Close Menu

Young People Still Not Coalescing Behind Joe Biden

The former Vice President lost the youth vote to Bernie Sanders by double digits, suggesting he still has work to do to appeal to young voters.

On a day of primaries characterized by the uncertainty of voting during the coronavirus outbreak, young people still made their voices heard in the March 17 contests in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona. As in other recent primaries, youth supported Senator Bernie Sanders by wide margins even as Senator Joe Biden, now the prohibitive favorite for the nomination, won all three states. (Ohio was scheduled to hold its primary on Tuesday but the in-person voting day was delayed, though absentee voting is ongoing.) In Illinois, nearly 1 in 6 primary voters were under 30, while in Florida—which has one of the “oldest” populations of any state—1 in 9 voters were young.

Our key findings and notes, including a key methodological note about our turnout estimates:

  • We currently only have preliminary estimates for Florida and Illinois but not for Arizona, where results are still coming in. Florida and Illinois also held Republican primaries on March 17 but we have no data about participation in those contests.
  • According to AP VoteCast data, young people made up 11% of the voters in Florida and 17% in Illinois. We estimate that translates to 7% youth turnout in Florida and 12% in Illinois. Because these calculations are based on VoteCast data as opposed to exit polls conducted by Edison Research (which canceled its in-person polling due to coronavirus concerns), and the two have different methodologies, we do not believe that these youth turnout estimates are comparable to those of previous election cycles in these states or to previous states in this election cycle.
  • Bernie Sanders won the youth vote by a wide margin in Illinois, 68% to 27% for Joe Biden, and by a smaller margin in Florida: 53% to 36%. The lower youth share and youth support for Sanders in Florida, compared to higher youth share and support for Sanders in Illinois, is partly responsible for Biden winning Illinois by 23 points but Florida by a whopping 39 points.


In Context: Voting in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona

As we have noted throughout the 2020 primaries, all states have different features and environments that shape youth participation, and we caution against drawing broad conclusions about youth voting and engagement from a single state or a small group of states. Illinois, Florida, and Arizona are three of the largest and most diverse states to vote since Super Tuesday, and they have a range of electoral laws and policies that can help or hinder youth participation. For example, Arizona has a much higher share of Latino and Native American youth than the nation as a whole: 38% vs. 20% and 5.5% vs. 1%, respectively. Though the state offers online voter registration, it has a strict non-photo ID requirement; it also held a closed primary in which only registered Democrats could vote.

Florida also held a closed primary. It likewise has higher proportions of young people of color than the nation as a whole: 27.% vs. 20% Latino youth, and 21.5% vs. 14% Black/African American youth. The state allows online voter registration and pre-registration for youth under 18, and teens can serve as poll workers on Election Day.

In Illinois, the racial/ethnic demographics of the youth population largely mirror those of the nation as a whole, though they differ greatly between communities within the state. Young people in Illinois are more likely to have college experience: 57% vs. 50% nationally. Teens can also be poll workers, and its state statutes include other policies and initiatives conducive to Growing Voters. Importantly, 17-year-olds in Illinois can vote in the primaries if they’ll be 18 by the general election. Since the VoteCast data we use for this analysis appears to have surveyed only youth over 18, it’s possible that it underestimated youth participation in Illinois.

Young Voters Still Backing Sanders

Coming into the March 17 contests, Senator Bernie Sanders had won a plurality of the youth vote (and often a majority) in all but one state (Mississippi) throughout the 2020 Democratic primaries. He did so again in Florida (53%), Illinois (68%) and Arizona, where we cannot yet report estimates but it’s clear Sanders won a strong majority of young voters. On the one hand, this is par for the course for Sanders, whose extraordinary support from young voters has perhaps the defining feature of both his 2016 and 2020 primary campaigns. And it’s worth noting that Sanders received less support among youth this year than in 2016, when he won 64% of the youth vote in Florida and a staggering 86% in Illinois.

That year there was a similar dynamic in terms of youth not coalescing behind Secretary Hillary Clinton even as she got closer to securing the nomination. The results from Florida and Illinois show that this year, even as the overall electorate has coalesced behind Joe Biden, he is still far behind among youth. Biden has struggled to attract young voters since the very first primaries, when he got single-digit youth support—albeit in a much more crowded field. While he has done better in recent primaries, especially in states with a high relative proportion of Black youth, the fact that the presumptive nominee is losing young voters by up to 40 points in states that he otherwise wins handily is one of the key issues to watch as many start to look forward to the general election.


Authors: Peter de Guzman, Abby Kiesa, Kristian Lundberg, Noorya Hayat, Rey Junco, Alberto Medina