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Horowitz: Stepped up Protests and Higher Youth Turnout Fuels Democratic Optimism

Tuesday, April 10, 2018


The evidence continues to mount that the intense negative reactions to President Trump by a majority of the electorate may have disastrous consequences for the Republicans in the mid-term elections. An unprecedented 1 in 5 Americans--the overwhelming majority of whom have negative perceptions of President Trump--have participated in either a political rally or political protest over the past 2 years or so, according to a recently released Washington Post/Kaiser Foundation Poll.  Nearly 20% of these protesters and rally attendees were participating for the first time.  And this poll was taken before the large-scale nationwide protests that have taken place in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, which would surely have upped the total percentage as well as the percentage of first-time participants.

Unlike protests in the 60’s--many of which were framed by the organizers as direct action alternatives to traditional political activities--—nearly all the recent protest activity has emphasized the importance of voting. This makes these recent protests potentially more politically consequential. This is reflected in the fact that more than 8-in-10 rally and protest participants say they are definitely going to vote this November. Further, a disproportionate share of the protesters and rally participants live in the suburbs—a key battleground in the mid-terms.  Nearly half earn more than $100,000 a year and are 50 years or older.

Coupled with this stepped-up political activity for all age groups are signs that millennial turn-out, which so far has been anemic in mid-term elections, is likely to be significantly higher this Fall.  Young voters usually give Democratic candidates 60% or so of the vote.  Given Trump’s especially low marks with this sub-set of the electorate, even higher percentages are possible.

In the 2014 mid-term election, only 13% of voters were between 18 and 29, while 21% of voters were 65 an over.  In contrast, in the 2016 presidential election, 19% of voters were between 18 and 29, as opposed to 16% that were 65 and over.  According to Darrell M. West, Vice-President of Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, signs from recent special elections and the 2017 Governor’s race in Virginia, point towards an electorate that will at least in terms of age look a bit more like a presidential one than a typical mid-term one. West, a former Brown University Professor, cites the 2017 Virginia election as an example:, “the 2017 Virginia state elections generated a youth turnout of 34 percent, twice the state’s 2009 level. That was a boon to gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam as he captured 69 percent of the youth vote, compared to 30 percent for Republican Ed Gillespie.”

The stepped-up protesting and recent higher youth voter turnout provide back-up for the belief based on polling that there will be a so-called intensity gap this fall that favors the Democrats. So far, Democratic voters appear more motivated to vote than Republican voters.   

While this is all promising for the Democrats, Republicans still have significant structural advantages in the mid-terms, including the fact that Democratic voters tend to be more concentrated in urban areas, while Republicans are better proportioned throughout more Congressional districts. Additionally, as I have noted, a mid-term electorate traditionally is comprised of an outsized share of older voters who tend to be more Republican. Since these are regular voters--60% to 70% of whom turn out for these elections on average--even if they are a little less excited than usual, it doesn’t mean that they won’t vote in close to their usual numbers.  Finally, it is still early and there is sufficient time for voter perceptions of President Trump to shift. This will require, however, a major change in his behavior. That is what drives his high negatives much more than his policies.

With these caveats fully acknowledged, Democratic optimism for the Fall is becoming increasingly well-founded.


Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.


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