Young Voters, Inequality, and Identity

Views from Rapidly Diversifying States


Friday, October 11, 2019

PROTESTERS outside the Trump tower in New York
By Sonam Kotadia

Despite some recent progress, most mainstream civic engagement and political outreach efforts continue to marginalize young voters in choices about strategy and resource allocation. Depending on the aims or “side” of the outreach campaign, this can take one of two forms: Young people are either taken for granted without having ever been courted or heard, or they are written off as not worth the trouble. Both approaches push this group to the margins, leading to the same results: a limited understanding of what motivates these potential voters and little chance of connecting with them.

As part of its Civic Engagement Narrative Change project, in 2018, the Haas Institute fielded two large surveys in Nevada and Florida that were intentional about filling gaps in knowledge about young prospective voters. Administered in October and November, the surveys oversampled people ages 18-29 in order to have statistically reliable findings on their attitudes towards economic policy, immigration, intergroup relations, political participation, and much more. This approach is one of the ways the surveys’ design reflected the project’s broad commitment to improving engagement efforts with under-represented constituencies that could grow their political influence beyond current participation levels.

Pundits and strategists often talk of voter outreach as though there is one constituency open to bold proposals on economic opportunity and another interested in justice claims around identity, and that you must choose one or the other. Perhaps no voter group shows that choice to be a false one as much as young people. As detailed in the following sections, findings from the Nevada and Florida Civic Engagement Narrative Change surveys demonstrate that 18-29 year olds favor inclusive, progressive policies in both of these broad issue areas at a higher rate than the general population. What is missing is a strong sense of political efficacy and faith that “the system” will permit change of the type they envision.

Economic Inequality and the Role of Government

Issues of growing inequality and unequal access to opportunity have moved to the center of economic policy debate in recent years, attracting the attention of Americans across racial, regional, and urban-suburban-rural divides. The Civic Engagement Narrative Change surveys sought to capture what residents of two diverse, and diversifying, Sun Belt states think is the appropriate role for government in addressing inequality and securing economic well-being.

Both surveys found that young people are particularly inclined to believe that that role should be a strong and robust one. The 18-29 year olds surveyed support direct government action to combat inequality and guarantee basic goods at consistently higher rates than does the total population. When asked whether government should “play a major role in trying to reduce income inequality,” 46 percent of young Floridians indicated that they “strongly agree” that it should, nine percentage points higher than for all Floridians. Similarly, young Nevadans “strongly agree” at a rate eight percentage points higher than the state overall.

This trend persists throughout a set of survey questions presenting specific economic and distributive policy measures. For example, young people in both states are at least five percentage points more likely than all respondents to strongly agree that “government should be responsible for ensuring that working people have access to affordable housing.” Young Floridians are also five percentage points above the average in saying they “strongly agree” that “government should be responsible for ensuring that all American adults who want a job are able to have one.” In Nevada, these age gaps are even more dramatic, with young people responding eight percentage points higher for each of the two questions.

Though I emphasize young people’s support for these proposals, it is important to note that they are by no means unpopular among the electorate more generally. Over 70 percent of all respondents say they “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” with the increased role for government in guaranteeing housing and jobs. Even more popular across all age groups is raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. In Florida, just under half of the entire sample indicated that they strongly favor that the state adopts such a policy. Support in Nevada is lower but is nevertheless still considerable at 43 percent. The data thus suggest that older voters are receptive to the idea of government taking more responsibility for public economic well-being, although the young are decidedly most in favor of it doing so.



Structural Injustice, Race, and Immigration

Young respondents are also more highly attuned than their elders to the historical and structural obstacles African Americans and immigrants in the US face to improving their economic standing. In both states, 18-29 year olds are well over 10 percentage points more likely to agree that African Americans and immigrants have “gotten less than they deserve” in recent years and that generations of discrimination (and, in African Americans’ case, slavery) continue to hinder their ability to work their way up.



These questions examining how survey respondents understand inequality and opportunity for African Americans and immigrants are part of two four-question series designed to measure “racial resentment” and “immigrant resentment,” respectively. This type of series is commonly used in survey research to access subtler forms of bias, given that most Americans are reluctant to overtly express racial animus. The Haas Institute analyzes the results alongside other survey items to better understand the prevalence of othering and to be able to see where and for whom there are vulnerabilities to dog-whistle and other divisive politics.

With this in mind, it is significant to note that young respondents show some inconsistencies in their views across the four-question racial and immigrant resentment series. While strong majorities of 18-29 year olds in both states acknowledge the systemic barriers faced by African Americans and immigrants (as shown above), majorities also say they agree that these groups should “work their way up... without any special favors.” In addition, a bare majority of young Floridians say they believe that if African Americans and immigrants “would only try harder, they could be as well off as white Americans.”

These results represent a discrepancy between, on one hand, young people’s above-average awareness of racial structural disadvantages, and on the other, their apparent belief that through individual efforts and perseverance, those disadvantages can be overcome. This divergence may arise from respondents holding varying views simultaneously, and surely reflects the power of framing to activate one view over the other. The “work their way up” and “try harder” questions evoke the powerful “American Dream” narrative, which places a strong personal work ethic and individual agency above all else. Young people’s willingness to accept this narrative is particularly evident for the “try harder” questions, where the gaps between their responses and that of older respondents are the smallest. In Florida, it is only on the “try harder” questions that 18-29 year olds come within five percentage points of the state average. In Nevada, they are not within even 10 percentage points on any other racial or immigrant resentment question. So while the young recognize the seriousness of structural impediments when asked about them directly, it appears that the individual perseverance and meritocracy narrative around “trying harder” can mitigate their sympathy for those dealing with such impediments.



Given their awareness of the structural obstacles African Americans face, it is unsurprising that young people also express greater concern about the issue of police brutality and hold more liberal views on criminal-justice reform. In Florida, they are 10 percentage points more likely to believe that police brutality is a very serious problem in the US.1 They are eleven percentage points more likely to agree that recent killings of African Americans by police are “part of a broader pattern of how police treat African Americans,” with 59 percent agreeing with that statement.2

Finally, young people convey a highly inclusive notion of what and who can be “American.” The 18-29 year olds surveyed are above the average in indicating that respecting others’ cultural differences is a very important part of what “makes someone a true American.” They are also less likely to think that being born in the US or being able to speak English is important to being a “true American.” Perhaps most tellingly, there is a 15 percentage point gap between 18-29 year olds and all Floridians in thinking that being an American requires “blending into larger society” (i.e. assimilation).3

Given this more inclusive definition of American identity, it follows that high rates of young people support progressive immigration policies. Two in three young Floridians and three in four young Nevadans say they support establishing a path to allow undocumented immigrants currently living in the US to stay. Both are much more likely to oppose increasing deportations than are their elders. Young people also support taking in refugees fleeing violence and climate disasters. Notably, in the context of widespread othering of Muslims, 18-29 year olds are the only age group that says they back taking in “Muslim refugees” at the same rate as they support taking in “refugees” generally.

Corporate Influence and Taxation

In light of the concern for economic inequality detailed above, one might expect that young people would view corporations rather negatively. Surprisingly, this is not the case. Though the majority in both states indicate that corporations have too much influence on state politics, they are less likely than the general population to say so. In fact, it is people age 50 and up that are most likely to criticize corporate political influence. The same pattern holds for the survey question asking whether corporations are paying too little in state taxes. While 66 to 67 percent of all respondents in the two states think corporations are paying too little, only 56 to 58 percent of young people say so.

These gaps are puzzling, particularly since, when asked to rate how warmly they feel about corporations, 18-29 year olds expressed the most negative views of any age group. One potential explanation is that young survey respondents are less engaged and have not yet fully formed their opinions on corporations. In fact, when asked about corporate influence and taxes, they were the group most likely to answer “just about the right amount,” a “middle position” response to which respondents often default when they are not confident about their opinion on the subject.

Young people’s reluctance to say corporations should pay more in taxes might also be linked to a deeper mistrust or lack of faith in government. Indeed, even though 18-29 year olds express below-average “warmth” towards corporations, those in both Florida and Nevada indicate on average that they feel still four points colder towards “government.”

Since surveys only allow for respondents to tick a box that they most agree with in that moment, it is impossible to say with certainty what explains some ambiguities found in the data. Qualitative research, such as in-depth interviews or focus groups, would be helpful for filling out what underlies respondents’ attitudes. By allowing young people to explain their responses in their own words, we would be able to piece together a clearer picture of how they relate to corporations and the government and whether there are ways for institutions to regain their trust.

Political Participation

One thing that seems certain is that low feelings of political efficacy feature prominently in young voters’ lower voter participation rates. Across the two surveys, more than half of respondents of all ages agreed with the statements that, “People like me don't have much say in what government does,” and, “Things stay the same for people like me no matter who is voted into office.” But 18-29 year olds agreed with these at rates of four to seven percentage points higher than the overall population. Young people in both states are also 10 percentage points behind their state total in saying that voting is a “very important” part of being an American.

Perhaps more striking is the fact that 18-29 year olds are at least 16 percentage points less likely to say that they generally think of themselves as voters. For those in Florida at least, political parties and campaigns appear to feed into this disillusionment, as young people also reported that they had been contacted about voting at far lower rates (36 percent) than did Floridians age 50 and above (51 percent). This was the case despite the numerous critical races for state and federal offices in Florida as well as (relatively) increased awareness in 2018 of the need to reach out to inconsistent voters and expand the electorate.

Concluding Thoughts

The Civic Engagement Narrative Change surveys of Nevada and Florida offer clear evidence that young people in diversifying states are leading the way in embracing a racial justice agenda and expansive role for government in ensuring economic well-being. At the same time, a disproportionately large share of this group is telling us that they do not feel like voters. This survey item tells us about more than young people’s simple voting behavior, whether or not they cast ballots. It is about how they see themselves, their sense of belonging, and their perceived potential in relation to the electoral system. The fact that 31 percent of 18-29 year olds in Florida and 43 percent of those in Nevada cannot say that they generally think of themselves as voters is a problem that must be addressed.

Clearly there is ample room for improvement. The obvious civic and political actors to take the steps needed to engage young people are those with whom they share values, priorities, and policy positions. The Haas Institute’s Nevada and Florida survey results suggest that 18-29 year olds are attracted to bold policies that tackle economic inequality and hold values that reflect a highly inclusive approach to who can “belong” in the United States. They are more cognizant of how persistent structural barriers impact the life chances of Black and immigrant communities, and they appear to connect this knowledge to positions and priorities on criminal-justice and immigration policy.

Based on last year’s midterm election, the youth vote appears to be on the rise. The Census Bureau reported that turnout among 18-29 year-olds increased by 79 percent from 2014 to 2018—the largest uptick for any age group. And study findings recently released by Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education indicate that the voting rate among college and university students doubled from 2014 to 2018, largely due to an increasing emphasis on campus-wide civic engagement efforts by the administration at universities across the country. The question is now whether civic and political actors will take young voters seriously by listening to them, recognizing their issues and identities, and ultimately building on this momentum. Almost every election year we hear that they will begin to do so. Who will step up in 2020?

  • 1. Questions on criminal justice and police brutality only appeared on the Florida survey
  • 2. The 18-29 year-old sub-sample of Floridians also gave highest priority to rehabilitation (such as classes and skills training for prisoners) as a means of dealing with crime, and was the least likely of any age group to want more police officers on the streets. These questions did not appear on the Nevada survey.
  • 3. This question was not included on the Nevada survey.