Issues, not candidates, are motivating young voters

Abortion is at the center of young people's political engagement.

December 5, 2023, 1:32 PM

For young voters, key issues like abortion may matter more to their vote than who's at the top of the ticket in 2024. While Democrats worry that President Joe Biden might be losing support with millennials and Gen Z, policy questions, rather than candidates, have taken center stage for young political activists and could be one of the biggest factors driving young people to the polls.

The November election offered a preview of how the issue of abortion could motivate voters, as Ohio saw unusually high turnout following grassroots organizing around Issue 1, the ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights into the state's constitution. This included a wave of activism by young people like Abra Lisowski, a college junior in Cleveland who volunteered to canvass in support of the measure.

Lisowski thought Issue 1 would win last month, but she was a little surprised at how big the victory was: 57 percent to 43 percent. "I was super excited about the margin by which it was passed," she said. "I know there was a really big push for young voters, especially, to come out, so I was definitely optimistic. ... Everyone that I talked to about it was super, super passionate about it."

Young voters strongly favored the Ohio abortion rights initiative, with 77 percent voting to pass it, according to exit polling. That wasn't such a surprise: Polls have shown consistently higher support for abortion rights among young voters, especially young women. This support made a difference in 2022 as well, when many credited concern over abortion rights with boosting Democrats to better-than-expected midterm results despite Biden's low approval ratings. When asked about which issues influenced their vote, abortion was the top choice for voters under 30, according to an analysis of Edison Research National Election Pool exit poll data by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University. Those who supported access to abortion strongly preferred Democratic candidates.

Another interesting finding from the CIRCLE analysis was that 59 percent of voters under 30 said President Biden was "not a factor" in their vote in 2022, more than any other age group. They were also most likely to say his policies "made no difference on the country." While Biden wasn't on the ballot in the midterms, it's possible that even in a presidential election year, approval or disapproval of the job he's doing may not matter as much to young voters as the issues they care about.

"There are so many different things that are involved in whether or not a young person votes and who they're voting for, that don't solely come down to who is a presidential candidate," said Abby Kiesa, deputy director of CIRCLE. "We can look at 2022 as an example; there was all of this conversation about whether or not young people and their disapproval of Biden was going to affect whether or not they voted and [whether they would vote] for Democrats, and I think that the results show just how much broader we need to be thinking about what influences people," she said.

And it's not just abortion, either. Younger voters are more likely to see the right to abortion as connected to issues of social justice, and to protecting other personal liberties and freedoms, including issues of racism, sexism and LGBTQ rights. That was true of Aveline Clark, another college student who canvassed for the abortion initiative in Akron. (She and Lisowski both volunteered with the political organizing group the Ohio Student Association, which focuses on mobilizing young people.) "The government shouldn't be able to tell you what to do," was the overwhelming response she got from other young voters on the issue, she said, even from those morally opposed to abortion. "For pretty much all of Gen Z, they're tired of the government telling them what to do. They're tired of older people who have always been in power telling them what they can do with their own bodies in their own lives."

Abortion rights are a good example of reclaiming bodily autonomy, Clark said. This sentiment aligns with a broader trend too: increased worry among Americans that individual rights are endangered since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision overturned Roe v. Wade last year. A Mood of the Nation Poll from APM Research Lab and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy conducted in May 2022, shortly after the Dobbs draft opinion was leaked, found that 68 percent of adults believed they would lose more liberties than they would gain over the next decade.

Young voters are also likely to be motivated by issues like gun control and climate change, two issues that have also inspired high-profile youth activism in recent years.

"We absolutely have been seeing … young people connecting different issues together and seeing the intersection between different issues," Kiesa said. "That's one of the things that I think is really important for candidates and campaigns, regardless of party, to be thinking about and understanding. Young people aren't one-issue voters."

What will that mean for 2024? The last few election years have seen higher turnout than normal. While voters under 30 often have the lowest voter turnout in any given election year, they've also been showing up in higher numbers than previous similar elections. And because millennials, the youngest of whom are in their late 20s, are such a large generation, small variations in turnout can still make an impact.

Lisowski and Clark both say their peers are engaged in politics and passionate about protecting civil rights, and are likely to turn out if parties and candidates reach out and promise to protect those rights.

"All of my friends and everyone I know really care strongly about these sorts of issues: social justice issues of all kinds, not just abortion," Lisowski said. "I definitely think this generation, and I'm sure even more so the people that are younger than I am, are super politically aware and politically engaged."

A CIRCLE survey released last week found that 57 percent of voters between the ages of 18-34 say they are extremely likely to vote, and abortion is still a top-five issue for them. That could match the nearly 57 percent of that age group who voted in the last presidential election, according to an analysis of Census data.

That level of turnout could make a big difference in 2024, and it's why young, engaged voters like Lisowski and Clark are working to make sure their peers, who they know care about the issues at stake, also show up to vote on them.