Democratic panic time? Most young people won't vote in midterms, poll finds.

In Democrats' quest this fall to keep control of the US Senate, help from young voters may be scarce, a new poll finds. About 3 in 4 young adults have no definite intention of voting – and disinterest is highest among Democrats.

Tom Tingle/The Arizona Republic/AP/File
People wait in line to vote at polling place located in a church in Phoenix in Nov. 2012.

Fewer than 1 in 4 young adults plans to “definitely” vote in the midterm elections this November, according to a new poll from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, which portrays a generation revolting against political parties and their politicking by simply withholding their votes.

Among this group of 18- to 29-year-olds, often called Millennials, the disengagement is pronounced – and more so among young Democrats than young Republicans. The poll portends that Democrats may have a tough time drumming up enthusiasm among their young constituents, a key part of the party's base, as they vie to retain control of the US Senate in the forthcoming midterm elections.

This poll, which queried about 3,000 people, turned up findings similar to those of a Pew Research Center poll last month that suggested that Millennials just aren’t partiers – at least, not when it comes to political parties. In that poll, half of the young respondents characterized themselves as political independents, the highest level of political nonaffiliation that Pew had seen in 25 years of asking young people about their party identification.

Harvard’s poll, which has been conducted regularly since 2000, may point to the outcome of such political independence: If young people don’t believe in political parties, they’re not likely to go to the polls for one.

Twenty-three percent of Millennials said they “definitely” plan to vote in the 2014 midterm elections, a drop of 11 percentage points from five months ago, and a drop of eight points from 2010, the Harvard poll found. That finding is consistent with a US Census Bureau report released earlier this month on voter turnout in presidential elections: Thirty-eight percent of eligible voters ages 18 to 24 cast ballots in 2012, down from about 44 percent in 2008 and about 42 percent in 2004.

Against that disinterest in political participation flaps a bleak backdrop of dissatisfaction with the US government. 

Among Millennials, “trust in every institution we tested is down, and cynicism of the political process is up,” says Trey Grayson, director of the Harvard Institute of Politics, on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

Since the previous Harvard poll in November 2013, young voters' trust in the president “to do the right thing” has dropped from 39 percent to 32 percent. Their confidence in the military has ebbed from 54 percent to 47 percent, and faith in the Supreme Court has waned from 40 to 36 percent.

Moreover, about 3 in 5 Millennials agreed that politicians “seem to be motivated by selfish reasons,” and almost a third agreed that “political involvement rarely has any tangible results.” That cynicism persisted across party lines, although the US military enjoyed majority support from young Republicans.

In bad news for Democrats, just 22 percent of young Democrats, the demographic that helped to bring President Obama into office in 2008 and again in 2012, say their party can count on them going to the polls for the 2014 midterm election. Meanwhile, 32 percent of young Republicans report that they’ll for sure be at the polls.

In another possible hit for Democrats, young women (whom Democrats are busy courting ahead of the midterms) are much less likely to turn out to the polls than are young men. Likewise, black voters – a mainstay of Obama’s support – are less likely than white voters to cast a ballot this fall. Just 19 percent of young women and young blacks say they’re a guarantee at the polls, compared with 28 percent of men and 27 percent of whites who say they will turn out.

“This is a good sign for Republican chances at picking up [majority control of] the Senate,” says John Della Volpe, polling director of the Harvard Institute of Politics, on a conference call. He cautioned, though, that “in six months the world can be very different.”

The possible gap in voter turnout between young Democrats and young Republicans is not necessarily because Republicans have been particularly successful at winning support among young people, says the poll's authors. Rather, Democrats have just been even less successful.

“It’s not like young Republicans are all that excited about voting,” says Mr. Grayson, noting that less than a third of young Republicans are enthusiastic about heading to the polls. “It’s all relative.”

Young Democrats’ disillusionment is on full display in their low approval of President Obama, the poll found. Though the poll found that his approval rating is up among Millennials – now at 47 percent versus its historic low of 41 percent in November 2013, after the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare – it nonetheless remains low, the authors note.

Democrats can take small comfort from the fact that young Democrats outnumber young Republicans, 37 percent to 25 percent. 

Still, the poll offers some optimism for Democrats looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election. About 52 percent of young people have a positive view of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a possible candidate in the election, the poll found. Just 21 percent of respondents said they thought well of Bridge-gate Gov. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey. Almost 40 percent of young people in the poll reported that they had never even heard of him. 

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