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How young voters became the wall for the 'red wave'

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Americans under 30 insist on being heard, at least in the ballot box. Once again, they showed up to vote. In fact, more young voters under 25 registered to vote this midterm election than in 2018, according to CIRCLE Research at Tufts University.

John Della Volpe joins us now to break this all down. He's the author of "Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear And Passion To Save America." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JOHN DELLA VOLPE: It's great to be here. Thank you.

NADWORNY: So young people made an impact in the 2020 election. Is it the same story this year?

DELLA VOLPE: It's actually the same story for now three cycles in a row. When Gen Z entered the category of young American voters in 2018, we saw they had a significant impact in the 2018 midterm election. We saw a similar effect in 2020. So now, for the third election cycle in a row, younger Americans made the difference in state after state after state. We saw this generation gap continue to play a prominent role. Essentially, what we found was Americans over the age of 40 preferred Republicans. Americans under the age of 40, specifically millennials and Gen Z, strongly preferred Democrats.

NADWORNY: What issues inspire young people to come and vote? And I'm thinking specifically for this election.

DELLA VOLPE: Well, it's a complex question, and I think that's what's often misunderstood about our survey, about public opinion polling. It's not just one single issue. But I think it starts with the idea that well before even the Dobbs decision, young Americans were telling us in our focus groups and our Harvard polling and other research, that they were very concerned about losing their rights and freedoms, that they felt like they were under attack. That's one. A second thing we found was that only 7% a year ago felt like they were living in a healthy democracy. Today, that number is down to 4%.

So those are the - kind of a macro-level concerns that young people have. And then those are only exacerbated by the Dobbs decision, by the January 6 hearings and, really, by this kind of concern that their generation was under attack. And what we saw yesterday was millions of young Americans are actually voting not just for themselves but for those more vulnerable than they are. Essentially, you could say they're voting as a way to fight back.

NADWORNY: The red wave that some pollsters predicted, which didn't ultimately end up happening - what role did the youth vote play with that result?

DELLA VOLPE: We would have had a red wave, actually, if not for younger people because, again, like, if you look at votes of people over the age of 40, between 40- and 49-year-olds, Republicans won by seven points. Fifty to 64-year-olds, they won by nine points, and they won by 12 points among people over the age of 65. That's a red wave, but it's a red wave among baby boomers.

What younger people, specifically what Gen Z, younger millennials did is they stopped the red wave in its course. And as we've been saying over the last couple of weeks, as we released this Harvard survey, that we weren't sure whether we were going to see a red wave or a blue wave, but we were pretty confident that we would see a Gen Z wave. And that's what the data shows 24 hours later.

NADWORNY: For those who still say, look, my vote doesn't matter; the earth is burning; I'm never going to own a home - I mean, what do you say to those that didn't vote?

DELLA VOLPE: Well, I think we will see more young people vote, you know, as they ever have. And one thing that keeps that group of young people voting is knowing that their engagement can make a difference. And the degree to which all young people recognize that they're responsible - not older people but younger people are responsible, whether you like it or not, for having a Democratic president, for having a Democratic Senate, for having their issues that they care so deeply about being addressed - bipartisan gun legislation, historic climate action, student loan debt cancellation - those are issues that we would not be talking about today if not for millions of young people who showed up in November of 2020 and in November of 2018. If they continue to do that, they can eventually see that the America that they envision come to reality.

NADWORNY: John Della Volpe is the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. Thanks so much.

DELLA VOLPE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Elissa Nadworny
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.