Young Republicans, Young Trump Voters, and the Future of the GOP
Young people played an influential role in the 2020 election. Youth voter turnout rose significantly compared to 2016, and young voters’ strong preference for President Biden (61% vs. 37% for former President Trump) was key to his electoral victory. That said, nationally nearly four in 10 young people (ages 18-29) voted for Trump, and the former President won the youth vote in seven states. Contrary to some enduring myths about young people’s political leanings, many youth are conservative and/or support the Republican Party. At a time when the GOP is at a crossroads, our research highlights some of the views, actions, and preferences of young Republicans and Trump supporters, and what it may mean for the future of conservative politics in the United States.
Vote Choice and Views of President Trump
According to our analysis of November 2020’s AP VoteCast by the Associated Press, almost a third (31%) of young voters who cast a ballot in the 2020 election self-identified as a Republican. The vast majority of those young Republicans (92%) voted for former President Trump, while 7% voted for Biden and 2% for another candidate. (This was the same as among Republican voters ages 65+, which somewhat belies the notion that young Republicans were less likely to support Trump.) Nearly all youth (95%) who identified as a “conservative Republican” voted for Trump, as did four out of five young youth who identified as “moderate” or “liberal” Republicans.
Though most young Republicans ended up voting for Trump, some were undecided about supporting him or did so despite having reservations about him. According to the AP VoteCast Survey data, only 65% of youth who supported Trump said they had “known all along” who they would vote for—compared to 71% of youth who voted for Biden. In our 2020 pre-election poll, we found that even some young people who intended to support Trump had an unfavorable view of him, which may partially explain that they were still making up their mind throughout the campaign.
Who Are Young Republican Voters? Demographics and Identity
While men (and, particularly, white men) are often considered the backbone of the Republican base, the gender makeup of 2020 voters who identified as Republican was fairly even, and that also held true for Republican youth. On the other hand, there’s a gender gap in the Democratic Party: 58% of young 2020 voters who identified as Democrats are women, and women were even more overrepresented among older Democrats—ages 45-64: 60%, and ages 65+: 64%.
There was a much larger difference by race/ethnicity: 82% of young voters who voted in 2020 and self-identified as Republicans are white; 10% Latino, and 4% Black. By comparison, only about half (54%) of young Democrats who voted in 2020 self-identified as white, 19% Latino, and 19% Black. While young Republicans’ diversity pales in comparison to that of young Democrats, they are slightly more diverse than Republicans over 45 years old, 90% of whom are white.
Beyond race and gender, there are other major differences between young Republicans and young Democrats who voted in 2020. A sizable majority (83%) of young Republicans say they are affiliated with a religion, slightly less than older Republicans (94%) but far more than young Democrats (57%). More than a third (36%) identified as evangelical or born-again Christians, compared to just 15% of young Democrats who cast ballots.
Young Republicans who voted in 2020 were also slightly more likely than young Democrats to have no college experience. A plurality (41%) of young 2020 voters who say they’re Republicans had a high school degree or less, and 34% had some college experience or an associate degree. By contrast, 34% of young Democrats had a high school degree or less. Of course, these numbers include “college-aged” young people who may currently be in school and working toward a degree. Young white men without any college experience were the most likely to support Trump of any race/gender/education group: 57% supported Trump in November.
In terms of their ideology, fewer young Republican voters identified as conservative than older Republicans. Among youth who said they’re Republicans, 65% identified as conservative, 26% as moderate, and 9% as liberal. In comparison, among older Republican voters (age 65+), 81% identified as conservative, 17% identified as moderate, and only 2% said they were liberal. Interestingly, when comparing youth who identified as Republicans to young people who voted for President Trump (though these groups mostly overlap), young Republicans are slightly less likely to identify as moderates (26%) than youth who voted for Trump (31%).
Young Republicans’ Positions on Issues and Views of the Country
The 2020 election cycle was shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, and many conservative youth were financially impacted. However, young 2020 voters who identified as Republicans were more optimistic about their family’s financial situation than young Democrats. According to the AP VoteCast survey, almost one in five young Republicans (17%) said they felt like they’re getting ahead, while 16% thought they were falling behind, compared to 10% and 25%, respectively, of young Democrats.
In fact, young people who voted for President Trump in 2020 were less likely to cite the COVID-19 pandemic as a major issue. For 42% of young Biden voters, the coronavirus pandemic was the top issue facing the country, followed by racism (21%) and climate change (12%). Among young voters who supported Trump, the top issues were the economy and jobs (41%), the coronavirus pandemic (21%), and abortion (9%). In November 2020, most young Trump voters thought that the pandemic was at least partially under control—only 12% said it was “not at all” under control.
In addition, young people overall who lost a job or income in 2020 favored Biden by a 33-point margin (64% to 33%), while those whose employment has not been impacted favored Biden by 19 points (58% to 38%). Support for Biden was even higher among the share of young voters who know someone who has died of COVID-19.
Another key issue in 2020, and one that has major implications for American politics going forward, was trust in the electoral process. Overall, according to AP VoteCast data, 31% of young people who voted said they were not too confident or not confident at all that votes would be counted accurately. That distrust was predictably higher among youth who voted for Trump: according to our post-election survey fielded in November/December of 2020, 50% of young Trump voters and 32% of young Biden voters said it was “somewhat” or “very” likely that the U.S. would no longer hold “free and fair elections.”
On other issues young people who voted for Trump in 2020 predictably differed from youth who voted for Biden, but they also differed somewhat from older Trump voters. For example, 60% of young people who voted for Trump said racism was a somewhat or very serious issue in the United States, much lower than the 95% of young Biden voters who said the same, but higher than the 52% of Trump voters ages 45+. Same with climate change: 52% of youth who voted for Trump said they were somewhat or very concerned about climate change and 56% strongly or somewhat favored investing in green energy, compared to 45% and 38%, respectively, of older Trump voters.
One issue where that age difference did not manifest was abortion; in fact, a slightly higher percentage of youth who voted for Trump (68% vs. 65%) said they believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Some reporting has suggested that many young Republicans, despite some disagreements with their Party or distaste for President Trump, supported him because of their position on abortion. For more on the views and issue positions of young Trump voters, see our election-week analysis here.
Is the GOP Talking to Young Voters?
There are tens of millions of young conservatives and young Republicans in the United States who will shape the Republican Party and American politics for decades to come. Understanding who they are and what they believe, including how they differ from both their more liberal peers and from older conservative voters, will be key to understanding the future of the Republican Party.
Of course, one key aspect to understanding young voters is speaking to them, and our research suggests that the Republican Party is lagging behind when it comes to youth outreach. In our pre-election youth survey, conducted in May-June 2020, we found that 44% of young people said they had been contacted by the Democratic Party, compared to just 25% by the Republican Party. Likewise, young people who said they planned to vote for Joe Biden were more likely to have been contacted about the election by someone than youth who said they supported Trump: 49% vs. 38%. That gap did not appear to close during the campaign: our post-election youth poll, conducted in November-December 2020, found that 48% of young people had heard from the Biden campaign or the Democratic Party in the month before Election Day, while only 31% of young people had heard from the Trump campaign or the Republican Party.
There were also differences by party identification in some of the places and sources from which young people saw or heard information about the 2020 election. While, overall, youth who identify as Democrats were more likely to get election information across nearly every source and platform, some of the largest differences were on social media and digital platforms.
More than half of young Democrats (54%) said they saw content about the 2020 election on YouTube, compared to 37% of Republicans—a 17 point difference. There was also a 17-point difference on Facebook (45% for young Democrats, 28% for young Republicans) and an even larger 20-point difference on Twitter and Instagram. The partisan gap on these platforms may suggest that the Republican Party is lagging in its digital outreach efforts at a time when social media is becoming an increasingly powerful and effective tool for young people to participate in politics and elections.
Continuing to expand and broader the youth electorate will require organizations and other stakeholders to talk to and create opportunities for youth of all political affiliations and ideological persuasions.