Will young voters save Democrats in the midterm elections?

Side by side photos of Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Dr. Mehmet Oz.
Control of the Senate could come down to who wins in Pennsylvania, where the state’s Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, left, faces Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz.
(Associated Press)

With the midterm election just slightly more than a week away, history suggests Democrats face long odds.

In a normal year — one that simply followed the average of the 19 midterms since the end of World War II — the party in the White House would be expected to lose around 45 House seats, based on a widely used formula developed by UC San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson, which takes into account the president’s popularity, the number of seats his party starts with and changes in average incomes.

Several other political science models predict a similar House outcome — along with Senate losses of around one to three seats — as Vanderbilt University Prof. John Sides recently noted.

Since Democrats currently control the House by just eight seats and run the Senate with a 50-50 tie, that history would strongly predict Republican control starting in January.

But this hasn’t been a normal year.

Potential GOP gains in blue states

Most recent midterm elections have had a theme that clearly emerged during the summer and dominated the fall. In 2006, deep disaffection with the Iraq War and a split in Republican attitudes toward President George W. Bush forecast that Democrats would have a strong midterm election. Four years later, the Tea Party backlash against President Obama built up long before the election swept Republicans back into the House majority. And in 2018, a similar backlash against President Trump made Democratic gains easy to forecast.

This year started on a similar track: President Biden‘s public standing plummeted as gasoline prices rose, his party’s legislative program stalled in the Senate and foreign crises worsened. Democrats seemed set to lose control of both the House and Senate.

But the Supreme Court ruling in June that overturned the nationwide guarantee of abortion rights, along with Trump’s continued high visibility and Democrats’ success over the summer in passing big parts of their legislative program scrambled that forecast and continue to keep the outcome difficult to predict.


Democrats almost surely will lose control of the House: With just a five-seat gain needed, Republicans have multiple paths to a majority, and Democrats have too much territory to reasonably defend.

But as the campaign nears its close, several confounding factors — including the size of the youth vote and the degree of voter concern over abortion rights — continue to keep analysts guessing about who will control the Senate as well as the breadth of Democratic losses in the House.

Republicans appear to have bright spots in House races in two unlikely places — New York and California.

California Democrats had high hopes earlier this year for expanding their 42-11 edge in the state’s congressional delegation. They aimed to defeat Republicans who represent districts Biden carried in 2020, including Reps. Mike Garcia in northern Los Angeles County’s 27th congressional district, Michelle Steel in the 45th, which straddles Orange and L.A. counties and David Valadao in the Central Valley’s 22nd.

Now, those hopes have receded, with Garcia and Steel, in particular, appearing more secure.

Instead, Republicans are pouring money into districts that Democrats captured in 2018, hoping to defeat incumbents like Reps. Katie Porter in Orange County’s 47th district and Mike Levin in the 49th, which straddles Orange and San Diego counties.


A similar dynamic has taken hold in in New York. This week, the Democrats’ main congressional campaign committee had to rush to spend money to defend its chairman, Rep. Sean Maloney, who represents a Democratic-leaning swing district in the Hudson Valley.

One factor in both states, ironically, could be their strong support for abortion rights. Some Democratic strategists say voter enthusiasm on their side has lagged in the two big blue states because Californians and New Yorkers don’t fear for their rights as much as voters in many other parts of the country.

By contrast, in Michigan, where a state law from the 1930s threatens to ban abortions in nearly all cases, Democrats appear poised for a major victory. Combined with a new legislative map produced by an independent redistricting commission, the strong voter enthusiasm on their side has Democrats hoping to gain control of both houses of the Michigan legislature for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president.

High turnout for young voters

Another big uncertainty is how many young voters will cast ballots.

“We live in a divided country, and it’s divided by generations,” says John Della Volpe, who for the last two decades has directed a twice-a-year survey of young Americans produced by Harvard’s Institute of Politics. That generation gap did not exist when the poll started in 2000 but has grown steadily ever since as the split between the parties has increasingly centered on questions of race, identity and culture — subjects on which Republicans are strongly out of step with the majority of young people, Della Volpe notes.

During the Obama years, young voters turned out in large numbers for presidential elections, but didn’t show up for the midterms, a pattern that contributed heavily to Democratic losses. Della Volpe maintains that Millennial and Gen Z voters are more consistently engaged in politics, and the institute’s latest survey, conducted Sept. 29-Oct. 14 and released Thursday, appears to support that.

Young people are poised to repeat the high rate of voting that drove Democratic victories in 2018, the poll of 2,123 Americans younger than 30 found, with 40% saying they definitely would vote. That’s almost certainly an exaggeration by at least a few points since people of all ages overstate their likelihood to cast a ballot. But it matches the level the survey found four years ago when it correctly forecast record youth turnout, and it exceeds the level that many national polls have shown, suggesting they could be underestimating a critical vote.

Likely voters younger than 30 preferred Democratic control of Congress 57% to 31%, the poll found — a sharp contrast to the average for all voters, which is nearly even, Republicans 45.7% and Democrats 45.1%, according to

The poll indicates that the “new wave of youth activism” that showed itself in 2018 has continued, said Alan Zhang, a Harvard junior who chaired the student group that produced the survey. “Young people are poised to match their turnout record” from the last midterm.


Notably, the preference for Democrats has grown by five points since the previous Harvard survey in the spring, said Kate Gundersen, a senior who also took a lead role in producing the survey. The jump was even larger among young women, she noted. They now prefer Democratic control of Congress by 2-1, the poll found.

And that support comes despite low approval of Biden. The poll found that only 39% of young people approved of Biden’s handling of his job, noted another of the students who led the polling effort, Tommy Barone, a sophomore.

Especially in the handful of states that will decide control of the Senate — Nevada, Georgia and Pennsylvania being the closest races — Biden remains unpopular. To win, Democratic candidates need to be able to rise above the president’s standing by a wide margin, something that has become increasingly difficult in this era of polarized politics.

The Harvard poll does not prove that Democrats in those states will be able to keep defying political gravity through election day, but if they do succeed, it points to the most likely reason why.

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The next Speaker?

If, as expected, Republicans capture control of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the 57-year-old, eight-term congressman from Bakersfield, will become Speaker, replacing Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. Who is McCarthy? Jeffrey Fleishman and Nolan McCaskill took a deep look.

The latest from the campaign trail

— Herschel Walker is one of the Republicans’ most problematic politicians, Jenny Jarvie writes, in a look at Georgia’s potentially pivotal Senate race. The Heisman Trophy-winning University of Georgia running back and multimillionaire businessman is testing the power of the country’s political tribalism. In an age of deep partisanship, can an “R” beside Walker’s name help him overcome his history of false and inflated claims, unpredictable behavior and alleged threats of violence?

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The latest from Washington

— After more than a year of negotiation, talks between the Biden administration and immigrant rights groups aimed at settling a case involving temporary protected status fell through, leaving more than 250,000 people at risk of deportation. As Andrea Castillo and Hamed Aleaziz wrote, the Trump administration moved to end TPS protections for people from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Sudan and Nepal. That move has been tied up in court since 2018. The Biden administration has renewed TPS for Haiti and Sudan, but not the four other countries. People from those countries could lose their protections as early as the end of this year.

— With voters’ concerns about inflation and gas prices giving Republicans an edge in the midterm campaign, Biden announced that his administration is cracking down on surprise fees that drive up what people pay to their banks and for everything from food deliveries to hotels and airline tickets. As Eli Stokols reported, Biden delivered the message in a speech from the White House, not from a battleground state, reflecting candidates’ wariness about appearing with him.

— With efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal languishing, the Biden administration on Wednesday hit Tehran with a new batch of economic sanctions as punishment for repression of widespread demonstrations against restrictions on women and other issues, Tracy Wilkinson reported.

— Wilkinson also reported on the Biden administration’s new defense strategy plan, which says China remains the most dangerous security threat to the U.S. but that “for the first time,” Washington needs to deter two possible nuclear threats — both China and Russia. The review, released Thursday, will guide the future size and shape of the U.S. armed forces.

The latest from California

Paul Pelosi, the husband of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was “violently” attacked in the couple’s San Francisco home early Friday morning, according to a statement from the speaker’s office, Alexandra E. Petri and Richard Winton reported.

Rick Caruso has outspent Rep. Karen Bass by 13:1 in their contest for mayor, Jim Rainey reports. The money has paid for a relentless barrage of ads that are on track to cost around $53 million in total, which the billionaire businessman has paid for from his personal fortune. The advertising has helped define the issues in the race, but still may not succeed in winning over a majority of the votes.


Caruso’s appeal to Latino voters is real, not just a product of the huge amount he has spent, Gustavo Arellano wrote in his column. Whether that will be enough for him to win the mayoral election remains to be seen, in large part because of relatively low turnout among Latino voters.

— There’s not much doubt that Sen. Alex Padilla will win election to a full term. So, as Seema Mehta and Alejandra Reyes-Velarde reported, the freshman senator, who was appointed in 2020 to complete Kamala Harris’ term when she became vice president, is spending the campaign trying to get other Democrats over the finish line.

— Many American voters feel a deep frustration about the state of the nation and the ability of politicians to solve its problems, Tyrone Beason reported.

— Our series of looks at major congressional races in California continues with guides to the contests between incumbent Republican Rep. Ken Calvert and Democrat Will Rollins in the Riverside County 41st District; Republican Assemblymember Kevin Kiley and Democrat Dr. Kermit Jones in the 3rd district, a sprawling mostly rural swath of territory that stretches from Death Valley through Plumas County in the north; and Republican Rep. David Valadao and Democratic Assemblymember Rudy Salas in the Central Valley’s District 22.

— Andrew Campa examined the race for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors between Bob Hertzberg and Lindsey Horvath, a contest that pits a longtime Sacramento legislator against a millennial activist in a district that covers the Westside and much of the San Fernando Valley.

— The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to censure three current and former council members — Gil Cedillo, Kevin de León and Nury Martinez — for their part in an incendiary conversation that contained racist remarks, Dakota Smith and David Zahniser reported. And five constituents have filed paperwork to begin a recall against De León, who has rebuffed calls to resign in the aftermath of the conversation becoming public, Smith and Julia Wick reported. De León has launched an apology tour of interviews and public appearances, but Erika Smith writes in her column that it should be a farewell tour.


Rosalind Wyman, who, as the youngest person ever elected to the Los Angeles City Council, played a key role in bringing Major League Baseball to Los Angeles and remained an important figure in public life for more than half a century, died Wednesday at age 92.

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