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One-Third of Youth in Iowa Poised to Caucus; Strong Support for Sanders

Our exclusive poll of young Iowans suggest the potential for historic youth participation--and may spell trouble among young voters for national polling leader Joe Biden.

Young people are poised to influence the direction of the 2020 election, starting with the upcoming, first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. In addition to the work young people do on political campaigns and to register voters, a new, exclusive CIRCLE-Tisch College/Suffolk University poll of youth in Iowa (ages 18-29, regardless of party or voter registration) finds that more than a third (35%) say they are “extremely likely” to caucus on February 3rd and, on the Democratic side, they are supporting Senator Bernie Sanders by a substantial margin. According to our poll, 39% of young Iowans who are registered or identify as Democrats intend to caucus for Sanders, followed by 19% for Senator Elizabeth Warren, 14% for Pete Buttigieg, 9% for Andrew Yang, and 7% for former Vice President Joe Biden. Nine percent of young Iowa Democrats say they don’t know who they’re supporting.

Our poll aimed to help us better understand the political attitudes, intentions, and experiences of young people at a time when they’re becoming increasingly influential in American politics: youth turnout doubled between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, and the youth vote was decisive in key races. We also wanted to look at a state that can have an early impact on choosing who will face President Trump in the general election, though it’s important to note that Iowa is a disproportionately white state compared to young people nationally, and should not be used to draw many conclusions about youth participation overall. And young primary voters/caucusgoers are most often subsets of a state’s youth population that is more politically engaged and/or committed to a certain candidate. 

Young people have played an important role in previous primaries’ Iowa caucuses—sometimes to decisive effect. In 2008, 57% of young caucusgoers supported then-Senator Barack Obama, helping propel him to a win in Iowa that launched his successful bid for the presidency. In 2012, when there was a seven-candidate Republican field, roughly half of young Iowa Republican caucusgoers  supported Rep. Ron Paul, who finished a close third on the night of the caucuses but ended up winning most of Iowa’s delegates months later at the Republican National Convention after a disputed process. And in 2016, according to the exit poll, 84% of Iowa youth supported Bernie Sanders at the Democratic caucuses, propelling him to a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton (who won 49.9% to 49.6%) and kicking off a trend of extraordinary youth support for Sanders throughout the primaries.

35% of Youth in Iowa Say They’re Extremely Likely to Caucus

While participation in primaries and caucuses is lower than in general elections for all age groups, caucuses can be particularly challenging to young voters and we usually see lower youth turnout. Unlike casting a ballot, caucusing is more akin to attending a community meeting: they can be complex, hours-long affairs that involve speeches, multiple votes, and the ability for caucusgoers to change who they support.

Our poll finds that 35% are “extremely likely” to participate in the Iowa caucuses. If that holds true on February 3, it would represent a remarkable increase over 2016, when we estimated that 11% of youth participated. Of course, 2016 had contested primaries in both parties; the last two times that only one party had active nominating contests (Republicans in 2012 and Democrats in 2004) youth turnout was just 4%.

Our poll suggests that young people could roundly surpass that participation rate this year. This may very well be connected to previous cycles’ outreach to youth, as 62% of youth who reported that they are extremely likely to caucus said they have caucused before. On the flip side, this suggests that many young Iowans who turned 17 (young people aged 17 who will be 18 by the general election are eligible to participate in the Iowa caucuses) since the 2016 caucuses may still need to be mobilized. Since Iowa allows people to register until and on the day of the caucuses, the next week could prove critical to keeping and moving more youth into the “extremely likely” to vote column. 

Much will depend on efforts to reach and mobilize young people. In our poll, 72% of Iowa youth said they have been personally contacted and asked to support a candidate or party, including 82% of young Democrats, 75% of youth who are Independent or unaffiliated, and 60% of young Republicans. One-fifth (21%) of all young Iowans in our poll said that they want to register to vote but do not know how. As in all elections, it is important for contact to include practical information about the process. Among all youth in our poll, more than half of youth (55%) did not know that they have to register with a party in order to participate, and 22% said it’s hard to know where to find information about the caucuses.

Young Democrats in Iowa Distribute Support Among Candidates, But Sanders Still on Top

Of course, young people’s influence on elections depends not just on how many youth vote, but on whom they vote for—and that influence can be greatest when they support different candidates than older voters. That appears to be the case among Iowa Democrats. While the average of polls in Iowa shows an extremely competitive four-way race between Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, our poll shows a clear favorite among young people. Of course, young Iowans who intend to caucus for Democrats represent just a slice of the youth electorate in a state where, according to exit polls, President Trump got more support from young voters than Secretary Clinton (48% vs. 42%) in the 2016 general election. In addition, according to our poll, 33% of Iowa youth identify as independent or are unaffiliated. These young Iowans are a potential wild card in this contest, and 26% of them report being extremely likely to vote, though only one-fifth consider themselves liberal and less than half (42%) said that they knew that party registration is required to participate in a caucus.

While all eyes are on the Demoratic caucuses, there will also be Republican caucuses on February 3rd, with former Congressman Joe Walsh and former Governor Bill Weld on the ballot against President Trump. However, according to our poll, 85% of young Iowans who are registered or identify as Republicans support the President. Among all Iowa youth (Democrats, Republicans, and independents), 41% support and 49% don’t support impeachment and removal.

Healthcare Tops List of Issue Priorities

Past elections have made it clear that there’s a strong relationship between issues positions and issues that candidates highlight and young voters’ candidate preferences. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity: it’s a way to engage youth in elections and in local communities, but the issues youth care about most when voting for president can vary widely. Perhaps because there are so many Democratic candidates for President who are highlighting different issues in different ways, 61% of young Iowans in our poll say they have seen issues they care about covered in news about the caucuses. At the same time, according to our poll, no issue ranks as the top priority for more than a quarter of Iowa youth.

Given a list of 14 options, young Iowans in our poll had a wide range of issues that they see as most important to their vote for President. The top choices among all youth were health care (18%), the environment (12%), tax rates (12%) and international relations (9%). Health care and the environment, by larger margins, are also the top two issues among young Democrats, while taxes are the top issue among young Republicans. The focus on healthcare among young Democrats tracks with their support for Senator Bernie Sanders, who has made his Medicare-for-All proposal a signature of his campaign. However, as with other aspects of young Iowans’ political attitudes, these should not be taken as a list of top concerns among youth nationwide, since issue priorities can differ greatly by state and a wide diversity of experiences.

Suffolk University logoAbout the Poll

The CIRCLE-Tisch College/Suffolk University Iowa youth poll was conducted with the Suffolk University Political Research Center. It surveyed a representative sample of young Iowa residents, ages 18-29, who are eligible to vote—regardless of their voter registration status. Most respondents were contacted by mobile phone.

This survey was conducted between January 15 and January 20, 2020, and is based on live telephone interviews of adults who indicated they were residents of Iowa. Each area’s quota and demographic information—including geography and race—was determined from 2010 Census data, the 2018 American Community Survey, and the Iowa State Data Center. Samples of both standard landline and cell phones were called using a probability-proportionate-to-size method, which means that the age-specific listed phone numbers assigned to each county were proportional to the number of residents between the ages of 18-29. The 99 Iowa counties were grouped into five general regions. Respondents in the household were selected by initially asking for the youngest adult. The margin of sampling error for results based on the total sample is +/-4.4 percentage points. The margin of sampling error for 150 potential Democratic Caucus-goers is +/- 8.0 percentage points. The margin of sampling error for 154 potential Republican Caucus-goers is +/- 7.9 percentage points. For more specifics on the methodology for this survey, the Suffolk University Political Research Center can be reached at 617-725-4165 or