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Could the 2018 Midterms Be the Year of the Young?

In governors' races, many of the challengers are decades younger than their state's current leader. And young voters may be more mobilized.

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, is among the crop of young candidates running to succeed governors who are much older. In this case, Abrams, 44, is 31 years younger than Gov. Nathan Deal.
(TNS/Bob Andres)
This year's gubernatorial elections may belong to the young.

Across the country, a majority of candidates are seeking to unseat or succeed governors who are significantly older than them -- in a few cases, at least 30 years older. Meanwhile, there are some indications that voters this fall may also be younger.

Let's take a look at the two trends.


Younger Candidates

The average age of governors in the 36 states with elections this fall is 62. Fourteen of the 36 are 65 or older, including California Democrat Jerry Brown (80), Idaho Republican Butch Otter (76) and Georgia Republican Nathan Deal (75).

By contrast, only five of the 36 governors are younger than 55: Arizona Republican Doug Ducey (54), Nebraska Republican Pete Ricketts (54), Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker (50), Rhode Island Democrat Gina Raimondo (47) and New Hampshire Republican Chris Sununu (43).

Meanwhile, most candidates running for governor are 50 or younger.

In many cases, the age gap between the current governor and their possible successors is quite large. For example:

  • In Colorado, Democratic nominee Jared Polis (43) and Republican nominee Walker Stapleton (44) are more than two decades younger than outgoing Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is 66.
  • Republican nominee Brian Kemp (55) is 20 years younger than outgoing Georgia Gov. Deal, while Democrat Stacey Abrams (44) is 31 years younger.
  • Minnesota's Democratic nominee, Tim Walz (54), and Republican Jeff Johnson (51) are almost two decades younger than outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who is 71.
  • In Florida, Ron DeSantis (39), the Republican frontrunner, is 26 years younger than outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Scott, who is 65. Democratic frontrunner Gwen Graham is 10 years younger.
  • And in California, Brown is expected to be succeeded by Democrat Gavin Newsom, who at 50 is 30 years younger.
The ranks of older governors may be somewhat exaggerated at the moment because many incumbents were elected as part of the large freshman class of 2010. These governors are now finishing their second terms.

Still, that doesn't entirely explain the age gaps. Some say the youngest candidates, many of them with social activism backgrounds, are running to add to their resumes.

"There are a lot of much younger Democratic candidates running as underdogs against incumbents, such as Ben Jealous in Maryland, Walt Maddox in Alabama, Jared Henderson in Arkansas and Paulette Jordan in Idaho," says Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at the University of La Verne. "Their candidacies may be more about building up profiles for future races."

Another explanation is that we're in the middle of a generational shift. In a sense, we are seeing the twilight of the baby boomers as top-level state officeholders. Today, the youngest baby boomers are 54; the oldest are 72.

"In Florida," says Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political scientist, "there seems to be a generational passing of the torch occurring."

"The statehouses are overdue for a shakeup," adds Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "The last two midterms were very good for Republicans. Now, with a 2018 midterm tilting the other way, some of these governorships will go to the Democrats, often younger ones."

Perhaps not surprisingly, age is rarely coming up explicitly as an issue on the campaign trail. More often, it hovers in the background, overshadowed by voters' feelings about President Trump or the ideological directions of the two parties. "I think age is more of an implicit theme," says Jewett.


Younger Voters?

One analysis that received wide media attention found that "registration rates for voters aged 18-29 have significantly increased in key battleground states over the last seven months."

In Florida, for instance, the Democratic firm TargetSmart found that the share of young voters has risen by 8 percentage points since the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., which energized students nationwide to become politically active about gun control. Similarly, in Nevada, the share has risen by 6.6 percent.

"It remains to be seen how many of these younger registrants will cast a ballot in November, but they are poised to have a louder voice than ever in these critical midterm elections," said TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier in a statement.

Subsequent data, however, has cast some doubt on this analysis.

In Florida, research by the University of Florida and the Associated Industries of Florida, found no dramatic increase in youth voter registration compared to the 2014 midterm cycle.

"Many high schools do voter registration activity around graduation," says University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald. "When comparing Florida youth voter registration activity with a similar period in 2014, the activity is similar, if slightly lower. This is to be expected since Florida high schools are already doing a good job of registering eligible young voters."

More broadly, "history is not on the side of youth voting advocates," McDonald says. "Turnout in midterm elections for 18- to 29-year-olds has recently averaged a paltry 20 percent." (Turnout rates for all voters of any age has hovered around 40 percent or a little less during the last two decades.)

In a July poll by The Washington Post, a third of voters age 18 to 29 said voting in the midterm election is "extremely important" -- by far the smallest share of any age group. Other age groups ranged from 46 to 57 percent on the question.

A Pew Research poll, on the other hand, looked at the somewhat different age range of 22 to 38. For this group, 62 percent said they are "looking forward" to the midterms, compared to 46 percent in 2014 and 39 percent in 2010.

"The telling voter registration activity will occur closer to the November elections," says McDonald. "Numerous studies find that voter registration activity skyrockets as elections near, when the registration activity is tied to an intention to vote. If we are going to see unusually high youth voter registration activity that will translate into votes, it will be then."

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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