Millennial turnout could decide close Pennsylvania congressional race

By Jakob Lazzaro, Medill News Service
Former Vice President Joe Biden (L) campaigns for Conor Lamb (R) last week in Pennsylvania. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI
1 of 2 | Former Vice President Joe Biden (L) campaigns for Conor Lamb (R) last week in Pennsylvania. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo

CANNONSBURG, Pa. -- Millennial turnout could determine who wins the special election to Congress on Tuesday in Pennsylvania.

Young Democrats' participation in the vote could offset the fact that President Donald Trump won the heavily Republican district by over 19 percentage points in 2016.


Polls have indicated a close race between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone.

Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic political consultant, said millennials can "control their own destiny" in the race.

The men are competing to complete the 18th District term of Tim Murphy, who resigned in a sex scandal.

"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 prefer the Democrat on a generic ballot, compared to 29 percent who would prefer the Republican candidate.


Millennial interest in the midterms is 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 Generation Xers who have traditionally had higher turnout.

Joseph DiSarro, professor of political science at Washington & Jefferson College, said the projections of a millennial blue wave may not apply in the western Pennsylvania race.

"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 Reagan 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, is supporting Lamb for his views on education; her mother is a teacher. Lamb, 33, a former assistant U.S. attorney, also supports student loan reform.

"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, 60, a state representative, 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 district -- and Lamb is popular.

Allegheny 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 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.

"Conor 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 on the race, DiSarro said he expects turnout to be around 20 to 25 percent, which would likely mean a win for Saccone.

"If the turnout reaches over 30 percent, Conor Lamb could win," DiSarro said.

According to U.S. Census data estimates from the 2016 American Community Survey, the district has a voting age population of 566,751. Of that, 116,446 are age 20-34 -- that means the district is at least 20.5 percent millennial.

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."

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