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Young People of Color Shaped Key Super Tuesday Primaries

In four large, diverse states, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders performed very differently in counties with high proportions of Black youth and in those with high Latino youth.

The 2020 Democratic presidential primaries have once again shown that young people influence elections. More than half of states have now voted in the 2020 Democratic primaries, and the field has narrowed to two candidates: former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders. Biden holds a substantial delegate lead and is now the presumptive nominee, even though Sanders, as he did during his 2016 candidacy for the Democratic nomination, has once again dominated among young voters in 2020. While Sanders won the youth vote in all but one of the states that have voted so far, when we dig deeper, we find that youth support has not been uniform for Sanders. In particular, young people of different races/ethnicities have played a critical and distinct role in the primaries. 

For this analysis, we examined the election results from four key Super Tuesday states: California, Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia. Using aggregate, county-level voting data, we found: 

  • Sanders was particularly strong in high-youth counties, earning average vote shares more than 6 percentage points higher than in low-youth counties.
  • Conversely, Biden’s support was strongest in low-youth counties, which tracks with exit poll data showing that he has done best with voters over age 65
  • Sanders got a larger share of the vote in counties with many Latino youth, while Biden got a higher share of the vote in counties with many Black youth

We examined the county-level vote choice in three states that Biden won—North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia—and in California, which Sanders won. Taken together, these states comprised over 10 million primary voters, including more than an estimated 2 million young voters (ages 17-29)[1], according to CIRCLE’s preliminary estimates. These are also large states with racially/ethnically diverse populations. For example, as we noted in our analysis of CIRCLE’s pre-primary poll in Texas, young Latinos made up a sizable portion of the Democratic primary electorate in that state and had the potential to affect the outcome of the election.

After omitting the smallest counties in all four states to eliminate outliers with extremely low vote counts that would skew the data, we grouped the 505 remaining counties into three roughly equal groups: counties with “high”, “medium” and “low” proportions of young people. We also created three groups of counties with high, medium, or low rates of Black and Latino youth. We then calculated average county-level vote shares for Sanders and Biden and compared across the various groups.

Compared to his vote share in low youth counties, Sanders performed an average of 6 percentage points better in high-youth counties and 8 points higher in counties with relatively high levels of Latino youth. However, in counties with high rates of Black youth, Sanders actually fared substantially worse. The opposite pattern emerged for Biden, who garnered less support from high-youth counties and counties with many Latino youth, but actually prevailed in areas with more Black youth.

While it is true that Black voters of all ages supported Biden in these states, which may have driven a large portion of Biden’s outperformance in these “high Black youth” counties, our findings also reflect what we’ve seen in our analyses of exit poll data from other states. Youth diverged noticeably along racial lines, especially in states like Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina, where Black youth made up a large segment of the overall Democratic primary electorate. In South Carolina, Black youth (ages 18-29) were almost evenly split between Sanders and Biden, whereas White youth in the state preferred Sanders by 42 percentage points. And in Mississippi, Black youth supported Biden to such an extent that he actually won the overall youth vote in that primary, the only one in which he (or anyone other than Sanders) has won a plurality of young voters. 

These county-level analyses by race/ethnicity once again highlight that young voters are not a monolith, and that youth with different identities, backgrounds, and experiences can have vastly different political preferences. This is especially important because, as past CIRCLE analysis has found, young people of color are sometimes the least likely to receive outreach from campaigns and parties. For example, in our pre-election poll of Texas youth, Latinos ages 18-29 were the least likely group to be contacted about the primaries. In the 2020 election cycle and beyond, candidates and campaigns must reach out to and strive to understand the views and attitudes of diverse young people, because they deserve to have a voice in our democracy and because they can decisively influence elections.

[1] In North Carolina and Virginia, 17 year olds could vote in the primary if they will turn 18 by the date of the general election.

Authors: Kristian Lundberg, Rey Junco