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23% of Youth Vote in Alabama, Propel Doug Jones to Victory

Young voters turned out, and their decisive preference for the Democratic candidate may have helped swing a close election.

Young people made their voices heard in yesterday’s Senate special election in Alabama with an estimated turnout rate of 23% and a decisive preference for Democratic candidate Doug Jones, contributing to Jones’ win over Roy Moore in a close election with a margin of victory of 21,000 votes.

In a closely watched race with significant repercussions for control of the U.S. Senate after next year’s midterms—and one that became part of the national conversation about sexual misconduct given allegations against the Republican candidate—young Alabama voters supported Jones over Moore 60% to 38%, according to the Edison Research exit poll.1  Twenty-three percent of young Alabamians (ages 18-29) cast ballots in the special election.2 This turnout estimate is based on CIRCLE analysis of exit polls conducted in Alabama and population estimates, and translates to approximately 175,000 youth votes in the state.

It is important to note that there are several sources of vote share information, which CIRCLE has compared for previous elections, and often finds exit polls to slightly overestimate the proportion of voters who are young in presidential elections. The other source for a special election that provides age data is not yet available.

Strong Youth Turnout Contributed to Jones’ Upset Victory

Because Senate special elections are rare, it is difficult to compare and assess yesterday’s youth turnout. This was, however, a unique special election that garnered months of intense national press coverage. The race was also much more competitive than usual for a “safe” state like Alabama; our research has previously shown that competitiveness can result in more young people going to the polls as it often results in more media coverage, more campaign outreach, more conversation about the race, and other factors that can lead to youth casting a ballot.

Doug Jones’ close election victory over Roy Moore by 50% to 48% reflected a drastic difference in support from voters of different age groups, with Moore dominating among voters 45 and up, and Jones preferred by voters aged 18-29 and 30-44, who tipped the scales in his favor. This follows a recent electoral trend of young people from both parties supporting candidates than older voters at the polls, whether in local, state, or national elections. While in a different context, in the 2016 presidential election, under-30 voters in some key states like Florida and Texas supported the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, while voters in the 45+ age groups backed President Trump.

It is also possible that, compared to older groups, Moore did not garner overwhelming support even among youth who identify as conservative or Republican. Our previous analyses have shown that some Republican-leaning youth break with older voters on same-sex marriage and other social issues that were central to Moore’s campaign in Alabama. In addition, CIRCLE analysis of the Pew Research Center’s Political Typology dataset finds that only 5% of young people who lean toward or belong to the Republican party are “Steadfast Conservatives” (compared to 25% of Republicans or Republican-leaners aged 30+) while 31% are “Young Outsiders” who may feel less committed to the party and its candidates.

Young People in Alabama

Alabama’s youth demographics may have also played a role in young people’s turnout and vote choice in yesterday’s election. Young people make up 21% of the electorate in Alabama, resulting in 746,000 young citizens eligible to vote aged 18 to 29-years old. More than a third of the state’s young people are Black, and African-American youth tend to vote at high rates. Black voters of all ages went overwhelmingly for Jones (96%) in yesterday’s race. In addition, more than 30% of Alabamians under age 30 are or have been married—compared to just 20% nationally—which also correlates with higher turnout. On the other hand, Alabama youth are slightly less likely than the national average to have any college experience (40% vs 46%), which usually correlates with lower turnout.

Historically, youth voter turnout in Alabama has been slightly below average in presidential elections and has been on the decline in midterm elections. As a result of Alabama’s usually “safe” political status in federal elections, there are rarely exit polls conducted there.3 However, the 2012 exit poll data present a snapshot of young voters in that election.

Young Alabamians in 2012 tended to vote differently from older voters and were much more likely to support the Democratic candidate, but not to the extent seen in this election. Forty-seven percent of 18 to 29-year-olds in Alabama voted for President Obama and 51% for Governor Romney. Alabama youth were also split in the 2008 election, when 50% supported then-Senator Obama and 49% Senator McCain. However, as with youth nationally, there was a significant difference between White youth and Black youth, as 84% of White youth in Alabama supported McCain while 96% of young Black Alabamians supported Obama.

In 2012, 40% percent of each of these two age groups (18-29 and 30-44) identified as moderate politically, with 20% identifying liberal and almost 40% as conservative; compared to more than half of voters over age 45 who identify as conservative. Compared to the national youth electorate that year, Alabama youth were 10 percentage points less liberal, and almost 15 points more conservative.

What to Take Away?

It is difficult to draw definitive conclusions from a single unique and competitive special election that received considerable national attention and investment. That said, combined with other recent results—18% of youth (ages 18-29) in New Jersey and 35% of youth in Virginia cast ballots for governor and other statewide offices in an off-year election—it may be an early indicator of young people’s political engagement or political outreach to youth after the contentious 2016 presidential race and ahead of the 2018 midterms. In all three races, young people strongly preferred the Democratic statewide candidates, which could represent mobilization and efforts of Democratic actors and aligned groups.

Youth turnout in any election is highly related to outreach, and this is especially the case in midterm and off-year elections. Looking ahead to the 2018 midterms, if races are competitive and if there is media coverage that contributes to an environment of electoral engagement that in turn leads to on-the-ground outreach and action, we may continue to see young people making their mark in elections across the country.

[1] Candidate support among youth can differ greatly by demographic subgroups, as has been seen previously in Alabama, but that data is not public at this point for age by race, age by education, etc.

[2] The estimated percent of young people who voted in the governor’s’ races were calculated using: (1) the number of ballots cast in each race according to the media, (2) the youth share of those who voted, based on the exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research for the National Election Pool, (3) the estimated number of 18-29 year old citizens taken from the Census Current Population Survey, March Demographic File.  Edison Research estimates that its exit polls have a margin of error rate of plus or minus 4 percentage points and more for sub-groups.

[3] There was no exit poll in Alabama during the General Election of 2016 and there is no way to estimate how young Alabamians voted in 2016.