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How Rural Youth Voted in the 2020 Presidential Election

Our research finds a big gap between the vote choice of young white voters and young voters of color in rural areas/small towns.

Age and race/ethnicity are two of the biggest divides in American partisan politics, with pluralities of young people and people of color, on average, supporting Democrats nationally, while older voters and white Americans are much more likely to support Republicans. While these differ by state, our initial analysis of youth voting in the 2020 election highlighted those gaps in vote choice nationally: 61% of young people (ages 18-29) supported President Biden, compared to 48% of voters ages 45+. Among youth, 87% of Black voters, 83% of Asians, and 73% of Latinos voted for Biden, compared to 52% of White youth.

Another major electoral divide concerns where people live: many voters in cities tend to favor Democrats, and those in rural areas tend to favor Republicans. That was the case again in 2020 among voters of all ages: urban voters supported Biden, 66% to 33%, and rural/small town voters supported Trump, 60% to 38%. (Suburban voters were more evenly split but still favored Biden: 54% to 44%.)

But what does vote choice look like at the intersection of these three major factors: age, race/ethnicity, and urbanicity? We analyzed 2020 AP Votecast survey data from the Associated Press, which asked respondents were asked to describe the type of community in which they are living. Our analysis of AP VoteCast data from the Associated Press reveals:

  • Like older voters, youth in rural areas also preferred Trump to Biden, but by a much narrower margin. Young voters in urban areas backed Biden, 74% to 24%, youth in suburban areas by 65% to 32%, and youth in rural/small towns supported Trump, 50% to 47%.
  • The main difference is youth of color who reported living in a rural/small town, 73% of whom voted for Biden and 24% for Trump. By contrast, white youth from rural areas or small towns backed Trump by a 60% to 37% margin that was nearly identical to the vote choice of rural/small town voters overall.

This data highlights how these interconnected factors shape voters’ preferences. Young people from rural areas or small towns were 13 percentage points less likely to support President Trump than rural/small town voters of all ages. At the same time, youth of color from rural/small town areas were 8 percentage points less likely to vote for President Biden than youth of color in cities. As it was among voters of all ages, race/ethnicity was a big factor: there was a 36-point difference in vote choice between rural/small town white youth and rural/small town youth of color.

Notably, the data shows that the vote choice of white youth was radically different based on where they live, while for youth of color urbanicity was a much smaller factor. Young white voters from urban areas preferred Biden, 68% to 29%, and those from rural/small towns preferred Trump, 60% to 37%—a 31-point difference. Among young people of color, 81% of urban youth voted for Biden, and 73% of rural/small town youth voted for Biden—just an 8 point difference.

It’s important to understand, not just the voting preferences, but the broader civic and political contexts of diverse young people in more rural parts of the country who often have fewer opportunities for civic engagement. In previous research, we found that 60% of rural youth live in “civic deserts”: places where youth perceive they have little access to traditional aspects of political life such as in-person civic activities, local newspapers, and access to youth programming.

That lack of opportunity can be exacerbated if political parties, campaigns, and other organizations take rural young people for granted because they believe that all voters from rural areas vote the same way. Past CIRCLE research has also found that youth in rural areas see fewer political ads, which is connected to lower voter turnout. If they do not work to address some of the challenges stemming from a lack of civic infrastructure, parties and campaigns may be leaving votes on the table even as rural communities can be critical to deciding close races at the state and district levels. And advocates committed to broader and more equitable youth engagement must find ways to connect with rural youth and, especially, rural youth of color, who are among the most underserved young people in the country.