Enthusiasm among young voters in Minnesota remains high heading into the 2020 presidential election, with large majorities of those 34 and younger expressing optimism about their ability to effect change, a new Star Tribune/MPR Minnesota Poll found.

Three in four said they plan to vote in November.

More than half of the voters between 18 and 34, 55%, said they will "definitely" cast a ballot. Just one in 10 said they do not plan to participate in the presidential election this year.

It's too soon to know whether the current level of interest, eight months before Election Day, will translate into record number of young voters heading to the polls. Minnesota regularly leads the nation in voter turnout, both among young people and the overall population. But youth participation consistently lags rates for older cohorts. In 2016, turnout for the 18-34 age group ranged from 50% to 63%. Voting rates among voters 60 to 79 surpassed 80% that same year.

The poll found high interest in voting across gender, geographic and partisan lines. In every region of the state, more than 70% of young voters plan to cast a ballot. Rates were highest among young Democrats and those living in the metro area, with roughly 80% planning to participate. Interest dipped slightly among young Republicans (73%) and Independents (76%). The telephone poll of 500 registered Minnesota voters ages 18 to 34 was conducted Feb. 17 to 21.

Interviews with young voters who participated in the poll revealed a sense of urgency around the upcoming election.

"The direction of the country itself is definitely at stake," said Vanessa Miller, a 21-year-old St. Olaf student who plans to vote for a Democrat. "In the next four years, there are irreversible things that will happen in terms of climate policy, in terms of health care policy."

Zachary Berger, 31, also sees this election as important. But the Albertville Republican, who owns a flooring company, thinks President Donald Trump is better suited to lead. Berger doesn't like everything Trump does, but leading Democrats have him worried that the nation is "very closely teetering on [the edge of] a communist kind of society and country."

"I would say more now than ever, every vote counts," he said. "I really feel like our country's on a razor's edge, a tipping point just as far as where it goes."

Education and income levels remain key indicators of whether a young person will vote, the poll found. Just 38% of Minnesotans under 34 with no college degree said they "definitely" would vote, compared with 75% of college graduates. Less than half of those making less than $50,000 expressed strong commitment. Among those making more, the share jumps to 65%.

The dip doesn't surprise researchers who track youth voting. National surveys show a similar gap. But experts say it shows that even states with high civic engagement have work to do in voter education and outreach.

"That a state that really knows how to run elections and do it well like Minnesota is facing those issues really means that there has to be some real targeted focus on that," said Abby Kiesa, director of impact at Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Some in Minnesota are already working to close the gap, with registration drives aimed at engaging low-turnout communities. Organizers with LeadMN, which represents community college students, have signed up 3,000 voters since the midterms.

The new poll results suggest young Minnesotans who do plan to vote are buoyed by a sense that it can lead to change for themselves and society as a whole. Six in 10 young voters polled believe their generation will have a more positive impact on the world than their parents' generation did. Just 16% disagreed.

Joe Agnew, a 33-year-old Democrat from Edina, is encouraged by an uptick in political activity among his friends after the 2016 election.

"I see people running for office, I see people getting involved in local commissions," said Agnew, a sales engineer supporting Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. "I feel like [on] the issues we care about, things like climate change, we know we don't have a choice but to get involved and start to do something."

Blaine resident Brittany Pesta, 31, is on the opposite side of the political divide. The self-described conservative said she is "stoked" to vote for another four years of President Trump.

But she, too, is excited to see peers "taking a stand for more issues."

"People my age and younger have more of a platform and will speak out against wrongdoings instead of sweeping it under the rug," she said.

While a majority of young voters polled feel optimistic about the future, many expressed anxiety or disappointment about their life prospects. Less than half of voters polled believe people like them have access to quality affordable housing and health care.

Just 42% of young voters believe their generation is better off than their parents'.

Concerns about the future of the planet also weigh on many young voters. Six in 10 polled said climate change poses a "significant threat" to their community. The sentiment was shared across most demographic groups, with a majority of young voters in all regions of the state and education and income levels agreeing with that view. A majority of young Republicans — 51% — disagree that climate change is a threat, while 71% of Democrats and 56% of Independents are concerned about the changes.

"It's one thing for me to say that I am going to be directly impacted by something like climate change. But my daughter, she's not going to know the world I knew," Agnew said. "We're going to have to do something."

Torey Van Oot • 651-925-5049