Young voters, historically a demographic with low turnout, could buck the trend in Pennsylvania as early voting and high enthusiasm shows them casting ballots at a rate that could make them decisive in a close race.
In Pennsylvania, where President Donald Trump won in 2016 by a razor-thin 44,000 votes, the surge in historically left-leaning young voters could tip the balance of this year’s presidential election in favor of Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
“I think, arguably, young voters could very well be the margin of victory just because we know the margin of victory was so small in 2016, that with less than 1% of the vote it determined how Pennsylvania would swing,” said Sarah Eagan, the press secretary for NextGen Pennsylvania, the state arm of the national progressive group NextGen America.
She said Trump “continues to miss the mark on what matters” to young voters, and added that voters under 35 have been put off by the president’s record on the environment and what critics have characterized as his difficulty in denouncing white supremacy. They’re also concerned about issues like health care – especially during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – and the state of the economy, which has not fully recovered from the effects of COVID-19.
Thus far, some 641,000 people under 35 have requested mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania and about 343,000 have turned theirs in, according to a NextGen analysis of state voter data. The number of requested mail ballots by voters under 35 represents about 21% of the roughly 3 million mail-in ballots requested statewide.
Among the voters under 35 who requested a mail-in ballot, nearly 347,000 are people who did not vote in the 2016 presidential election, and about 1/3 are first time-voters between 18 and 21 years old, NextGen found.
Combined, voters 18-34 make up 26% of the more than 9 million-person electorate, according to figures by the Pennsylvania Department of State. That's roughly 2.4 million voters.
The highest cohort of voters in Pennsylvania is 55 to 64-year-olds, with 18% of the total electorate, but that's only 1% more than the cohort of voters aged 25-34.
Even though young voters did not favor Biden in the primary elections, they have coalesced around him in order to oust President Trump, Eagan said.
“I think it speaks to not only the fact that young people and young voters, and for a lot of people, that the dislike of Trump is pretty baked in,” she said.
Voters 18-29 years old have already been turning out in higher numbers than they did in 2016, especially in 14 key states – including Pennsylvania – that could decide the presidential race, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.
Though some of the increases have been small, CIRCLE emphasized that even slight gains can make a big difference.
“In states with highly competitive races, even a slight increase in the youth share of total votes can be decisive, and these increases in the early vote share are a positive sign for high youth share in the total vote,” CIRCLE said in a recent report.
In addition, a recent national poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School found that among 18 to 29-year-olds most likely to vote, Biden leads Trump by a 63% to 25% split.
The poll also found that Biden has made gains since the spring in terms of young voters who view him favorably. In the spring, only 34% of young votes viewed the former vice president favorably, which has increased to 41% since. Among likely votes, his favorability score increases further, to 56%.
All signs point to young people potentially being a decisive bloc in this year’s presidential race, Eagan said.
“We very much think that young people could be the margin of victory here, and in the rates that they’re turning out – in rates that we haven’t seen before – I think it’s very likely that young people are going to turn PA blue,” she said.
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