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Joe Biden Wins Young Voters for the First Time in 2020

Youth turnout increased in Missouri and Mississippi compared to previous years with just one party holding competitive primaries

For the first time in this year’s Democratic primaries, a candidate other than Senator Bernie Sanders won the youth vote in a state, as former Vice President Joe Biden earned a majority of young voters’ support in Mississippi on his way to a strong night that cemented his status as the frontrunner. Voting also took place in Idaho, North Dakota, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington, and young people made up at least 1 in 8 voters in Missouri and Mississippi, the only two states for which adequate preliminary data is currently available. We estimate that youth turnout was 7% in Mississippi and 11% in Missouri, both of which are higher than in comparable recent elections.

Our key findings and notes:

  • Among the six states that held primaries/caucuses, we currently only have youth voting data for Missouri and Mississippi. Only two-thirds of the results are in from Washington. Exit/entrance polls were not conducted in Idaho or North Dakota. In Michigan, where there are reports of a high number of absentee mail-in ballots, we are not confident that exit polls accurately reflect the share and choice of the youth electorate. You can read more about Michigan below.
  • All six states also held Republican contests, which were not competitive and for which no exit poll data is available. Therefore, our analysis only includes participation in the Democratic contests. We also have no data for the Democrats abroad primary, which finished voting yesterday and has not reported any results.
  • Our estimate of youth turnout in Mississippi (7%) represents an increase from 2012, the last cycle in which only one party held a competitive primary in the state. In Missouri, both the youth turnout and share of the vote were higher than in 2004, the last time only the Democratic Party had a competitive primary.
  • Though he lost the overall vote in both states, exit polls show that Sanders won the youth vote in Missouri and Michigan (among Election-Day  voters; vote choice data for those who cast absentee ballots is not available). In Washington, which is currently too close to call, there is currently no available youth vote choice data.

In Context: Voting in Missouri and Mississippi

As we have highlighted throughout this year’s Democratic primaries, it is important not to conclude that youth voting in a state (or group of states) is representative of young people’s political engagement nationwide, and to consider the demographic, policy, and political conditions that can shape youth participation. The states that voted on March 10 were similar to a national picture on some demographic factors  and not on others. For example, 42% of young people in Mississippi are Black/African American, which is almost three times the proportion of Black youth nationally. Young people in Mississippi and Missouri are also less likely than youth nationwide to have attended college.

Of the six states that voted, there were five primaries and one caucus: North Dakota. Four contests were open, and two semi-closed, with Idaho open to unaffiliated voters. Mississippi is the only state of the six in which 17-year-olds could participate if they will turn 18 before the general election.

Race Remains Key Difference in Youth Support

As he did in 2016, Bernie Sanders has had a dominant performance with young voters throughout the 2020 nominating contests, winning the youth vote in every state until the March 10 primaries, when Biden won youth in Mississippi 61% to 35%. This continued a trend of Sanders doing worse—and Biden better—with young people in Southern states where Black voters made up a high share of the electorate. Earlier in the primaries, Sanders had won just 46% of the youth vote in Alabama and 43% in South Carolina, still pluralities, but his worst performances among young voters in 2020. In 2016, Mississippi and Alabama were among just a handful of states where Sanders lost the youth vote to Hillary Clinton.

Exit poll data by age and race in Mississippi confirms the impact of young Black voters in the state. Black voters under 30 supported Biden over Sanders, 76% to 23%, and they made up 9% of the total primary electorate compared to just 3% for White youth. By contrast, in Missouri, young White voters made up 11% of the electorate, and Sanders won 72% of their votes, compared to 22% for Biden. Sanders won youth overall in Missouri, 70% to 25%. In Michigan, among youth who voted on the day of the primary (as opposed to earlier absentee voting), Sanders won the young primary voters by a wide margin.

Turnout Up in Mississippi and Missouri

Compared to previous years with single-party primary seasons, youth voter turnout increased in both states for which we currently have reliable data. In Mississippi, we estimate that youth turnout was 7%, which is higher than the last time (2012) that only one party had a competitive primary. That increase is especially notable given that in 2012 it was a Republican primary in a very Republican-leaning state, as opposed to the Democratic primary this year. In Missouri, we estimate that this year’s youth turnout (10%) and youth share (14%) were higher than in 2004, the last time only the Democratic Party held a competitive primary.

We cannot provide a specific estimate youth turnout for Michigan, which this year instituted a policy allowing more absentee votes. A substantial number of Michigan residents appear to have voted this way. Because, unlike in other states, exit polls in Michigan did not survey voters who did not vote in-person on Election Day, we cannot estimate youth turnout, given that a substantial number of voters were not included in the survey sampling framework. If we use the number of votes counted as of this writing, a preliminary estimate of votes cast by young people shows that youth in Michigan clearly exceeded their voter turnout in 2004 and 2012 (the last two elections in which only one party had a competitive primary) and could have one of the higher rates of youth participation so far in this primary cycle.


Authors: CIRCLE Staff