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Affected by COVID but Undermobilized in the Election: GOP Has Opportunity to Retain Conservative Youth

With past margins extremely close, a potentially influential percentage of previous Trump/GOP young voters have moved away from the President.

In 2016, approximately 9 million young people aged 18-29 voted for President Donald Trump. Though more youth (13 million) in the same age bracket voted for Sec. Hillary Clinton, the young people who backed Trump still constituted an estimated 14% of his total votes and helped the President prevail in key swing states. These results underscore that, while in recent elections young voters have favored Democratic candidates, young people in America are not monolithic Democratic Party voters across all states and communities. Conservative youth and Trump-supporting youth participate in elections and in civic life across wide swaths of the country; in several states in 2016, like Missouri and Iowa, Trump won higher shares of the youth vote.

According to CIRCLE’s pre-election survey, almost one in four young eligible voters are planning to support Donald Trump, trailing the 58% who plan to support Biden but still representing a substantial swath of the youth electorate. However, our survey reveals that young Trump supporters are feeling more disillusioned and less engaged in the 2020 election than Biden-supporting youth across a variety of metrics. Persuadable young voters who tentatively support the President present a crucial opportunity for both campaigns--either to siphon votes from Trump or to preserve a sizable portion of his base.

Among our findings:

  • Trump’s base of youth support is somewhat shaky. Almost one in five young GOP voters in 2018, and 8% of young Trump voters in 2016, are planning to support Biden. That’s significantly higher than the rate of past young Democratic voters in 2016 and 2018 who now plan to support Trump.
  • 63% of young Trump supporters have not been contacted by anyone about the 2020 elections, higher than Biden-supporting youth (51%). The difference has widened since 2016, when Trump and Clinton supporters were contacted at about the same rate. Since then, Democrats have increased their contact rates far more than the GOP has.
  • Three in five young Trump supporters report being moderately or seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are dissatisfied with the President’s response and are taking actions to help their communities, such as making masks and delivering food.

About the Poll: The first wave of the CIRCLE/Tisch College 2020 Youth Survey was fielded from May 20 to June 18, 2020. The survey covered adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who will be eligible to vote in the United Stated by the 2020 General Election. The 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 based panel. A total of 2,232 eligible adults completed the survey, which includes oversamples of 18- to 21-year-olds (N=671), Asian American youth (N=306), Black youth (N=473), Latino youth (N=559) and young Republicans (N=373). Of the total completed surveys, 1,019 were from the Gallup Panel and 1,238 were from the Dynata Panel. Unless stated otherwise, ‘youth’ refers to those aged 18-to 29 years old. The margin of error for the poll, taking into account the design effect associated with the Gallup Panel is +/- 4.1 percentage points. Margins of error for racial and ethnic subgroups range from +/-8.1 to 11.0 percentage points.

Some Young Trump Voters Less Firm in their Support and Less Involved in 2020

As in 2016, most young people feel less than thrilled with both major candidates for President: Biden and Trump are both underwater in approval ratings among all young people. Biden’s net favorability is -12 points, and Trump’s net favorability is even lower (-57 pts). But whereas Biden has managed to exceed Clinton’s level of support in CIRCLE’s 2016 pre-election survey (58%, compared to her 47% in 2016) Trump’s support has stayed consistent at about 24% in both years’ polls.

Young people’s disapproval of President Trump is widespread. Even among young people who favor Trump in this election, 69% disapprove of his performance. In fact, some prior Trump or GOP voters may be considering other options. Eight percent of youth who voted for the President in 2016 say they will vote for Biden in November, which is significantly higher than the percentage of Clinton 2016 voters who now say they’re supporting Trump. Even more strikingly, 18% of youth who voted for a Republican congressional candidate in the 2018 midterms are planning to vote for Biden, three times the percentage of Democratic-voting youth in the 2018 midterms who anticipate casting a vote for Trump this November. This disparity is noteworthy because, as other analyses suggest, “Trump defectors” could have an outsize impact in this November’s elections. Despite representing just a subset of Republican-leaning youth, young people whose votes swing from Trump to Biden could be pivotal in close races, particularly in districts in which young people are poised to decide the outcome.

Beyond the prospect of young voters switching sides, another troubling sign for the Trump campaign is that many young Trump supporters are paying less attention to the election. Even though most supporters of both candidates say they have paid “some” or “a lot” of attention, Trump supporters (70%) are less likely to have paid this much attention compared to young Biden supporters (80%). As past CIRCLE research has shown, young people paying attention to and engaging in elections is associated with a sense of political efficacy: the confidence that their voices matter and that they have the capacity to participate in political life. Young Trump supporters are about 10 percentage points less likely than young Biden-supporters to believe that youth have the power to change things in this country and that the outcomes of the election would significantly affect their communities.

One important pathway for fostering this sense of power is through youth media creation, which can elevate broader and more diverse youth voices and empower young people to make an impact, as we have found in an emerging area of CIRCLE research. While Trump-supporting youth are slightly less likely to create memes, videos, and GIFs about the election, young supporters of each candidate are about equally likely to submit political content to media outlets and share their experiences on social media to advocate for political issues. However, young Trump supporters are less likely to believe that doing so makes a difference or amplifies their voices.

A diminished sense of political efficacy can also translate into a decreased likelihood to participate in civic life. CIRCLE research based on our 2016 and 2018 polls found that young White men, who are overrepresented among young Trump supporters, were the least likely group across race/ethnicity and gender to participate in civic life through activism, and this trend seems to have emerged as well among Trump-supporting youth in our polling data. In our poll, we asked about a series of political actions that respondents could take, from election-related activities like donating money to a campaign, to more local civic activities like helping someone in need. Across all 9 actions we asked about, Trump youth had performed that activity less frequently and were less interested in performing that activity in the future. As our research from the 2018 midterms found, youth who took civic actions had higher rates of electoral participation—a relationship especially evident in youth-led activism within that year’s gun violence prevention movement.

Contact Matters: Young Trump Supporters Report Less Outreach from Peers and Campaigns

Another factor potentially contributing to Trump’s shakier youth support is that young Trump supporters are under-contacted compared to young Biden supporters, both by campaigns and by other young people. In fact, an important civic action that young people are uniquely positioned to take on is reaching out to other young people about elections. Young voters are particularly difficult to contact, as they move more frequently and have shorter vote histories compared to older Americans. Accordingly, friends and peers are often more effective at communicating important election information to young people than political apparatuses like parties and campaigns, which traditionally overlook low-income youth, rural youth, and first-time voters—whether because they’re seen as unlikely voters, they’re harder to reach, or both. By offering an onramp to engagement, peer-to-peer contact helps expand the electorate to include a more diverse array of young people; that may be especially true this year due to the uncertainty and inequities in access that are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our polling data show that Biden-supporting youth have more frequently taken on these actions: 74% say that they have talked to other young people about the election, and 54% have tried to convince their peers to vote. Trump supporters were much less willing to do either: just one-fifth had attempted to register others to vote, and 45% of Trump supporters said they wouldn’t even consider trying to register new voters. Trump supporters were also 16 percentage points less likely to have talked to peers about the election and 17 points less likely to encourage voting among peers. These differences in whether young people are engaging their peers have important political ramifications, as gaps in contact can militate against electoral participation and dampen turnout. Youth who received peer-to-peer outreach in past cycles were more likely to vote, but Trump-supporting youth are 8 percentage points more likely to say that other young people had not reached out to them about elections over the past year.

Other stakeholders in the world of electoral engagement, such as campaigns and parties, have key roles as providers of information and meaningful opportunities for young people to engage in civic life. Past CIRCLE research has found that young people who receive direct outreach about elections from these sources are likelier to head to the polls, especially if they’re contacted multiple times. However, 60% of young people ages 18-24 in our poll who support President Trump had not been contacted by a campaign or organization—a higher rate than Biden-supporting youth in the same age bracket, only half of whom had not been contacted.[1] Differences in party outreach appear to be the primary driver of this disparity: the Democratic Party has already reached 48% of potential Biden-supporting youth, whereas the Republican Party has contacted only 32% of young Trump supporters.

This difference in levels of outreach is a departure from the previous presidential election cycle. According to data from our 2016 pre-election poll, by October of that year 30% of Trump’s young supporters had been contacted by a campaign or organization—slightly above the 28% of Clinton supporters who reported being contacted. Yet in 2018 young Democratic voters surpassed young Republican voters in rates of contact by a margin of 11 percentage points, a gap that seems to persist this cycle between young Biden and young Trump supporters. While both parties have increased their outreach to young people overall since 2018, it’s clear that the Republican Party and the Trump campaign have even more work to do in this regard. By missing over half of its potential supporters, the GOP may be losing an opportunity to leverage the election as an entry point for young conservatives to access civic life and connect with the party.

Affected by the Crisis, Many Young Trump Supporters Active in Supporting their Communities During the Pandemic

Responses to COVID-19 from both party leaders and voters have differed dramatically along party lines. Compared to Democrats, Republican voters of all ages have felt more optimistic about the economic and public health impacts of the pandemic. Nevertheless, many young Trump supporters in our survey still feel deeply affected by this crisis and are taking a variety of measures to combat COVID-19. 

A substantial percentage of young Trump supporters disapprove of the President’s leadership during the pandemic. In our poll, we asked young respondents to rate Trump’s response to the pandemic from one to five, with one indicating the strongest disapproval and five the strongest approval, and 42% of young Trump supporters rated his response to COVID-19 as a 3 or lower. One plausible explanation for their displeasure with the President’s response is that many young Trump supporters are personally affected by lockdowns and job losses during this pandemic. Our poll found that 30% of young Trump supporters who are not in school are unemployed, higher than the reported rate of young Biden supporters in that position. Even though young Trump supporters are less likely than Biden supporters to report being severely affected by COVID-19—perhaps due to the fact that the pandemic has disproportionately harmed Black youth, who overwhelmingly support Biden—our polling data still reflect these economic harms. Three out of five Trump-supporting youth report being moderately or significantly impacted by COVID, and less than one in five Trump supporters say they are not affected at all. 

A majority of young Trump supporters are taking steps to prevent contracting and spreading COVID-19. Four in five Trump-supporting youth are maintaining social distance, two-thirds are wearing masks when in public spaces, and one-third of Trump supporters have made masks to protect others. More young Biden supporters took many of the COVID-related civic actions we asked about, but in other ways young Trump supporters were about as likely as Biden youth to volunteer as poll workers or deliver food for family and neighbors. This data indicates that many young Trump supporters are rising to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic to help their communities in times of need. These actions can help young people develop their civic identities and encourage many of them to translate their efforts into electoral engagement, if parties and campaigns meet them where they are.


Recent elections, especially in 2018, have demonstrated that the GOP and Trump’s reelection campaign are in deep political trouble with young Americans. As our poll highlights, there are signs of disaffection for Trump among his young potential voters—a group that is wavering in their support, more disengaged from civic life, and being ignored by even the party for which they plan to vote. Still, the actions of young Trump supporters during COVID reiterate that young people of all stripes will participate in their communities when they see the impacts on their own lives and have tangible avenues for action. These findings offer a roadmap for electoral engagement: parties, campaigns, and other stakeholders in the ecosystem of elections have a critical opportunity to reach out to prospective Trump voters to shape the outcome this November.

[1] To compare accurately across different years of CIRCLE pre-election surveys, we looked only at respondents between the ages of 18-24 in each survey. Nevertheless, rates of contact were consistent across different age ranges; 18- to 29-year-olds in the 2020 survey reported similar rates of contact as the 18-24 cohort.

Authors: Kristian Lundberg, Abby Kiesa, Rey Junco