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Half of Young Voters Back Sanders, Propel Him to New Hampshire Victory

Our exclusive analysis finds that 19% of youth voted in the New Hampshire Democratic primary and that their choices shaped the results.

As they did a week before in Iowa, young people had a decisive influence on the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic primary. We estimate that 19% of all eligible young people voted in the Democratic primary, and according to exit poll data youth made up 14% of the primary electorate.[1] As in Iowa, about half (51%) of young voters supported Senator Bernie Sanders; youth were undeniably the driving force behind his close victory. But young voters were also important to former Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s strong showing, where for the second state in a row he was the second choice among youth and the overall results were extremely close.

Some key findings and notes:

  • Our 19% turnout estimate includes only participation in the Democratic primary. While a mosty uncontested Republican primary was held and an exit poll conducted, limited data about young participants is available, though the exit poll reports a 10% youth share of Republican primary voters in the largely symbolic contest. As a result, the following analysis is primarily about youth participation in the Democratic primary.
  • Youth turnout in the Democratic primary (estimated at 19%) is best compared to the last two years where there was an incumbent president and only one party’s nominating contest was competitive: 2012 (15% turnout in the Republican primary) and, especially, 2004 (18% turnout in the Democratic primary).
  • In a crowded field with half a dozen major candidates, a remarkable 51% of youth support went to Sanders, a decisive 31-point advantage over young people’s second choice, Buttigieg (20%). That means Sanders received over 10,000 more votes from young people than Buttigieg in a race that was decided by less than 5,000 votes.

In Context: Youth Engagement in New Hampshire

As the first state to hold a primary (as opposed to Iowa’s caucus), New Hampshire carries a lot of weight during election cycles. That may have been doubly true this year after the chaotic results from Iowa left many looking to New Hampshire for a clear victor and narrative. However, when drawing conclusions about youth participation and vote choice it’s important to remember that no single state represents the views, preferences, and experiences of all youth across the country. Like Iowa, New Hampshire, is far from racially/ethnically representative of the country: 89% of young people in New Hampshire are white, compared to 57% nationally.

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 New Hampshire’s case, there is the added element of it being an open primary in which unaffiliated voters 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, over the past several months, some expressed concern over a state policy related to college students in New Hampshire and state residency, which could be confusing to youth who were unfamiliar with the registration and voting process. In previous election cycles we have seen young people assume they were ineligible to vote when they in fact were not. Additionally, the New Hampshire primaries allow those not registered with a party to participate, which is especially relevant in a state with many independents and among young people generally, since some youth tend to be less committed to political parties.

Young Voters Hand Bernie Sanders Close Victory

The results of the New Hampshire primary stand out as a clear example of how, when campaigns reach out to them, young people can decide elections. Much like in 2016, when Sanders rode an overwhelming wave of youth support (83%) to victory in the state, in 2020 we estimate that he would not have won without young voters. For the second straight contest (48% in Iowa, 51% in New Hampshire) close to half of youth supported Sanders. Given that the New Hampshire primary was decided by less than 2 percent of votes cast, and that Buttigieg beat Sanders handily (26% to 17%) among voters aged 45+, if young people’s votes had been even slightly more evenly distributed it would have likely shifted the results.

For the second state in a row, Sanders and Buttigieg finished first and second among youth and in the overall results. Also for the second state in a row, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Amy Klobuchar struggled with youth: neither has cracked 5% youth support in Iowa or New Hampshire. It remains to be seen whether these trends will continue as the primaries now shift to more diverse states in Nevada, South Carolina, and beyond. Notably, the third-highest vote-getter among youth in New Hampshire (and fourth in Iowa, beating both Biden and Klobuchar) was entrepreneur Andrew Yang with 7%. Yang dropped out of the race immediately after New Hampshire, and it will be interesting to see if youth who would have voted for him in upcoming states still participate and who they will now support.

In the 2016 primaries, Sanders saw reduced support from young people in South Carolina (where Clinton saw more support from young Black voters) as compared to Iowa and New Hampshire. In the 2016 Nevada caucuses, Sanders saw similar remarkable support from young people.

Youth Turnout Exceeds Previous Years with Just One Competitive Nominating Contest

At the time of this writing, with 96% of precincts reporting, the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic primary saw more votes cast than in 2016 and 2008, the previous high watermarks for Democratic primary participation in the state. We estimate that 19% of youth participated in 2020, which includes only young Democratic primary voters, and is best compared to previous years in which only one party had competitive primaries. In 2012 (Republican) and 2004 (Democratic), we estimated that youth turnout was 15% and 18%, respectively. For context, the last two times both parties held competitive caucuses, youth turnout was higher: 43% in 2016 and in 2008. You can read more about our turnout estimates here.

According to the exit poll, young people made up 14% of Democratic primary voters. That’s similar to the most recent cycle in which only one party had a competitive nominating contest (12% in the 2012 Republican primary) and it matched the youth share from 2004, the last time only Democrats had a competitive nominating contest.

Additionally, while previous non-competitive primaries have not had an exit poll, the New Hampshire Republican primary did. The Edison Research exit poll estimates that youth made up 10% of the voters in this mostly symbolic contest. While it is not an apt comparison to previous years in which both parties’ primaries were competitive, if we calculated youth turnout estimate to include both 2020 primaries, our estimate would be that 25% of youth in New Hampshire participated.

[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 New Hampshire, and CIRCLE estimates of youth voter turnout are based on vote tallies as reported by the New York Times and National Public Radio (at 96% of precincts reporting), Census population data, and the estimate of youth share of voters.

Authors: Rey Junco, Abby Kiesa, Kristian Lundberg, Alberto Medina