Home > Press Releases > Civic Engagement, Young Adult Activism, and the 2018 Midterm Elections
Civic Engagement, Young Adult Activism, and the 2018 Midterm Elections

PRRI contact: Ian Hainline, ihainline@kivvit.com, 202-591-5356

The Atlantic contact: Anna Bross, anna@theatlantic.com, 202-266-7714

Only One in Three Young People Say They’re Certain to Vote in Midterms

Young Women More Fearful of State of Country, More Likely to Be Civically Engaged

WASHINGTON – A new PRRI/The Atlantic survey on civic engagement finds stark gaps between young and older Americans’ attitudes towards the utility of voting and other methods of civic engagement. The survey, the second in a series of reports assessing challenges to America’s democratic institutions and practices from PRRI and The Atlantic, shows little evidence that younger Americans will turnout at historic rates in the upcoming midterms.

Low Rates of Voter Participation from Young Americans

Just 35 percent of young Americans (ages 18-29), compared to 81 percent of seniors (ages 65 and older) and 55 percent of all Americans, say they are absolutely certain to vote in the November midterm elections. Young Americans are also significantly less likely than seniors to say that all their friends are certain to vote (7 percent vs. 18 percent).

“Just 20 percent of young Americans made it to the polls in the last midterm election, and we’re seeing some cynicism among young people about the efficacy of voting as a means of social change,” noted PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones. “But if younger voters turn out even at modest rates, it could tilt the scales significantly in favor of Democratic candidates, who they support over Republican candidates by a margin of 61 percent to 35 percent.”

The Link between Civic Engagement and Social Change

This lack of enthusiasm may be connected to cynicism about the efficacy of voting. Young Americans are significantly less likely than seniors to say voting regularly in elections is the most effective way to create change (50 percent vs. 78 percent).

Young Americans instead are more likely than seniors to believe other forms of civic engagement, such as volunteering for a group or cause (19 percent vs. 4 percent) or being active online (9 percent vs. 1 percent), are the best way to create change.

Feelings about the State of Country

When asked about how they feel about the state of the country today, nearly seven in ten Americans report feeling negative emotions like sadness (29 percent), anger (20 percent), or fear (20 percent). Notably, young women are more likely than any other group to report feeling fearful. Twenty-eight percent of young women, compared to just 18 percent of young men, report feeling afraid about the state of the country. Young men are more likely than young women to say they feel hopeful (20 percent vs. 13 percent) or content (12 percent vs. 6 percent).

Low Levels of Civic Engagement, Activism among America’s Young People

Despite a number of large, high-profile marches and contentious national political and policy debates, about half (48 percent) of Americans say their civic and political engagement has not changed over the past two years. Only one in five (20 percent) Americans say they have become more likely to engage in civic or political activities over the past two years, while 30 percent say they have become less likely to engage. Notably, there are no significant differences between young people and seniors.

Relatively few Americans report engaging in a variety of civic and political actions—either in person or online—in the past year:

  • Signing an online petition (28 percent)
  • Avoiding buying something or purposefully buying something in order to register a protest or send a message (25 percent)
  • Liking or following a campaign or organization online (22 percent)
  • Contacting an elected official (19 percent)
  • Volunteering for a group or cause (14 percent)
  • Attending a community meeting such as school board or city council (12 percent)
  • Attending a public rally or demonstration (8 percent)

In an effort to provide a more complete picture of Americans’ civic and political engagement, we developed the Civic and Political Engagement Scale, which categorizes individuals based on how many of these activities they engaged in during the prior 12 months. Young people are slightly less likely than seniors to report high levels of civic and political engagement (18 vs. 23 percent). However, young women are an exception to this pattern. Young women are more likely than young men to report high civic engagement (24 percent vs. 12 percent).

Encouragement Matters for Civic Engagement

Being encouraged to be more civically active has a major influence on civic engagement. Almost three in ten (29 percent) Americans say they have been encouraged by at least one person to get more involved in civic and political activities within the last two years. Encouragement to be civically active is positively correlated with higher engagement. For instance, those who say a celebrity has encouraged them to be more active are more likely than those who say they were not encouraged to be highly civically and politically engaged (55 percent vs. 17 percent).

“It is intriguing that young people who are encouraged to get involved are much more likely to do so regardless of who is doing the encouraging,” says Daniel Cox, PRRI Research Director. “When Taylor Swift or other celebrities encourage young people to become politically or civically engaged, many of them listen.”

Among the findings:

  • President Trump remains widely unpopular nationwide, as 62 percent of Americans, including 70 percent of young Americans and 52 percent of seniors, say they view him unfavorably. Forty-nine percent of all Americans and 54 percent of young Americans say their opinion is very unfavorable.
  • Very few Americans support lowering the voting age to 16. Just 16 percent of Americans support such a measure, compared to 81 percent who oppose. Only 19 percent of young Americans and nine percent of seniors support the policy.
  • More than seven in ten (72 percent) Americans, including 70 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans, say they often feel like they need a break from the news. Just 24 percent say they do not feel this way.
  • With the 2018 elections just weeks away Americans are most likely to say that health care is a critical issue to them personally (58 percent) over any other issue, with gun policy (46 percent) and immigration (46 percent) ranking among their other top concerns.
  • Majorities of Americans say gerrymandering (59 percent), the removal of eligible voters from registration lists (56 percent) and election interference by foreign governments (54 percent) are major problems with the current election system. Concerns about foreign interference in elections have jumped 9 percentage points, compared to just a few months ago, when 45 percent cited this as a major problem.


The 2018 Civic Engagement Survey was conducted by PRRI in partnership with The Atlantic among a random sample of adults (age 18 and up) living in the United States and who are part of GfK’s Knowledge Panel. The survey included a national sample (N=1,011) representing all 50 states, in addition to an over-sample of Americans ages 18-29 (800), totaling to N=1,811. The survey also over-sampled those living in Ohio (507), Illinois (499), Michigan (474), Wisconsin (435), and Minnesota (422). Interviews were conducted online in both English and Spanish between August 24 and September 13, 2018. The survey was made possible by generous grants from The Joyce Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and The McKnight Foundation. The margin of error for the national survey is +/- 3.0 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 1.7.

About PRRI

PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture and public policy.

About The Atlantic

Founded in 1857 and today one of the fastest growing media platforms in the industry, The Atlantic has throughout its history championed the power of big ideas and continues to shape global debate across print, digital, events, and video platforms. With its award-winning digital presence TheAtlantic.com and CityLab.com on cities around the world, The Atlantic is a multimedia forum on the most critical issues of our times—from politics, business, urban affairs, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture. Bob Cohn is president of The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg is editor in chief. Emerson Collective is majority owner; Atlantic Media is the minority operating owner of The Atlantic.