CANNONSBURG, Pa. – Millennial turnout could make or break Democrat Conor Lamb’s chances to win a seat in Congress in Pennsylvania’s special election Tuesday, possibly offsetting the fact that President Donald Trump won the heavily Republican district by over 19 percentage points in 2016.
Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic political consultant, said millennials can “control their own destiny” by turning out to vote.
“The knock on young voters is that they don’t turn out,” Mikus said. “And if millennials in this district prove them wrong, it’ll force every candidate running across the country to look at millennials as a powerful voting pact.”
According to a March poll from the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of millennials said they would vote for or prefer the Democrat on a generic ballot, versus only 29 percent who would prefer the Republican candidate. More important, millennial interest in the midterms is also high, with 62 percent saying they were looking forward to the elections. That’s up from 46 percent in 2014, which puts millennials on par with both Baby Boomers and Gen Xers — demographics who traditionally have higher turnout.
Dr. Joseph DiSarro, professor of political science at Washington & Jefferson College, said the projections of a millennial blue wave may not apply in western Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district contest between Lamb and Rick Republican Saccone.
“Western Pennsylvania is a little bit different,” DiSarro said. “This is a conservative area. A lot of the Democrats here are what used to be called Regan Democrats, and families in this area are typically religious, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment. They are blue-collar families, strong union families, but again, they lean to the conservative side with respect to social issues.”
“Unlike other parts of the country, millennials tend to hold the position of their parents on social issues,” he said. “We’re going to be up late Tuesday night.”
Lauren Markish, a 22-year-old senior at Washington and Jefferson College, is supporting Lamb due to his views on education as her mother is a teacher. Lamb also supports student loan reform — allowing recipients to refinance their loans is listed as one of his campaign priorities. She said the Washington, Pennsylvania, campus is evenly split between the candidates.
“The basic conversation on campus is pretty split, for the most part,” Markish said. “You have a lot of students campaigning for both sides, but it’s an interesting conversation.”
Jake Harrison, a 21-year-old senior, supports Saccone mainly because he is the GOP candidate.
“My family is pretty right — we live in a pretty conservative part of Pennsylvania,” Harrison said. “I know he has an endorsement from the NRA [National Rifle Association], and I tend to support that as well.”
However, things seem different in the Allegheny County portion of the district. Composed of inner Pittsburgh suburbs, it’s the most urban part of the majority-rural 18th — and Lamb is popular.
Allegheny county resident Rob Spadafore, 28, said Saccone “seems like a decent candidate,” but he’s supporting Lamb.
“I consider myself a Democrat, but I would gladly vote for a Republican if I felt like they were the proper candidate,” Spadafore said. “Conor Lamb is running on a more centrist approach where he’s going to work across the aisle.”
Ingeborg Moran, 27, is also supporting Lamb.
“I like that Conor Lamb is a little bit younger, because I feel like he’d maybe be willing to be open minded,” Moran said. “He mentioned that even though he’s religious, he wouldn’t necessarily be religious in his voting.”
Moran said Lamb’s more moderate positions wouldn’t play well if he was running to represent more liberal Pittsburgh, but that he’s a good fit for the 18th district.
“I work in the city, and I would say that among my friends Conor Lamb almost seems like a Republican,” Moran said. “Most of the people I work with are big Bernie (Sanders) supporters and super, super liberal — they’re just excited a Democrat has a chance in this election.”
Ultimately, it’ll all come down to turnout, DiSarro said.
“Conner Lamb will probably do quite well in the Allegheny portion of the district, but will it be enough?” he said. “Again, we come back to the old cliché – turnout, turnout, turnout will determine the outcome.”
Despite the national attention, DiSarro said he expects turnout to be around 20 to 25 percent, and that those numbers likely mean a win for Saccone.
“If the turnout reaches over 30 percent, Conor Lamb could win,” DiSarro said.
The Saccone and Lamb campaigns did not respond to multiple requests for comment on how they’ve been reaching out to millennial voters.
According to U.S. census data estimates from the 2016 American Community Survey, the 18th district has a voting age population of 566,751. Of that, 116,446 are aged 20-34 — that means the district is at least 20.5 percent millennial.
Dr. Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, said younger people leaning toward the Democratic party is not new. However, this level of enthusiasm is.
“This is the kind of election where even turning out an extra 2,000 voters, who are young, could actually make a difference,” Ginsberg said. “That’s the kind of thing that young people need to hear, in order to really feel like their personal vote actually counts.”