Conventional Wisdom Warns that Republicans Are Poised to Take Power, but These Aren’t Conventional Times
Is the revolution on it's way? Tom Bonier thinks so
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On February 14, 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire in his high school in Parkland, Florida. He killed 17 people and injured 17 others. Four days after the shooting, Parkland students Cameron Kasky along with several other fellow students, including Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, announced they were organizing the March for Our Lives protest. “You are going to be seeing students in every single major city marching, and we have our lives on the line here, and at the end of the day, that is going to be what’s bringing us to victory and to making some sort of right out of this tragedy,” Kasky told CNN. “This is about us begging for our lives.”
The March for Our Lives protest held on March 24, 2018, was the largest single-day protest against gun violence in America. Tom Bonier went to the march in Washington, DC, with his two daughters, and he was amazed by the poise and the passion of the speakers, all young students.
Bonier is the CEO of Target Smart, a political data analytics company. His first thought watching crowds of teenagers chant “Vote them out!” was, “Will this make a difference?”
But Bonier felt like something was happening. Target Smart analyzed the data and saw a surge in voter registration among students. The March for Our Lives website claimed the organization registered 50,000 new voters from the protest. Bonier and his team put out an analysis — a wave of new voters were being registered and they’d sway the election. Many media outlets were skeptical. The Washington Post did its own analysis, responding, “Are young voters going to sway the midterms? New data shows that’s not very likely.”
Conventional political wisdom often dismisses the impact of the youth vote. But if 2016 showed America anything, it was that we were not living in the status quo, not anymore.
And as analysts dismissed the impact of student activism, the Parkland survivors, inspired by the Freedom Riders of the 1960s (which was the high point for youth voter participation), were touring the U.S., talking to students about gun violence and registering new voters. This movement was happening concurrently with many other movements, including the Women’s March. But the sustained energy of the March for Our Lives Movement pushed forward.
Bonier wrote in a Medium post in 2018, “There are many ways to slice and dice the data, all of which will paint very different pictures of what the electorate may look like come November 6, 2018. But to argue that youth voters are unlikely to have an impact in this year’s elections is both a disservice to the good work young activists are doing to register their peers and a misleading claim backed up by a narrow data set.”
It’s history now — 28.2% of young citizens (ages 18–29) voted in the 2018 midterm elections, more than doubling the 2014 turnout. And in this voter wave, a whole new slate of young politicians were voted into office, many of them women. Midterms traditionally have a low voter turnout, but there was nothing traditional about 2018.
And it wasn’t just a one-off. In 2020, 50 percent of Americans 18–29 voted. An 11-point increase from 2016.
It’s happening again. On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision, sending the reproductive rights of American women into jeopardy. Almost immediately after the ruling, outlets began reporting stories about people as young as 11 being denied abortions and people being turned away from receiving life-saving reproductive care. While no cohesive movement has yet emerged, the rage has been palpable. Women forced out of work in a pandemic, or forced to work in a pandemic, still earning less than their male counterparts, now stripped of the support of childcare, were now being stripped of their reproductive rights. After Dobbs, American women became one of the first generations to experience fewer rights than their mothers.
The only other time this has happened was after World World II, when women who’d experienced freedom during the war were forced back into the home after the soldiers returned home. And that ignited a revolution — the second wave of American feminists who pushed for the right to an abortion among so many other things.
Watching this shift, Bonier asked himself the same question, “Will this make a difference?”
“Conventional political wisdom often dismisses the impact of the youth vote. But if 2016 showed America anything, it was that we were not living in the status quo, not anymore.”
The first indication that these times are not precedent was the Kansas primary, where an overwhelming majority of voters rejected an amendment to the constitution. The polls indicated just the opposite — that the vote would be close. But it wasn’t. Bonier began looking at voter registration data and saw a new trend emerging — a surge of young women are registering to vote.
On August 28, Bonier tweeted, “National data on a post-Dobbs youth voter reg surge: this year, prior to Dobbs, 23% of new registrants were under the age of 25. Since Dobbs, that has jumped to 29%. That matches the youth new reg share from '18, when younger voters drove the blue wave, and 5 pts ahead of '18.”
This flies in the face of accepted political wisdom — traditionally, the midterms aren’t great for the party in power. And political outlets already seem ready to shift back into Trump-era mode, and why not? Those were lucrative times, driving national newspaper subscriptions with each panic-attack-inducing news cycle. And to be fair, Biden’s approval ratings have been very low, and that coupled with the Afghan withdrawal and the inability to pass any major legislation, any respectable suit might be forgiven for lining up the narrative of a “red wave.” And not the monthly menstrual one.
But Bonier sees something else. He sees the rage in the data — the numbers of young women registering to vote, fighting to get their rights back. The Dobbs decision intersecting with the January 6 hearings and far-right-wing Republicans winning primaries — it’s all highlighting what’s at stake in this election. Add in the recent passage of historic legislation on climate change and health care and the student loan forgiveness plan, well, it could be enough to change the narrative.
Despite news coverage that depicts the right to an abortion as a divisive issue, the vast majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal. In June, Pew reported, “About six-in-ten Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.” The partisan breakdown is 39 percent of Republicans v. 80 percent of Democrats.
Still, to take away something that 61 percent of Americans agree should be a fundamental right is a huge upset. And Bonier is seeing that reflected in the number of new voter registration.
Bonier is still analyzing the data, and he cautions that what 2016 taught political analysts was that the tools for political prognostication are bad. And they’ve only gotten worse. “The flaw is trying to draw precedent,” said Bonier. “There isn’t precedent for this.”
He also notes that midterms are especially hard for the party in power. So, even if Democrats pull off historic and unprecedented wins this midterm, like taking control of the Senate, they could still suffer some setbacks. “The structural disadvantages for Democrats are still in place.… Gerrymandering does not care about a Supreme Court decision. Voter suppression methods that make it more difficult to register to vote don’t have an opinion on these things. And all those things are in place,” cautions Bonier.
He adds, “Democrats could incredibly outperform historical precedent, through huge turnout from women and younger voters in general and swing voters swinging toward Democrats. Democrats could only lose a handful of seats and still lose the House. And frankly, that should be judged as a significant victory. But my fear is that the public will see that and take it as an acceptance of what Republicans are doing.”
Still, as the data continues to emerge, and the midterms approach, Bonier sees trends of women, specifically young Democratic women, registering to vote in key states. And that could be enough for a change.
Also, as I was writing this Time published this story: “Republicans Search for Someone Who Can Sue Over Biden's Student Loan Debt Plan”