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Essential Politics: Young people’s political engagement is surging. That’s a problem for Republicans

Poll workers applaud as a first-time voter submits his ballot on election day in 2020.
Poll workers congratulate first-time voter Hector Escobar Solis on election night 2020 in Los Angeles. Voting by young people surged in many areas last year.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

This is the April 23, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Political engagement by young Americans has surged to a historically high level, and that’s not good news for the Republican Party, according to the findings of the annual Harvard Youth Poll.

A dozen years ago, after President Obama’s election, 24% of Americans younger than 30 reported themselves to be politically active, according to the poll, conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. At the time, the Obama campaign was widely credited with having energized young Americans.

Today, that engaged number stands at 36%, maintaining an extraordinarily high level seen during last year’s election. Young Black Americans report the most political engagement — 41%, the survey found.

Political engagement is highest among students in four-year college, who make up about one in five young people, and among those with college degrees, who are about one in four of Americans younger than 30. But even among the roughly half of young people who don’t have a degree and aren’t enrolled in a four-year college, engagement has risen.

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The figures show “the highest level of political engagement that we’ve ever seen in our poll,” said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the institute, who has supervised the youth survey since 2000.

The survey, which questioned 2,513 Americans ages 18 to 29 and has a margin of error of 2.6 percentage points, also found striking optimism: Fifty-six percent say they are more hopeful than fearful about America, a big rise from four years ago, when 31% said they were hopeful.

The increase in hopefulness is particularly large among Black and Latino young people, with roughly seven in 10 saying they are hopeful about the country, compared with about two in 10 Black youths and three in 10 Latino youths in 2017.

A youth problem for Republicans

Along with those high levels of engagement and hopeful feelings about the country, the poll also found a striking level of alienation from the Republican Party and, in particular, former President Trump.

Almost two-thirds of the young people in the survey have an unfavorable view of Trump, with more than half saying their opinion is “very unfavorable.” Only 28% have a favorable view. Asked how history should view him, 30% say Trump should be seen as the “worst president ever” with an additional 24% saying he should be viewed as bad or terrible. Only 26% say he should be seen as good or great.

A majority, 53%, say they view the Republican Party as “too extreme,” compared with just 14% who reject that label. By contrast, 36% call the Democrats too extreme.

Overall, 52% of the young Americans surveyed say they identify with the Democrats or lean toward them, compared with 28% who identify or lean toward the Republicans. That’s strikingly at odds with older generations among whom the two parties have been roughly at parity over the last decade.

The Democratic edge is largest among young people of color. But even among young white people, Republicans have fallen behind, the survey showed. The only sizable group of young Americans among whom Republicans have the edge are rural residents, who make up fewer than one in five young people.

The distance between young Americans and the Republicans doesn’t reflect any innate liberalism of youth, said Della Volpe. “It’s a man-made problem.”

In 2000, when he started surveying young people, “there was virtually no gulf. Young people were as likely to vote for George Bush as for Al Gore.” Even among college students, Gore had only about a four-point edge that year, he said. The gap began to open during Bush’s tenure, widened during the Obama years, and then hardened under Trump.

“For Republicans to win a national campaign, they don’t need to win this demographic, but they need to keep a Democrat in the mid-50s or so.” Once a Democrat gets to 60% or more among young people, as President Biden did, “it makes it very challenging for a Republican to win,” said Della Volpe, who polled for Biden last year.

The impact showed up clearly in 2018, when a surge of youth voting was key to Democrats’ recapture of the majority in the House. Biden’s large majority among younger voters also provided his margin in crucial states last November.

For Republicans, solving that problem poses a difficult challenge. As the poll showed, the gap between young people and the GOP involves both ideology and deep-seated values.

Ideologically, young people have moved notably to the left over the last five years, with growing shares backing strong government action to stop climate change, reduce poverty and provide health insurance to all Americans, among other issues, the poll found.

On each of those, Republicans and young Americans are out of step with each other. Notably, young Republicans have significantly more liberal views than their elders. But the gap on values and identity may be even harder to bridge.

The generation younger than 30 is the most ethnically and racially diverse in the U.S. electorate. Whites make up a bare majority, 53%, the survey found. In the electorate as a whole, whites make up just under 70%.

Young voters of color overwhelmingly say they do not feel “included in Trump’s America,” the poll found. Just about one in six say they feel included; close to 60% say they do not.

Even among white young people, more say they do not feel included, 41% to 35%. Overall, just 27% of Americans ages 18 to 29 say they feel included in Trump’s America, while 48% say they do not, with 24% neutral.

By contrast, 46% of young people say they feel included in “Biden’s America,” while 24% do not and 28% are neutral. Among all major racial and ethnic categories, more young people feel included than excluded under Biden.

That feeling of not belonging plays a role in another of the poll’s findings — the intensity of feeling about issues of race and about Trump.

About three-quarters of the young people surveyed agree that “we need more open-mindedness” in politics, with just 4% disagreeing. Large majorities say they could be friends with a person who disagreed with them on hotly contested issues including abortion, climate and guns.

But issues of race relations and support for Trump provide notable exceptions.

Young Americans split closely on whether they could be friends with someone who disagreed with them on race relations — 54% say they could, 44% say no. Black youths feel especially strongly on that, with 57% saying such a disagreement would block friendship.

The share saying they could not be friends with someone who supported Trump is also large — about one-third say they could not.

One hopeful note for Republicans comes, ironically, from the poll’s findings about Biden.

A year ago, the poll found that only about a third of young people viewed Biden favorably, putting him far behind other political figures, notably his rival in the primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Now, Biden’s popularity has soared. His job approval stands at 59% among all young people. Among college voters, his approval is the highest the poll has ever recorded for an incumbent, 63%, and 40% expect their lives to improve as a result of his policies, compared with 19% who think their lives will get worse.

By 54% to 37%, young people view Biden favorably, a slight edge over Sanders.

“The overarching thing is how much of a U-turn or pivot this is from where we were a year ago,” Della Volpe said. During the campaign, Biden took pains to understand young voters’ concerns, he said.

“Republicans need to do what Joe Biden did,” he said. “He listened.”

The climate summit

Biden convened a virtual summit involving leaders of 40 nations this week to discuss efforts to slow the warming of Earth’s climate. Saying “we have to get this done,” he called for steep emissions cuts for the U.S., pledging that by the end of this decade, U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that warm the climate will be cut by at least 50% compared with the levels of 2005, Chris Megerian reported.

Achieving that goal will require major efforts to reshape the nation’s electric power supply to use renewable energy sources, not fossil fuels, and to switch tens of millions of vehicles to electric power.

Despite Biden’s exhortations, however, not all nations joined in making new, bigger pledges of action to reduce emissions, Megerian and Anna Phillips reported. Notably, China and India, two of the three countries with the largest emissions, offered nothing new.

One major stumbling block to an agreement is how to square responsibility for current emissions with historical ones. The U.S. is the biggest carbon emitter in history, Phillips reported. But its emissions have been declining in recent years while the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere has gone up sharply in China and India, which are still industrializing.

China is now the biggest emitter. Chinese and Indian leaders have argued that they need leeway to continue developing their economies while trying to bring emissions down. As Phillips and Tracy Wilkinson wrote, achieving the world’s climate goals requires China, India and other nations in Asia to wean their economies off coal, but it’s not clear if they’re ready to do that.

At home, the Biden administration moved to restore California’s right to set car pollution rules, which the Trump administration had tried to revoke. The step had been widely expected but was still hailed by California officials, Phillips reported.

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Abortion politics

Around the country, lawmakers in conservative states have introduced a flood of new anti-abortion bills, Melanie Mason reported. It’s part of an effort to prod the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe vs. Wade, the case that first established a nationwide right to abortion nearly half a century ago.

The latest from Washington

The Justice Department plans to investigate the Minneapolis Police Department now that the trial of Derek Chauvin has ended with his conviction on murder charges in the death of George Floyd. As Del Wilber reported, Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland launched a potentially wide-ranging look at how the Minneapolis police recruit, train and supervise their officers and their use of force.

For decades, U.S. presidents have balked at publicly labeling the mass death of Armenians during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. Biden this weekend may become the first U.S. president to publicly recognize the Armenian genocide. Turkey has insistently rejected the genocide label, saying that the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1917 came about as a result of war and disease, not organized killing, a position rejected by most historians.

The genocide issue has particular importance in Southern California, which has the nation’s largest Armenian communities. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) has pushed Biden on the issue, as Jennifer Haberkorn reported.

The Supreme Court has approved life in prison without parole for some juveniles convicted of murder, David Savage reported. The 6-3 ruling came over strong objections from the court’s liberals. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that Southern states, in particular, were imposing life in prison on shockingly high levels of young people, especially Black defendants.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed a measure to counter hate crimes against Asian Americans, Haberkorn reported. The measure would designate a Justice Department official to expedite the review of potential hate crimes against Asian Americans. It would also set up a voluntary database of hate crimes and issue guidance to help local law enforcement make it easier for people to report crimes.

Meanwhile, Doyle McManus writes that the GOP has an Anglo-Saxon problem. Specifically, two of the most conservative Trump supporters in the House — Reps. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Marjorie Taylor-Greene of Georgia — floated the idea of creating an “America First Caucus,” which, among other things, called for “respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”

After considerable ridicule and a rebuke from House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, who said “the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln, not nativist dog whistles,” the two backed down, claiming, without much credibility, that the idea was merely a preliminary staff memo.

The latest from California

Rob Bonta has been confirmed as California attorney general — the first Filipino American to fill the role, Patrick McGreevy reported.

Gov. Gavin Newsom launched an effort to deal with renewed drought, declaring emergencies in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, Bettina Boxall reported. Newsom declined to declare an emergency in the rest of the state, noting a 16% drop in urban water use since 2013, just before the last major drought. Californians, he said, “have a conservation mind-set,” which may allow much of the state to get through the current water shortage.

And lastly, Caitlyn Jenner made it official: the reality TV personality will jump into the recall race, as Seema Mehta reports. That will add a bit more celebrity interest to the contest. Whether she’ll prove as formidable a challenger as the celebrity heavyweight in the last recall race, however, remains to be seen. Just as Newsom isn’t Gray Davis, Jenner is no Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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