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Youth Decide Who to Vote For Later, Underscoring Openness to Outreach

Data shows that, in recent presidential elections, young people made up their minds about who to vote for later than older voters.

Young people have been civically engaged at high rates in 2020, both in the election and in some of the activism and efforts for social change that have taken center stage this year. These are promising signs that point to the potential for high youth turnout in the upcoming election. Our research has found higher youth voter registration in many states this year than in 2016, and more than 3 million young people have already cast ballots. That said, as we have frequently highlighted, youth need help navigating every stage of the election cycle, especially this year, and our analysis of exit polls from recent presidential elections show that young people are more likely to be weighing their options in the last weeks and days before the election—and may therefore be open to outreach from parties and campaigns.

The most recent presidential elections have shown that young voters are more likely than those in other age groups to decide who to vote for in the days and weeks leading up to the election. CIRCLE analysis of the 2016 National Election Pool national exit poll shows that more than a third (35%) of young voters, ages 18-29, decided who would get their presidential vote in October or later—compared to 26% of voters ages 30-59 and 19% of voters ages 60+. Only about half of young voters (51%) said they decided before September, compared to 60% and 65%, respectively, of voters in the other age groups.


Data from other recent presidential elections backs up these levels of later decision-making. In 2012, nearly one in five (18%) young people decided who to vote for “just today” or “in the last few days”, the highest of any age group. And in 2008, 14% decided in the week before the election or later.

Young people’s propensity to wait longer to decide their vote may highlight a few different dynamics. For one, as our data has shown, youth are less likely to strongly identify with a political party, which could make them less likely to simply decide in advance to vote for the candidate representing a party they traditionally support. Young voters also care deeply about issues and are looking for candidates who have a vision for the future that matches their own. They may be taking their time to learn about candidates’ plans and positions.

Mostly, these numbers may signal a perennial and pervasive problem: the relative lack of electoral outreach to young people. In our 2020 pre-election poll conducted this summer, we found that less than half of youth (47%) said they had been contacted by a political party, campaign, or organization advocating for a candidate so far this year. When we polled young people in 2016, even later in the election cycle, only about a third of youth had been contacted. This outreach is critical, not just in encouraging young people to vote for a particular candidate—but in motivating them to participate in the election no matter whom they support. It is one of the reasons we historically see lower voter turnout among young people, and millions of “undermobilized” youth who register but do not cast a ballot.

The fact that a sizable percentage of young people are deciding who to vote for in the last days and weeks before the election means that it is not too late for campaigns and other organizations to reach them and that some may be persuadable. Their votes could be the difference in races across the country, and their participation is crucial for our democracy.


Authors: Bennett Fleming Wood, Alberto Medina, Abby Kiesa