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A scene from inside Barack Obama's headquarters in Bloomington, Indiana on November 4, 2008 Alamy Stock Photo

JFK in 1960, Blair 1997, Obama 2008, Corbyn 2017 Youth vote is a starting gun for momentum

Can European election candidates lean into an unanchored youth vote in June 2024? Kevin Cunningham of Ireland Thinks investigates.

EACH NEW GENERATION has its distinct character. A character that is often forged in specific circumstances.

For instance, persistent disparities between those born in the 1970s and 1980s today can be attributed to the unique circumstances of their formative years. Those born in the 1970s, witnessing the collapse of communism, tend still to hold a more liberal market economic perspective. While by contrast individuals born in the 1980s, who came of age during a recession blamed on the excesses of financial markets often align with a more left-leaning economic narrative.

This brings us to the question of the character of voters born in the 1990s and 2000s. Perhaps their character is forged by the pandemic, or indeed by events occurring today?

Ireland Thinks’ work with The Journal seeks to understand the attitudes of those born in the 1990s and 2000s with a specific eye on the European elections. How will they decide who to vote for? And will they even vote? Many of these adults will go to the polls in June for the very first time.

In the first of this series we asked voters to measure the performance of the EU across a series of five current issues.

The strongest finding concerns the level of disaffection among younger voters with the EUs handling of the war in the middle east. The Israel-Gaza conflict emerges as the foremost grievance among those under 35, mirroring sentiments among older demographics, albeit with greater intensity.

While the overall population expresses discontent with the EU’s performance in the Israel-Gaza conflict with 67% rating it as bad, 11% good, the sentiment is even more pronounced among 18-34 year olds, with 79% rating the EU’s performance as bad. Just 4% rated it as good.

This is in sharp divergence with attitudes concerning the conflict in Ukraine for which the younger bracket registers relatively positive views, just 27% seeing their performance negatively, compared to 34% among older voters.

This combination of a favourable outlook towards the EU’s response to Ukraine and an unfavourable perspective on Gaza aligns with the inclinations of the soft left, particularly supporters of parties like Social Democrats or Greens.

Unanchored youth vote

The history of elections is littered with examples of prominent candidates and parties that have surged in support when they aligned closely with an unanchored younger vote: from JFK in 1960 to Barack Obama in 2008; from Tony Blair 1997 to Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. 

time-magazine-cover-there-can-only-be-one-may-5-2008-presedintial-elections-barack-obama-vs-hillary-clinton TIME magazine cover. There Can Only Be One, May 5, 2008 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The youth vote often provided the starting gun for their momentum.

While the Social Democrats most closely align with younger voters today, it doesn’t always happen for parties like this. At the European elections, in particular, individual candidates also tend to have a much bigger influence.

That said, the Gaza conflict may still leave an enduring impression on younger voters with respect to their view of the European Union. While Ireland has long held a strongly positive view of the EU, this is not certain to last indefinitely.

Thirty percent of individuals aged 18-34 attest to a marked deterioration in their views of the EU due to the conflict, in contrast to 16% among those aged 35 and above.

An additional 45% of 18-34 year olds express a ‘somewhat disimproved’ perception, meaning that for a full three-quarters of younger voters, the conflict has negatively influenced their view of the EU.

Climate change

Other opinions of younger voters are perhaps well understood. Younger voters have long held a more pessimistic view of the EU’s approach to climate change: 46% indicating that the EU’s performance is bad, 19% good.

This contrasts with the rest of the population scoring the EU as 33% good, 25% bad with respect to climate change. We know from other, earlier polling that the vast majority of these negative views concern the slow pace of the response to the climate crisis. It is well understood that younger voters tend to be rather broadly in favour of a more aggressive response to climate change.

Big Tech and the economy

Younger voters are also perhaps predictably slightly less negative about the EU’s response to the regulation of big technology firms. While attitudes remain negative, 38% bad to 26% good, they are somewhat less negative than other generations who are perhaps more worried about large technology firms: rating the EU’s response as 49% bad to 21% good.

While again one could argue that some will respond as if the EU is over-regulating, we know from other polling that the vast bulk of the population believe large tech firms to be in need of greater levels of regulation.

Interestingly, the disparity between the youngest cohort and the rest of the population regarding the EU’s economic management is minimal. It is perhaps a reflection of an economic environment with unusually low levels of youth unemployment.

Unlike previous generations, where such differences were stark, the current youngest group’s evaluation of the EU’s economic stance is more positive than the 35-44 age group.

This observation underscores the enduring effects of the financial crisis on generational economic perspectives. The youngest group cite the EUs performance negatively by 41% to 33%. All older groups combined evaluate the performance as negative by 37% to 31%.

Overall, younger voters generally score the EU relatively poorly on a range of issues and particularly in relation to Gaza. This is something candidates will be attuned to as they seek to attract the attention of these voters. 

The poll of 1,255 people was carried out between the 2 and 7 February and has a  margin of error of 2.8%.

Dr Kevin Cunningham is a lecturer at TU Dublin and managing director of Ireland Thinks.


This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.