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The 2020 Election Is Over, But Young People Believe in Continued Engagement

Youth electoral participation in 2020 was high and could be even higher if we support young people, who have varied priorities for the new administration.

Young people made their mark on the 2020 presidential election with a likely historic level of youth voter turnout and impact on key races that helped decide the outcome. According to an exclusive new post-election survey from CIRCLE, far from being satisfied with the election results and content with having done their part, the new data being released today reveals that young people remain interested in engaging in civic life and are poised to continue pushing for political and social change.

Our major findings include:

  • More than three quarters of young people believe that they have the power and responsibility to change the country and that this work goes beyond elections.
  • Youth who voted for President-elect Joe Biden are more engaged and more confident in their civic power than those who supported President Trump
  • Young people participated in 2020: about 1 in 4 donated to a campaign (24%) or registered others to vote (23%), close to half (45%) tried to convince their peers to vote, and two thirds spoke with friends about the election and politics
  • Racial justice motivated many young people to engage and vote: 68% said they saw voting as a way to stop violence against people of color, 56% talked to peers about how racism affects society, and 57% say they took action for racial justice in their communities.
  • Young people who voted for Biden want his administration to prioritize the COVID-19 vaccination (80%), combating violence against people of color (82%), and leading the transition to renewable energy (78%). Youth who supported Trump are more focused on restoring law and order (72%) and enforcing immigration laws (59%). Both want a focus on creating jobs, cutting middle-class taxes, and uniting Americans.

About the Poll: The CIRCLE/Tisch College Post-Election Poll was a web survey fielded from November 3 to December 2, 2020 By Gallup, Inc. The survey covered adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who were eligible to vote in the United Stated in the 2020 General Election. Sample was drawn from the Gallup Panel, a probability-based panel that is representative of the U.S. adult population, and from the Dynata Panel, a non-probability panel. A total of 2,645 eligible adults completed the survey. Of the total completes, 1,138 were from the Gallup Panel and 1,507 were from the Dynata Panel. Unless stated otherwise, for the sake of this analysis, ‘youth’ refers to those ages 18- to 29-years old. The margin of sampling error, taking into account the design effect from weighting, is ± 3.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Margins of error for racial and ethnic subgroups range from +/-7.6 to 9.4 percentage points.

Youth Political Power and Engagement in Elections and Beyond

Overwhelming majorities of youth, ages 18-29, say they believe in their power to change the country (84%) and they recognize that work to improve communities goes beyond elections and voting (84%). Three in four youth believe that “people like them” should participate in the political decisions that shape the country (76%) and, in fact, that they have the responsibility to do so (80%). Our polling also reveals that youth engaged in—and remain interested in pursuing—a number of actions and strategies to achieve change, ranging from electoral participation to protests and issue-based advocacy.

These levels of political interest and efficacy are high, but they are far from uniform, with young people who voted for President Trump in 2020 less convinced about their generation’s ability and responsibility to engage in civic life. For example, about three-quarters of young Trump voters say people like them should participate in political decision-making (75%), that they have a responsibility to do so (73%) or that as a group youth have the power to change things (76%). By contrast, close to 90% of youth who voted for President-elect Biden answered those questions affirmatively. This follows a trend from 2016; that year, our pre-election polling also found that youth who voted for Trump were less interested or confident in the power of civic engagement, but also perceived less access to traditional civic institutions. Further analysis is needed to understand the complex question of whether and how these levels of trust in institutions, and of their perceived role within them, could translate into some young Trump supporters’ participation in events like the assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Young people played a major role in the 2020 election; our early estimate of youth turnout suggests that 52%-55% of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds cast ballots—much higher than in 2016 and likely one of the highest youth participation rates in decades. But even before the election, our pre-election polling revealed that a substantial number of young people were making their voices heard and acting on issues they care about; whether registering their peers to vote or marching for racial justice. Our post-election data suggests that work continued and likely even intensified throughout 2020.

We find that two-thirds of young people have talked to friends about political issues or elections, 45% have tried to convince other youth to vote, and 23% have actually worked to register others to vote. For many youth, their civic and political action has been motivated by concerns about racial issues: 56% say they have talked to friends, family, or coworkers about how racism affects our society; 45% report taking concrete action for racial justice in 2020. Though young supporters of both major presidential candidates reported strong levels of participation, as with measures of political interest and efficacy, engagement was higher among young Biden voters. For example, 76% of youth who voted for Biden have talked to friends about political issues or elections and 55% have tried to convince their peers to vote, compared to 61% and 45%, respectively, of youth who supported Trump. In one area, there was a major difference: 66% of young Biden voters said they had talked to others about racism, compared to just 34% of Trump voters.

Importantly, engagement among youth could be even higher if opportunities were more visible, accessible, and meaningful. There are also many young people who are interested in participating in civic life but have not found the right opportunity. On many indicators of electoral engagement that we asked about, in addition to the young people who said they had done it, a substantial percentage of youth said they might do in the future if they see an opportunity. That includes registering peers to vote (38% said they might if they see an opportunity), volunteering for a political campaign (35%), donating money to a campaign (29%), and participating in a march or demonstration (31%).

It’s clear that young people remain interested in engaging and working on issues that they care about; elected officials, advocacy groups, and political parties should take note and not wait for 2022 to reach youth. 

Youth Motivated to Continue Activism on Racial Justice

Activism related to racism and police brutality appeared to motivate many young people to make their voices heard at the polls and advocate for change in the streets. Indeed, the youth-led activism of Black Lives Matter and others organizing for racial justice were one of the defining elements of the 2020 election cycle. According to our post-election survey, 7 in 10 young people say they feel the urgency to do something to fight racism. And while nearly two-thirds of youth (64%) of youth report feeling “overwhelmed or paralyzed” by how much racism impacts society, that has not deterred them: 57% say they have taken action in their schools or communities to “reduce the unfair treatment of people of color.”

Both our pre-election polling and election-week analyses suggested that racial justice issues were one of the main factors driving youth to the polls and shaping their vote choice, especially among youth of color and Black youth in particular. Our post-election poll confirms that young people saw the election as a lever for change: 68% of youth said that “voting and elections play a role in stopping violence against people of color.” Young people also expressed a desire for the next president to focus on racial justice. Two-thirds of young people said that combating violence against people of color should be a somewhat or very high priority for the next presidential administration, though the gap was unsurprisingly wide between young supporters of Biden (78%) and Trump supporters (44%). Almost half of young Biden voters (46%) and 39% of young Trump voters believe that, in the next year, people will talk less about violence against Black people; and, if that occurred, 63% of Biden voters (compared to just 28% of Trump voters) would consider it a negative change.

There was also a predictable partisan split in ongoing trust in democracy: 50% of young Trump voters and 32% of young Biden voters saying it was “somewhat” or “very” likely that the U.S. would no longer hold “free and fair elections.” 

Young People Have Numerous and Diverse Priorities for Biden Administration 

While young people had a strong preference for Joe Biden, millions of youth voted for President Trump as well, and supporters of both candidates have very different ideas of what the next presidential administration should prioritize. For instance, 80% of young Biden voters said that making a vaccine for COVID-19 widely available was a “somewhat” or “very” high priority, compared to 59% of youth who supported Trump. Almost three quarters of Biden-voting youth (71%) said raising taxes for wealthy individuals and corporations should be a somewhat or very high priority, compared to just 30% of Trump-voting youth. On the other hand, young Trump supporters were more likely than youth who voted for Biden to say that “reducing gun regulations” (19 percentage points more likely), “restoring law and order” (23 points more likely) and “enforcing immigration laws” (31 points more likely) should be somewhat or very high priorities.

On economic issues there were more similarities between young Trump and Biden voters—or at least potential for common ground. Even though, according to CIRCLE analysis of the AP VoteCast exit poll, young Trump supporters were more likely to name the economy as their top issue, in our new post-election survey there’s basic agreement on developing job training opportunities and creating jobs should be “somewhat” or “very” high priorities for President-elect Biden as well as reducing taxes for middle and low income Americans. Another key area of agreement is not related to policy: a majority of young supporters of both candidates said they believe the next President should prioritize “unifying American people with different backgrounds and experiences.”


Authors: Kristian Lundberg, Abby Kiesa, Alberto Medina