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Young People Make Up Historic Share of Iowa Caucusgoers, Boost Bernie Sanders

Nearly 1 in 4 Iowa caucusgoers was under age 30, and their strong preference for Senator Sanders propelled him toward a top finish.

Young people had an extraordinary impact on the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. We estimate that 8% of youth in the state (ages 17-29) participated in the Democratic caucuses—making up a 24% share of all caucusgoers, the highest we’ve ever seen in this contest. According to entrance poll data, 48% of young people went into the caucuses supporting Bernie Sanders, followed by 19% for Pete Buttigieg, 12% for Elizabeth Warren, 10% for Andrew Yang, 4% for Amy Klobuchar, and 3% for Joe Biden. While we cannot know young people’s final level of support for each candidate after the in-caucus realignments, it is evident that youth support for Buttigieg and, especially, Sanders, was key to their strong performances in the state: Sanders received the most votes and, with 97% of precincts reporting, they are locked in a dead heat for the most state delegate equivalents.

Some key findings and notes:

  • Because there is no reporting on the demographics of Republican caucusgoers, all estimates include only youth participation in Iowa’s Democratic caucuses. In addition, estimates are based on entrance poll data collected by Edison Research and vote tallies available in the days following the caucuses, which may be revised at a later date.
  • Youth turnout (estimated at 8%) increased from an estimated 4% in 2012 and 2004, the last two years where there was an incumbent president and only one party’s nominating contest was competitive.
  • In 2016, in a two-candidate field, Bernie Sanders received an overwhelming share of support (84%) from young Iowa caucusgoers, which helped propel him to a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton. This year, in a much more crowded field, 48% of youth support went to Senator Sanders, a 29-point advantage over young people’s second choice, former Mayor Buttigieg (19%). Sanders and Buttigieg finished 1st and 2nd in total votes.

Putting Youth Engagement in Iowa into Perspective

While Iowa carries special significance as the first state to hold a primary/caucus, it is important to remember that it’s often the most engaged who participate in these early contests, and in some states (as a result of closed primaries, like Iowa’s) the most partisan. Caucuses add additional complexity, since the nature of the process and the time commitment it requires certainly affect who does or does not participate. Additionally, election results from a single state do not represent the views, preferences, and experiences of all youth across the country. Iowa is also far from racially/ethnically representative of the country: 80% of young Iowans are white, compared to 57% nationally. 

Each state also has unique structural and cultural elements that may be more or less conducive to youth participation, and that are shaped by the history of competitive elections in the state, laws and policies related to voter registration, the support for youth organizing throughout different communities, and many other factors. We previously explored how these and other conditions in Iowa may affect youth engagement in a series of analyses based on exclusive CIRCLE polling.

Youth Support Key for Sanders, Buttigieg

According to the entrance polls, nearly half (48%) of young Iowans preferred Bernie Sanders, a remarkable level of support in a Democratic field with more than half-a-dozen major candidates. Pete Buttigieg (19%) and Elizabeth Warren (12%) ranked second and third among youth. In a closely contested caucus, it appears that young people’s preferences were decisive, especially for Sanders, who got just 8% support from voters ages 45 and up.

In fact, young people’s influence on the result may have been especially notable given how different their choices were from those of older Iowans: among those age 45+ caucusgoers, the top three candidates were Joe Biden (25%), Buttigieg (24%) and Amy Klobuchar (19%). While Buttigieg got slightly less support from young caucusgoers than other age groups, in this close of a contest, the support from a large youth voting bloc was critical. Just as the youth vote helped Sanders and Buttigieg, it likely hurt Biden and Klobuchar. Both were supported by less than 5% of youth, and they finished in 4th and 5th place in the state.

Youth Turnout High for a Year With Just One Competitive Nominating Contest

Because there was no entrance poll available for the Iowa Republican caucuses, we have no way of estimating the number of young people participating in that caucus. Therefore our estimate that 8% of youth participated in 2020 includes only Democratic caucusgoers, and is best compared to previous years in which only one party had competitive primaries. In both 2012 (Republican) and 2004 (Democratic), we estimated that youth turnout was 4%. For context, the last two times both parties held competitive caucuses, youth turnout was higher: 11% in 2016 and 14% in 2008. You can read more about our turnout estimates here.

According to entrance polls, young people ages 17-29 made up 24% of Democratic caucusgoers. That’s higher than in previous years: the youth share of all participants had ranged between 17% and 22% in the four most recent Democratic Iowa caucuses. For comparison, youth share in the Republican caucuses during the same time period has ranged from 11% to 15%. Combined with young people’s vote choice, the fact that they made up about one-fourth of caucusgoers suggests youth influenced the results—and highlights the potential of the youth vote’s impact throughout the rest of the 2020 Democratic primaries.


Authors: Noorya Hayat, Abby Kiesa, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kristian Lundberg, Alberto Medina