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Young people feel disenchanted with politics, but most still plan to vote, Harvard youth poll finds

Just more than half of people said they will definitely or probably vote in this fall’s midterm elections in a Harvard youth poll.Craig F. Walker

Young Americans are on track to match record-breaking voter turnout in this year’s midterm elections, but more of them feel their votes won’t make a difference and fewer approve of President Biden and the two major parties, according to the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics’ youth poll.

“For Democrats or for Republicans, I don’t think there’s a lot to be happy about, quite honestly,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.

The survey, a sampling of 18- to 29-year-olds conducted by a team of Harvard undergraduate students, also showed young people from marginalized backgrounds often feel threatened because of who they are, and many said they feel “under attack” because of their race, sexual orientation, or gender identity.


The findings are among the more noteworthy from the youth poll, a semiannual survey that typically asks about 2,000 people between the ages of 18 and 29 how they feel about various issues, from politics and education to their mental health.

“Our generation is looking to those in power for a sign that they understand that we live our lives feeling constantly under threat and that it’s taken a toll on our mental health,” said Alan Zhang, student chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project.

Most young Black Americans surveyed, 59 percent, said they felt under attack “a lot” in America. About 43 percent of young Asian Americans and almost half of LGBTQ youth said they felt the same.

Mental health was a major concern for many of those surveyed. Roughly 72 percent said they believe the United States has a mental health crisis, and half of the young people questioned said they had felt down, depressed, or hopeless in the two weeks before the poll. About a quarter said they had experienced suicidal ideation or thoughts of self-harm.


Students running the Harvard youth poll began asking respondents about their views on and experiences with mental health in 2020, during the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, said Nosa Lawani, a Harvard sophomore who led the mental health team.

“Then, we were alarmed at the highest numbers we found,” Lawani said. “Now, as lockdowns, school closures, and mask mandates have gone away in most of the country, we have seen no change in the numbers.”

The political findings in this spring’s poll were stark. About 55 percent of those surveyed said they preferred Democratic control in Congress, compared with 34 percent who said they preferred Republicans in the leadership. But a growing number — 36 percent — said they believed political involvement rarely has tangible results. And 42 percent said they believe their vote does not make a difference.

Biden’s approval rating among people surveyed dropped to 41 percent, 5 points lower than it was in the fall and 18 points lower than it was last year. That’s in line with other national surveys: a Rasmussen Reports/Pulse Opinion Research poll published this week put his approval rating at 42 percent.

Most of the criticism Harvard’s pollsters heard was not about Biden’s policy positions but about his ability — or lack thereof — to execute those policy plans. During the campaign, Biden had said the federal government should forgive at least $10,000 in student loan debt per borrower. That promise has not become policy.


The vast majority of young people polled — 85 percent of respondents — said they were in favor of some form of government action on student loan debt, though just 38 percent said they favored total debt cancellation.

“The Democrats cannot think of young voters as a given this November,” said Kate Gundersen, a Harvard junior who led the research team on politics.

When the pollsters compared their findings with the results from 2018, when young people voted in record-setting numbers in the midterm elections, they found some shifts.

“There’s no evidence in this survey that young Americans are off the grid,” Della Volpe said. “Their contempt for a system that favors the elite and is overwhelmingly partisan is clear, but at the same time, they see a role for government and are unlikely to abandon those most in need. While the composition of the electorate will likely shift, at this point, young people seem as, if not more engaged, than they were in recent midterms.”

Just more than half of the people polled said they will definitely or probably vote in this fall’s midterm elections. In 2018, voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds reached 36 percent, according to the US Census Bureau — significantly lower than other age groups, but a large jump from 20 percent turnout in 2014.

Compared with the 2018 poll, young Democratic voters showed slightly less enthusiasm for voting, and young Republicans slightly more. The number of Democrats who said they would vote went down 5 percent, while the number of young Republicans who said they would vote rose 7 percent.


Democrats made up a larger portion of the sample, at 39 percent of those surveyed, compared with Republicans at 25 percent. The remainder of people surveyed, who identified as unenrolled or independent, usually said they were less likely than their peers to vote. About 36 percent said they would definitely or probably vote this year, while 27 percent said they had a 50-50 chance of voting, and another 36 percent said they probably won’t vote at all.

In addition, young people who identified with one of the two major political parties — 61 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of Democrats — said they view the other party as a threat to democracy. Among unenrolled or independent respondents, those numbers were lower. About 23 percent of independents viewed Democrats as a threat, while 30 percent of them saw Republicans as threatening Democracy.

“Young Americans don’t seem to be turning away,” Gundersen said. “They are a political force and are committed to working within our system, broken as they may see it.”

Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.