Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics released the findings from its 38th Harvard Youth Poll this week. For nearly 20 years, the students in the IOP’s Harvard Public Opinion Project (HPOP) and the IOP's director of polling, John Della Volpe, have produced a biannual survey that examines the political opinions and civic engagement of young Americans ages 18 to 29. The latest edition of the poll, led by HPOP chair Richard Sweeney, a Harvard College junior, and a cohort of 25 undergraduate students, explored young Americans' views and opinions on impeachment, the rate of change in America, gun control, ending private insurance, reforming the Electoral College, and more.

Della Volpe, Sweeney, and Harvard Public Opinion Project member Cathy Sun, a College sophomore, answered some questions about the results and what they mean.


Q: The poll found that young Americans were split between supporting “big structural policy changes that … will not be easy to carry out” and backing “policies that stand a good chance of being achieved.” Why pose this question and what do you think the results say?’

John Della Volpe: Millennial and Gen Z voters will make up one-third of the eligible voting population in 2020. Our students were inspired to ask this question to challenge many assumptions of their own generation. To no one’s surprise, there is a nuance to the way young voters think. Voters under 30 aren’t a monolith. Young Americans, like older voters, are divided on the scope and style of change they seek in Washington.

When we asked 18- to 29- year old voters to choose between two potential governing philosophies, our Harvard Youth Poll found that 40% prefer policies that "stand a good chance of being achieved as opposed to sweeping changes that will be difficult to carry out" and 34% prefer the alternative of "big structural policy changes that address the urgency of the problems that we are facing, even if they will not be easy to carry out." 

In the race between pragmatic and progressive, pragmatic has taken a slight lead among likely 2020 young voters at this stage in the race. 


Q: What did the poll find about the attitudes of young Democrats versus the attitudes of young Republicans in terms of how hopeful they are for the future and whether the country is on the right track?

Richard Sweeney: Only one in five young voters think the country is on the right track. But under that is hope. Young people know they have it in their power to change things. In October, we met with a focus group of young voters in New Hampshire. When discussing hope, one participant told us: “I'm hopeful about people just being more motivated to make change happen,” while another said: “I think a lot of people woke up or realized some things for the first time in 2016 and it's created this wave of grassroots activism, which is I think something to be really hopeful about.”

Compared to this point in the 2016 presidential cycle, young Americans across the political spectrum are more engaged. Nearly half (47%) of young Americans under 30 are following news about national politics closely and 30% consider themselves to be politically engaged—which is 10 percentage points higher than at this time in the 2016 presidential cycle. 

The enthusiasm of young Americans that resulted in historic turnout in the 2018 midterms shows no signs of abating heading into 2020. And unlike the last three Democratic primaries where President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders dominated the youth vote, it is very much up for grabs in 2020. 


Q: What did the poll find in terms of young voters’ attitudes on current hot-button issues? 

Cathy Sun: It is clear from our Harvard Youth Poll that young voters are open to ideas that older generations have traditionally written off. Let’s take a look at two policies: eliminating the electoral college and implementing a mandatory buyback. 

Radical is not as radical to young voters—on more issues than one, young Americans are redefining implementability. A majority of young Americans (53%) support banning the sale of assault weapons, while only 30% oppose a ban, and more people support (41%) a mandatory buyback of assault weapons than oppose it (33%). Many young people even support fundamental changes to the workings of our democracy—among likely voters in the general election, more young people support “dismantling the electoral college” and using the national popular vote to determine the presidency than oppose it (48% to 28%). Policies that are generally dismissed in the mainstream as politically unfeasible are ones young people are weighing seriously. 

Overall, young people are not bound by precedent or by old institutional norms. For any candidate who wants to see their vision of change realized in 2020, you need us on your side—millennials and Gen Z-ers will be one-third of the eligible voting population. Proponents of structural reforms shouldn’t take us for granted, and those who favor a more gradual approach shouldn’t write us off. We’re listening, and we’re voting, so start talking to us, and not at us.

Photo by Martha Stewart

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