Election Day.

“Young voters delivered for Democrats because Democrats delivered for young voters,” Lobel said. “President Joe Biden listened to us. He made promises on the campaign trail that he's absolutely followed through with.”

On Thursday, Biden acknowledged and thanked young voters for turning out in historic numbers. “They voted to continue addressing the climate crisis, gun violence, their personal rights and freedoms and the student debt relief,” he said.

Dozens of states had key ballot measures for voters to consider on issues including abortion, marijuana and forced prison labor. “We know that when you put ballot measures like the legalization of marijuana or abortion rights on the ballot, that those affect the voter turnout equation,” Scot Schraufnagel, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University, told Yahoo News. “And presumably, those ballot measures resonated with young voters, and more turned out because of them.”

President Biden, smiling broadly, speaks at a Democratic National Committee rally.
President Biden speaks at a Democratic National Committee rally in Washington on Nov. 10, two days after the midterms. (Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

While the youth vote was partisan-leaning, that has not always been the case, according to Schraufnagel. The largest margin for Democrats was in 2018, when the youth vote was 67% for Democrats to 32% for Republicans.

“You go back into the '80s, [and] young people were voting Republican at a high rate,” Schraufnagel said. “It's not a given that young people will vote Democrat. It's incumbent upon the parties to appeal to young voters, [and] Democrats are currently doing a better job of that.”

Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California, says there was a lack of outreach to young voters, but despite that they proved their power in key races across the country.

“Overall, both Republicans and Democrats do a really bad job at outreaching to young people,” Romero told Yahoo News. “I think the president very strategically is recognizing young people because he sees the challenges ahead, and he wants to make sure that young people who are Democrats are gonna stay Democrats and stay enthusiastic.”

Last week the youth vote impacted key races in battleground states.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaks to supporters, some of whom hold signs reading: One More Time Georgia.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaks to supporters in Atlanta on Nov. 10. (Demetrius Freeman/Washington Post via Getty Images)

For instance, in Georgia, “the number of votes between Sen. [Raphael] Warnock and his opponent in Georgia were less than 50,000 votes,” said Kiesa. “But if you look at the estimated number of votes cast from young people, Sen. Warnock [received roughly over] 100,000 votes from young people in the state of Georgia.”

And in the Arizona governor’s race, the only gubernatorial race where votes are still being counted, the youth vote is also a factor. “If you look at the margins in the Arizona governor's race, those are below 25,000 votes. Our current estimates — and votes are still being counted there — are that young people passed at least 50,000 votes there,” Kiesa said.

Furthermore, the youth vote “influenced the race in Pennsylvania with John Fetterman’s win,” Schraufnagel said. “But also [Maggie] Hassan in New Hampshire and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and even Tony Evers in Wisconsin.”

With historic wins across the country, Democrats maintained control of the Senate for another two years, but control of the House is still undecided.

Voters standing at voting booths fill out their ballots.
Voters fill out their ballots in Frederick, Md., on Election Day. (Ricky Carioti/Washington Post via Getty Images)

“The far right would have won on Tuesday if it were not for young voters,” Lobel said. “Young voters showed up in key districts where it really mattered and tipped the scale in favor of democracy.”

In a tweet last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., praised young voters. “The role of young people in this election cannot be understated. Turnout delivered on many of these races. By 2024, Millennials & Gen Z voters will outnumber voters who are Baby Boomers and older, 45/25. We are beginning to see the political impacts of that generational shift.”

But even though young voters showed up to the polls, experts say it was not the breakthrough it could be, “because 27% is historic and we can do so much better,” Kiesa explained.

“Just imagine what we can do in 2024 if Democrats truly invest in the youth vote,” Lobel said.