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Early Takeaways on What Worked to Reach Youth During the 2020 Election

Campaign contact, digital outreach, young people engaging their peers, and action on racial justice all contributed to higher youth voter turnout.

Note: This analysis was updated on March 10 with revised data. The previous version understated the extent to which social media and digital platforms were a source of election information for youth during the 2020 election. We have updated our analysis and conclusions to reflect the accurate data.

Young people made their mark on the 2020 general election—and on the January 2021 runoffs in Georgia that decided control of the U.S. Senate. We estimate that voter turnout among youth (ages 18-29) rose by at least 5 and as many as 11 percentage points compared to 2016, and was likely one of the highest rates of youth electoral participation in decades. Young people supported President-elect Joe Biden over President Trump by a wide margin: 61% to 36%. Among youth of color, support for Biden was even stronger, and it proved decisive in highly contested battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona. Young Black voters backed Biden by an especially overwhelming margin (87% vs. 10% for Trump), and they supported both Democratic Senate candidates in Georgia by similar margins, helping lead them to victory.

The strong political participation and impact of young people in 2020 is especially remarkable given the context: an election held during a pandemic that upended their lives. In our pre-election poll conducted in the summer of 2020, we found that two-thirds of young people reported being moderately or severely economically impacted by the pandemic; nearly half of Black youth (who were not in school) said they were unemployed. In addition, there were questions about how the pandemic-imposed limitations on campaigning and voter outreach, as well as the rapidly changing election processes and widespread adoption of vote by mail, would affect young people’s participation.

Given that less than ideal environment for youth electoral engagement: how and why did 2020 end up being a banner year for youth voting? Our post-election poll of young people, which was a web survey fielded November 3 to December 2, 2020[1], sheds some light on that question. Among our top findings:

  • Despite the changes and challenges to political campaigning and voter outreach during a pandemic, young people were contacted at higher rates than in recent elections—especially by the Democratic Party, which reached nearly half of youth.
  • Youth didn’t just hear from campaigns: they heard from each other. Nearly two-thirds of youth (ages 18-24) talked to friends about politics, and almost half tried to convince their peers to vote.
  • In a year when COVID-19 forced much of American life to move online, digital outreach was prevalent, and platforms like Snapchat and TikTok were digital spaces where  the youngest eligible voters saw or heard information about the election. However, online or off, young people’s family and friends were still critical sources of information about the 2020 election.
  • Racial justice motivated civic and political action by youth. Almost half (45%) of young people said that they took concrete action for racial justice in 2020, and almost a third (29%) have participated in a march or demonstration.
  • Young people’s doubts about the future of American elections and democracy should be a major concern. A third of youth in our survey, including half of those who voted for President Trump, consider it at least somewhat likely that the U.S. will no longer hold free and fair elections.

Young People Heard from Campaigns and Talked to Each Other

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, campaigns and organizations found a way to reach young people. While the rates of outreach to youth in 2020 still leave much to be desired, they are much higher than in 2016, when 68% of youth were not contacted by any party or campaign in the month before Election Day. In our post-election survey, we asked youth to report whether they had been contacted by one of the presidential campaigns, a political party, a local youth organization, or a local community organization. Nearly half of young people (ages 18-29) said they were contacted by the Biden campaign or the Democratic Party, while 31% of youth were contacted by the Trump campaign or the Republican Party. Just over a quarter of youth (28%) said they were contacted by a local youth organization, and 37% by a local community organization—which highlights the crucial role these groups and institutions can play in youth electoral engagement.

These organizations may have played an especially critical role in engaging young people of color. Black and Latino youth were more likely to be contacted by local youth organizations: almost half (46%) of Black youth and almost one-third of Latino youth were contacted by a local youth organization in the month leading up to Election Day, compared to 28% among all youth. Local community organizations were also more likely to contact Black and Latino youth, reaching 49% and 41%, respectively, compared to 37% of all youth.

Remarkably, our survey also finds that young people ages 18-19 were contacted at slightly higher rates than youth overall in the month leading up to Election Day; that’s the opposite of what we found in our 2018 midterm election polling and bucks a longtime trend of less outreach to the newest potential voters. It may be that campaigns and local organizations pulled out all the stops to reach potential voters in an extremely close election, and that the shift in focus to mostly digital campaigning and outreach was especially effective in reaching young people in this age group.

Digital Outlets and “Old-School” Outreach Both Key

There is an increasingly broad number of ways in which youth can see and hear information about politics and elections. Depending on the source, the impact of this information on young people’s views and voting decisions can be considerable, and there are many opportunities and challenges for media, campaigns, and other election stakeholders to engage youth across a variety of platforms. We asked youth to tell us where they heard or saw information about the 2020 election. 

As we have found in previous surveys, the most common sources of election information among youth were the people closest to them. For instance, 69% of young people (ages 18-29)—including 75% of those ages 18-19— said they heard about the election from their family, and 61% of youth (ages 18-29) said they heard about the election from their friends.

By comparison, 43% of 18- to 29-year-olds said they saw election information on Facebook, 39% on Instagram, and 37% on Twitter. These social networks and digital platforms are an increasingly important source of information and political engagement opportunities for young people, and they took on even greater importance in a year when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a lot of electoral outreach onto the online sphere.

Our data also reveals some of the ways in which different age groups were more or less likely to see election information on different platforms. For example, the youngest eligible voters (ages 18-19) were less likely than their slightly older peers to see or hear information about the election on news websites (40% of youth aged 18-19 vs. 50% of youth aged 18-29) or in print (13% vs. 28%). They were more likely to see such information on social networks like Instagram (49% vs. 39% of youth aged 18-29) and, especially, Snapchat (44% vs. 23%) and TikTok (47% vs. 26%).

We know that campaigns and organizations stepped up their use of these platforms to reach youth during this election; crucially, these are also platforms young people use to create and share content with each other about politics and the issues they care about.

This kind of peer-to-peer outreach and electoral engagement is critical, both online and off. Our post-election survey asked youth if they have talked to friends about politics, whether they registered others to vote, and whether they tried to convince other young people to vote. On each measure, young people (ages 18-24) were more active than when we asked that same question after the 2018 midterms.

Young People Fought For Justice at the Ballot Box and Beyond

In our post-election survey, 81% of young people reported that they believed the outcomes of the 2020 election will make a significant impact on everyday issues in their community. For many young people, some of the most important issues are tied to racial and economic justice. A large majority of young people (81%) agreed or strongly agreed that it is important to correct social and economic inequalities. Even more (87%) youth agreed or strongly agreed that all groups should be given an equal chance in life. Nearly seven in ten young people said they felt an urgency to do something to combat racism, and 78% reported that it is important to confront someone who says something they think is racist or prejudiced. 

In 2020, these views toward equality and social justice translated into youth mobilization against racism and issues like police mistreatment of communities of color. Almost half (45%) of young people surveyed reported that they took concrete action for racial justice in 2020, and 57% of respondents said they have previously taken actions to try and reduce the unfair treatment of people of color in their school or community. 

One way young people expressed their views on social justice and racial equality in 2020 was in-person protest. Almost a third (29%) of young people, ages 18-29, said that they attended a march or demonstration about an issue that they care about, and an additional 31% said that they might do so in the future if given the opportunity. Younger people ages 18-24 were even more likely to protest in 2020: 31%. That’s much higher than after the previous presidential election: in our 2016 post-election poll, 10% of youth (ages 18-24) reported that they had attended a march or demonstration. 

Some Youth Have Doubts about the Fairness of American Elections

While young people were motivated to march and to vote, the unique circumstances surrounding the 2020 election and the repeated claims of fraud by some elected officials has left some young Americans uncertain about the security and accuracy of the 2020 election results. Nearly one in four (24%) young people (ages 18-29) surveyed reported that they did not believe the 2020 election process was fair and they will not trust the outcome. Among young people who voted for President Trump, roughly half (49%) disagreed with the statement “I believe the 2020 election process was fair and I will trust the outcomes.” That view was much rarer among young people who voted for President-elect Biden, but 13% of them still said they doubted the fairness of the election. There were no significant differences on this question between voters ages 18-21 and those 18-29, which suggests that these concerns were equally prevalent among youth who were newly eligible voters and those who may have participated in previous elections.

Perhaps more troublingly, these concerns aren’t just about 2020, but about the future of American democracy. Young people, especially young voters who supported President Trump, viewed the 2020 presidential election as a potential factor diminishing the United States’ ability to hold legitimate elections in the future. One in three young people, including 50% of youth who voted for President Trump stated that it would be somewhat or very likely that the U.S. will no longer be able to hold free and fair elections as a result of the 2020 Presidential election. Moving forward, it will be crucial to address this lack of confidence in American elections, which has the potential to lacerate young people’s desire to participate in democracy.

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.

Authors: Rey Junco, Peter de Guzman, Kristian Lundberg, Abby Kiesa, Alberto Medina