Young people sharply increased their level of political engagement after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., political scientists say. But paradoxically, gun control is not among their top priorities.
Only 6 percent of teens and young adults listed gun control as a top concern, in a survey conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV in May. This contrasts with the 21 percent who put it as a top priority in an earlier survey conducted right after the Parkland shootings.
The study found that the top two issues young Americans are most concerned about are the economy and social inequality.
Olivia Bercow, a spokesperson for NextGen America, a progressive climate action committee founded by Tom Steyer, said the top four issues the organization hears about from students are college affordability, health care, racial injustice and climate change.
“I think that, for the most part, young people are really, really engaged on the issues and right now, we’re seeing what having a certain type of leadership in office looks like on issues that matter,” she said.
Thirty-seven percent of voters under 30 said they will vote in the upcoming midterms, according to the National Youth Poll conducted in April 2018 by the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Institute of Politics, said it’s not likely all of them will actually go to the polls, but that it was the highest level of interest the survey has recorded since 2010. He credited Parkland with inspiring the shift, but said the change began in 2016.
“I expect [Parkland] can be a motivating factor for millions of young people, but again, time will tell,” he said. “For a movement to have significant impact, it has to have both support from the bottom up, of which, it does, thanks to the young men and women around Parkland, but it needs to have support from top down.”
Della Volpe believes the Democratic Party, which is overwhelmingly the choice of young people, needs to do more to solidify their support, or risk losing their enthusiasm by November.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the Democrat Party really choose to make young people focus on this midterm cycle,” he said.
Della Volpe believes young people will vote when they see the political system address their priorities, including access to higher education, structural racism and big money in politics.
CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, studied where youth could have the most impact. Based on population figures, demographics and voter turnout history, they identified races in Minnesota, North Dakota and Colorado.
Della Volpe said that Democrats need to make young people a part of their campaigns and conversations.
“It’s not necessarily a transactional generation,” he said. “It’s a generation that has lost a lot of faith and trust in the system and it needs to be gained. And that doesn’t happen overnight.”
Whether or not young people actually turn out in greater numbers, there is unquestionably more attention being paid to their political impact this year, which Abby Kiesa, director of impact at CIRCLE, thinks could be significant.
“Part of what’s interesting about this year is this earlier focus on youth and it’s talking about teens who are just turning 18. A lot of times that’s not the focus,” she said.
Organizations like Headcount, Rock the Vote and NextGen America are seeking to register more young people and encourage them to vote.
Each organization said it has seen increases in voter registration since the Parkland shootings. Aaron Ghitelman, director of communications for Headcount, a nonpartisan organization that does voter registration at concerts and other events, said it registered 5,000 people to vote in one day at a “March for our Lives” event. They have also gained the support of David Hogg, a Parkland survivor and activist.
“We’ve seen a clear uptick in voter registration across the board,” he said. “If you look at our 2018 numbers next to our 2014 numbers — incomparable.”
In Florida, NextGen America has registered almost 9,000 voters since the end of January, the highest number in its list of targeted states.
The New York Times found that North Carolina, Florida and Pennsylvania all had increases in voter registrations among youth after the shooting at Parkland.
Youth turnout in elections has been consistently low throughout the years. In 2010, only 24 percent voted in the midterm elections. In 2014, that number was 20 percent — the lowest number recorded in forty years.
Will young voters maintain their energy and interest through the midterms and carry it to November?
“Young people are energized and fired up about the elections this year,” Bercow of NextGen America said. “A lot of people now understand, not that they didn’t before, that elections have consequences and who you put in office really matters.”