2020 Election Center
Elections are invaluable nationwide opportunities for young people to participate in democracy. As part of our efforts to broaden youth voting and ensure that more and more diverse young people engage in the electoral process, CIRCLE conducts substantial research on how youth participate in elections. In 2020, we tracked youth voter registration rates, their views on the candidates, and their involvement in the political process.
We also endeavored to take a step back, look beyond the 'horse race', and examine the myriad social, institutional, and political contexts that can affect whether and how youth participate: emerging activist movements, social media trends, new election laws, and the competitiveness of races across the country. In this unprecedented election year that was shaped by COVID-19, we paid special attention to how the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic and the changes to election processes to make voting during the pandemic safer affected youth. As in all our work, we especially sought to highlight disparities in youth electoral engagement that illustrate the political marginalization of some youth and communities, with an eye toward closing gaps and redressing inequality.
Explore all of our data, analysis, and commentary on the 2020 election:
Throughout the 2020 election week and in the days that followed, we produced extensive data and analyses of young people's electoral participation and the influence of young voters in races across the country. That included our exclusive estimate of youth voter turnout, state-by-state data on young people's vote choice and their impact on key races, and nuanced analyses of youth of color's role in the election:
- Voter Turnout: We estimate that 50% of youth voted in 2020, a major 11-point increase from 2016.
- Vote Choice: 61% of youth voted for Joe Biden and 37% for Donald Trump
- Voter Turnout by Race/Ethnicity and Gender: White youth voted at the highest rate in 2020 (61%), but youth of color appear to be narrowing the historical gap. Young women (55%) voted at a higher rate than young men (44%)
- Vote Choice by Race/Ethnicity: There were major vote choice differences by race/ethnicity: 87% of Black youth voted for Biden, compared to 51% of white youth
- Voter History: 20% of young people who voted in 2020 were first time voters, 40% had voted in 2012 and 2016, and 40% had voted in 2016 and 2018
- Impact on Close Races: In states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, young Black and Latino voters were instrumental in swinging tight races for Biden
Latest 2020 Research
Youth Voter Turnout: State by State
As more complete and official data became available in early 2021, we released an updated national youth turnout estimate of 50%, as well as state-by-state youth voter turnout estimates by region: on states in the West and Southwest, on states across the South, on states in the Midwest, and on states in the Northeast. Explore the interactive youth voter turnout map below.
Early Voting by Youth
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, early and absentee voting was a major part of the 2020 election. We tracked early voting by youth (ages 18-29) and found that more than 10 million young people voted before Election Day; the chart below shows early voting in electoral battlegrounds, in some cases surpassing the total number of youth.
Subsequently, our post-election analysis based on data from AP VoteCast by The Associated Press found that 70% of young people voted early or absentee, but there were differences by race/ethnicity and educational attainment that point to inequities in access and opportunity.
Youth Voter Registration
We also tracked youth voter registration in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Our analysis revealed that, in most states, the number of young people (ages 18-29) registered to vote was already higher in October of 2020 than it had been just days before the November 2016 election. But, when it came to the youngest eligible voters (ages 18-19), voter registration lagged behind 2016 in many states, which suggested challenges to reaching and engaging the newest potential voters—likely, in small or large part, because of limitations to voter outreach and registration activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Polling and Other Analyses
Immediately following the 2020 general election, we fielded another comprehensive youth poll that surveyed many of the same young people (ages 18-29) who took our pre-election poll. The results underscored what we already knew: that young people were highly politically engaged in 2020, and that they're committed to staying engaged in the future. Our poll also highlighted that redoubled efforts to facilitate voting (especially mail-in voting during the pandemic) largely worked—though there are still inequities and gaps to fill so that all youth can participate in democracy.
We continue to analyze this data and publish findings. Below are some major takeaways from what we've released so far:
- More than three quarters of young people believe that they have the power and responsibility to change the country
- Youth who voted for President Biden are more engaged and more confident in their civic power than those who supported President Trump
- Young people participated in 2020: about 1 in 4 donated to a campaign (24%) or registered others to vote (23%), close to half (45%) tried to convince their peers to vote, and two thirds spoke with friends about the election and politics
- Racial justice motivated many young people to engage and vote: 68% said they saw voting as a way to stop violence against people of color, 56% talked to peers about how racism affects society, and 57% say they took action for racial justice in their communities.
- Young people who voted for Biden want his administration to prioritize the COVID-19 vaccination (80%), combating violence against people of color (82%), and leading the transition to renewable energy (78%). Youth who supported Trump are more focused on restoring law and order (72%) and enforcing immigration laws (59%). Both want a focus on creating jobs, cutting middle-class taxes, and uniting Americans.
- Despite the changes and challenges to political campaigning and voter outreach during a pandemic, young people were contacted at higher rates than in recent elections—especially by the Democratic Party, which reached nearly half of youth.
- Youth didn’t just hear from campaigns: they heard from each other. Nearly two-thirds of youth (ages 18-24) talked to friends about politics, and almost half tried to convince their peers to vote.
- In a year when COVID-19 forced much of American life to move online, digital outreach was prevalent, and platforms like Snapchat and TikTok were digital spaces where the youngest eligible voters saw or heard information about the election. However, online or off, young people’s family and friends were still critical sources of information about the 2020 election.
- Racial justice motivated civic and political action by youth. Almost half (45%) of young people said that they took concrete action for racial justice in 2020, and almost a third (29%) have participated in a march or demonstration.
- Young people’s doubts about the future of American elections and democracy should be a major concern. A third of youth in our survey, including half of those who voted for President Trump, consider it at least somewhat likely that the U.S. will no longer hold free and fair elections.
On May-June 2020, we fielded a comprehensive poll of young people (ages 18-29) that asked about their interest and engagement in the election, their candidate preference, their participation in activism and social movements, whether they're being contacted by campaigns, and whether they have the information they need to vote in an election that may make heavy use of online voter registration and mail-in voting.
Major findings include:
- Seizing their Power: 83% say they believe young people have the power to change the country, 60% feel like they’re part of a movement that will vote to express its views, and 79% of young people say the COVID-19 pandemic has helped them realize that politics impact their everyday lives.
- Strong Preference for Biden Over Trump: 58% of youth say they support Joe Biden, compared to just 24% for President Trump—a staggering 34-point margin. But 18% of youth say they would like to vote for another candidate. Asian youth (78%) and Black youth (73%) are the most likely to support Biden. Meanwhile, almost three quarters of youth who support Trump (72%) are White.
- Campaign Contact Still a Concern: Almost half of youth (47%) say they have been contacted by a political campaign this year. However, that’s still an improvement from 2016, when only 32% of youth (ages 18-29) had heard from a campaign.
- Youth in the Streets: 27% of young people (ages 18-24) say they have attended a march or demonstration, a remarkable increase from when we asked the question for the same age group before the 2016 and 2018 elections (5% and 16%, respectively).
- Information and Guidance on OVR and VBM Needed: We asked youth if they could register to vote online in their state. A third (32%) said they did not know. Among those who answered yes or no, 25% were incorrect. In addition, only 24% of youth report having voted by mail before.
- Top Issues Differ, Racism High Priority for Youth of Color: The environment, racism, and affordable healthcare are the top-3 issues most commonly named by youth as the most important in driving their vote this November. Getting back to normal after the pandemic and police mistreatment also ranked highly.
- Poll: Young People Believe they Can Lead Change in Unprecedented Election Cycle
- Growing Voters: A Profile of the Youngest Eligible Voters in 2020
- Deeply Affected by the Pandemic, Youth Are Committed to Helping Others
- Undermobilized and Wavering, Young Trump Voters Less Politically Engaged
- Strong Signs of Asian American Youth Engagement in 2020
- Young Women of Color: Politically Active And Strongly Behind Biden
- Young People Turn to Online Political Engagement During COVID-19
Throughout the 2020 presidential primaries, CIRCLE conducted state-by-state analyses of youth voting in the Democratic Party’s nominating contest. Along with tracking youth turnout rates in each state's primary or caucus, we also analyzed young voters’ preferences for different candidates to evaluate the often pivotal impact young people are having on the outcome of the race.
Our analyses allowed us to estimate how many votes young people cast for each Democratic presidential candidate. We used the same methodology as in 2016, when we found that Senator Bernie Sanders received more youth votes in the primaries than then-candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. The postponement of primaries due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as Senator Sanders suspending his campaign, effectively ended the Democratic primary. We will continue analyzing data we gathered from the more than 25 states who voted in order to draw key insights as we move toward the general election.
State by State Analyses
- March 17 Primaries (AZ, FL, IL): Young People Still Not Coalescing Behind Joe Biden
- March 10 Primaries: Joe Biden Wins Young Voters for the First Time in 2020
- Super Tuesday: The Youth Vote on Super Tuesday
- South Carolina: Youth Make Up 1 in 9 South Carolina Voters
- Nevada: Two-Thirds of Youth Support Sanders in Nevada Caucus
- New Hampshire: Half of Young Voters Back Sanders, Propel Him to New Hampshire Victory
- Iowa: Young People Make Up Historic Share of Iowa Caucusgoers, Boost Bernie Sanders
For an exclusive CIRCLE poll conducted in January, we surveyed Texans ages 18-39. We found that 37% say they support Bernie Sanders, followed by 25% for Joe Biden and 18% for Elizabeth Warren. In addition, 39% say they are “extremely likely” to participate in the March 3rd presidential primaries, including 43% of Whites and 38% of Latinos. More than half of those who say they are "very" or "extremely" likely to vote say they plan to do so in the Democratic primary. The poll also highlighted challenges and disparities in electoral outreach, especially to younger Latinos in Texas: 66% of Millennial and Gen Z Texans in our poll, including 75% of Latinos, have not heard from a campaign, suggestigng there’s still a lot of work to do to get younger Texans prepared and excited to vote.
Young people are poised to influence the direction of the 2020 election, starting with the upcoming, first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. In addition to the work young people do on political campaigns and to register voters, a new, exclusive CIRCLE-Tisch College/Suffolk University poll of youth in Iowa (ages 18-29, regardless of party or voter registration) finds that more than a third (35%) say they are “extremely likely” to caucus on February 3rd and, on the Democratic side, they are supporting Senator Bernie Sanders by a substantial margin. According to our poll, 39% of young Iowans who are registered or identify as Democrats intend to caucus for Sanders, followed by 19% for Senator Elizabeth Warren, 14% for Pete Buttigieg, 9% for Andrew Yang, and 7% for former Vice President Joe Biden.
Previous Presidential Election
As we examine youth engagement in 2020, it is useful to recall and consider young people's participation in the previous presidential cycle. In 2016:
- 39% of eligible young people turned out to vote
- Young voters favored Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton over President Trump, 55% to 37%
- There were significant differences in vote choice by race—for example, 48% of White youth voted for Trump and 43% for Clinton, while 83% of Black youth voted for Clinton and 9% for Trump.