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Youth Make Up 1 in 9 South Carolina Voters

8% of youth voted in South Carolina, and Joe Biden comfortably won the state’s primary despite Bernie Sanders winning the youth vote by a large margin.

In the most populous state to vote so far this primary cycle, young people made up a slightly lower share of voters compared to previous 2020 contests. Former Vice President Joe Biden won a commanding victory despite losing young voters, who continued to favor Senator Bernie Sanders, though to a lesser extent than in previous states. According to exit polls, 11% of all voters in the state’s Democratic primary were young people (ages 17-29) and we estimate that 8% of all eligible youth cast a ballot.[1] Sanders received the highest support from youth overall (43%), followed by Biden (26%), though the gap was much smaller among Black youth in the state. South Carolina was the first state this primary season where a candidate other than Sanders received more than a quarter of young people’s votes.

Some findings and notes:

  • There was no 2020 Republican primary in South Carolina, so all data reflects only participation in the Democratic primary.
  • Our 8% youth turnout estimate for South Carolina represents an increase over the most recent directly comparable year, 2004 (the last time there was only a Democratic primary in the state) when youth turnout was 4%.
  • The 11% youth share of voters was also higher than in 2004 but lower than in the 2008 and 2016 South Carolina Democratic primaries, when it was 14% and 15%, respectively. In those years both parties had competitive primaries, which we believe shapes the  environment in which young people are exposed to information and messages about participation.
  • Bernie Sanders won a plurality of the youth vote for the fourth state in a row, but by his slimmest margin yet. There were big youth vote choice differences by race: Sanders won 52% of young White voters but just 38% of young Black voters. Biden, on the other hand, won just 10% of young White voters, but 36% of young Black voters.

In Context: Youth Voting and Engagement in South Carolina

South Carolina was the first Southern state to vote in the 2020 primaries, and the first state with a significant proportion of Black voters, who are a key constituency in the Democratic primary. In fact, Black voters made up more than half (56%) of the electorate in this year’s primary. And, unlike previous primary states so far this year, South Carolina has a very large Black youth population which makes up 33% of all young citizens in the state—more than double the proportion of Black youth nationally. When it comes to educational experience, South Carolina youth generally look like the rest of the nation.

It’s also crucial to keep in mind that it’s often the most engaged and/or partisan voters who participate in presidential primaries. In South Carolina’s case, there is the added element of it being an open primary in which anyone registered to vote in the state could participate. 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.

For example, South Carolina allows 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election to cast ballots. On the other hand, the state requires formal identification to cast a ballot and allows voters to cast a provisional ballot if they do not have such photo identification. Photo ID laws can be confusing to young people, who can assume they are more strict than they actually are. Our analysis has found that strict photo ID laws can negatively impact youth turnout, especially among youth without college experience

Black Youth Split Between Sanders and Biden

As he did in every previous state this primary season, Bernie Sanders had the highest support from youth in South Carolina, 43%, followed by Biden at 26%, with former Mayor Buttigieg and Senator Warren each at 11%. It was Sanders’ worst performance with young people after (according to entrance/exit poll estimates) he won about half their votes in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and a remarkable two-thirds of youth votes in Nevada. Meanwhile, Biden’s performance with youth in South Carolina marked the first time this race that any candidate other than Sanders got more than a quarter of young people’s votes.

The difference in South Carolina was Black support for Biden. While Sanders won more than half (52%) of White voters under age 30, compared to just 10% for Biden, among Black youth they were nearly evenly split: 38% Sanders, 36% Biden. And Black youth made up a slightly larger share of the electorate than White youth: an estimated 6% vs. 4%.

It is notable that Sanders received a plurality of support from Black youth in South Carolina even as Biden dominated Sanders among Black voters of all ages: 61% to 17%. This marks a change from the 2016 South Carolina primary, when Secretary Clinton received more support from Black youth than Sanders. At the same time, it is also notable that Biden, who had received single-digit support from young voters in the first three states, got a quarter of the youth vote in South Carolina on the strength of his support from Black youth.

Youth Turnout Doubles from Last Year With Only Democratic Primary

We estimate that 8% of all eligible young people, ages 17-29, participated in South Carolina. That youth turnout rate is double what we estimated in 2004, the last year that only the Democratic Primary held a primary. It matches the youth turnout rate from 2012, when only Republicans held a nominating contest. You can read more about our turnout estimates here.

The estimated youth share of voters, 11%, is slightly lower than in the past two Democratic primaries (2008 and 2016) but higher than in 2004.


[1] This analysis is based on data available immediately following the election which may be updated or adjusted in the days ahead. The estimates of youth share of voters and youth vote choice in this post are from Edison Research exit polls in South Carolina, and CIRCLE estimates of youth voter turnout are based on vote tallies as reported by the New York Times and CNN (at 100% of precincts reporting), Census population data, and the estimate of youth share of voters.

Authors: Noorya Hayat, Abby Kiesa, Rey Junco, Alberto Medina