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Poll: Young People Believe they Can Lead Change in Unprecedented Election Cycle

A CIRCLE survey of young people shows that youth engagement is higher than in 2016 and 2018, but access to information about registration and voting in an election during the pandemic may be an issue.

A new national poll of young Americans reveals that despite—or perhaps because of—the interconnected crises shaping American life, young people are interested and engaged in the 2020 election, believe they can make a difference, and stand ready to make their voices heard. However, our survey also highlights the challenges to youth electoral participation due to the unique nature of an election held in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, which will require that youth receive clear and accurate information about online registration and mail-in voting in order to participate in democracy.

The top findings from our comprehensive youth poll include:

  • Seizing their Power: 83% say they believe young people have the power to change the country, 60% feel like they’re part of a movement that will vote to express its views, and 79% of young people say the COVID-19 pandemic has helped them realize that politics impact their everyday lives.
  • Strong Preference for Biden Over Trump: 58% of youth say they support Joe Biden, compared to just 24% for President Trump—a staggering 34-point margin. But 18% of youth say they would like to vote for another candidate. Asian youth (78%) and Black youth (73%) are the most likely to support Biden. Meanwhile, almost three quarters of youth who support Trump (72%) are White.
  • Campaign Contact Still a Concern: Almost half of youth (47%) say they have been contacted by a political campaign this year. However, that’s still an improvement from 2016, when only 32% of youth (ages 18-24) had heard from a campaign.
  • Youth in the Streets: 27% of young people (ages 18-24) say they have attended a march or demonstration, a remarkable increase from when we asked the question for the same age group before the 2016 and 2018 elections (5% and 16%, respectively).
  • Information and Guidance on OVR and VBM Needed: We asked youth if they could register to vote online in their state. A third (32%) said they did not know. Among those who answered yes or no, 25% were incorrect. In addition, only 24% of youth report having voted by mail before.
  • Top Issues Differ, Racism High Priority for Youth of Color: The environment, racism, and affordable healthcare are the top-3 issues most commonly named by youth as the most important in driving their vote this November. Getting back to normal after the pandemic and police mistreatment also ranked highly.

Over the past two years, young people have regularly shown that their voices matter: they uplift issues, they convince their peers to vote, they call out injustice, and they advance social change. In recent months, their leadership has been on full display at the forefront of protests over racial injustice in America, showing that their political power extends far beyond the ballot box. We saw this at play in 2018, when youth activism fueled interest in that election and young people drastically increased their voter turnout. In this first analysis of CIRCLE’s exclusive pre-election youth survey, we look at these and other dynamics that have previously driven youth participation in elections, and what we’re watching in 2020. 

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 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 completes, 1,019 were from the Gallup Panel and 1,238 were from the Dynata Panel. Unless stated otherwise, ‘youth’ refers to those ages 18- to 29-years old. The margin of error for the poll, taking into account the design effect from weighting, is +/- 4.1 percentage points. Margins of error for racial and ethnic subgroups range from +/-8.1 to 11.0 percentage points.

Youth Are More Active, Engaged, and Committed to Change than in 2016 and 2018

In 2018, we reported that a new, politically active generation of young people was on the rise. That generation has fully arrived, as our 2020 poll reveals significant increases in several major aspects of civic agency and engagement.

Three-quarters of youth say they are paying some or a lot of attention to the election. Four in five young people believe the outcome of the election will affect their everyday lives, and 79% say that the pandemic has helped them realize that political leaders’ decisions matter. After the 2018 election, among 18- to 24-year-olds, 73% said they believed that young people have the power to change the country. Today, 84% of youth in that age group say so. In 2018, 46% of youth said they were part of a movement that would vote to express its views. In our 2020 poll, 62% of young people (ages 18-24) say the same.

Those attitudes are turning into action, whether focused on electoral engagement, on activism, or the intersections of both. After the 2018 election, 33% of youth reported trying to convince their peers to vote, and 11% said they had registered new voters. Those numbers have skyrocketed: today, months before the election, 50% of youth in our survey say they’ve already tried to convince others to vote, and 25% say they have helped register voters. In 2018, 16% of youth aged 18-24 had recently participated in a march or demonstration. This year, 27% of youth in that age group have marched or protested. That number is even higher (31%) for 25- to 29-year-old youth in our survey, and is relatively consistent across race/ethnicity: White youth (27%), Black youth (30%), Asian youth (28%), and Latino youth (32%) report participating in demonstrations at similar rates.

Though young people participate in activism throughout the year, our poll was fielded in part during the recent protests over institutional racism and police treatment of Black Americans. Marches have taken place in hundreds of cities and towns across the country, which has allowed local activists and organizers to connect these national issues to the specific concerns in their communities—including, in some cases, combating voter suppression.

On the ground, young organizers who know their communities are determining strategies based on what has and has not led to change. Electoral politics may not and need not be the primary aim or strategy of activists. In instances when movement organizing has intersected with elections, it can be powerful. In 2018, we saw how the youth-led gun violence prevention movement deliberately focused on voter registration and contributed to an increase in youth turnout. That year, youth of color (especially young Black women and young Latinas) were the most likely to be active in movements, and young activists of color are again poised to play a major role in civic and electoral engagement in 2020.

Racism Tops Diverse Issue Priorities Among Youth of Color

Young people care about a wide range of issues and they play a critical role in elevating their concerns in the public conversation, which can in turn shape the issues that become central during campaigns and elections. In our poll, we asked youth to name the top issues that would determine their vote for President in 2020. The most commonly cited issues were the environment/climate change, racism, and health care access/affordability (12%)—all of which were named the single most important issue by 12-13% of youth. Getting back to normal after the coronavirus (9%) and police treatment of communities of color (7%) were also frequently cited. The fact that no single issue was chosen as most important by more than 15% of youth further illustrates that young people care about a variety of public matters.

But fully understanding young people’s issue priorities means recognizing important differences by race/ethnicity. For Asian American youth, the top two issues are the environment (chosen as #1 by 18% of young people) and racism (13%). Latino youth are most focused on racism (17%) and healthcare (12%). For White youth, the top two issues are the environment (14.5%) and healthcare (12%). Meanwhile, Black youth name racism (22%) and mistreatment by police (15%) as their top issues.

It’s worth noting that young people’s top issues have shifted since as recently as the 2018 election. When we asked two years ago, the top-6 for all youth (18-24) were: healthcare, jobs, college affordability, tax rates, racism, and immigration. As this year, in 2018 racism ranked as a higher priority for young Black women and Black youth overall than other youth, and higher for youth of color generally over white youth. While healthcare remains a top concern for many youth in 2020, racism and related concerns—like the policing of communities of color— have become increasingly prominent, while college and jobs do not rank as highly, even as many youth have had their educational and professional lives disrupted by the pandemic.

As campaigns, organizers, and other stakeholders seek to engage youth, they should understand their diverse issue priorities—as well as how their priorities are often shaped by their identities and experiences—in order to speak directly to their concerns in ways that will help connect what youth care about to their election choices.

Online Registration and Mail-In Voting: What Do Youth Need to be Ready for Election Day?

Our polling data makes clear that a majority of young people are interested in the 2020 election and understand its importance. Whether they are ready to vote in an election shaped by restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic may be another story. Election processes are in flux and will likely vary from state to state. Young people’s access to, information about, and familiarity with online voter registration (OVR) and mail-in voting will be critical. In this regard, our poll reveals that there are reasons for concern that should be seen as a call to action.

We asked youth in our survey whether they could register to vote online in their state. (Online registration is widely available in 38 states and Washington, D.C.) A third of youth (32%) said they did not know. Among youth who answered yes or no, 25% were incorrect. Overall, just half (51%) of youth could correctly identify whether OVR is an option for them or not. Worryingly, among respondents from states where OVR is not available, only 14% correctly identified that was the case. This means a large segment of young people in these states may be relying on an option that isn’t available to them, thereby complicating or delaying their voter registration. Another potential stumbling block: 7.5% of young people—which translates to 3.5 million youth—say in our poll that they have not had good enough access to the Internet during the pandemic.

There were also differences in OVR knowledge by race/ethnicity and vote choice. Supporters of President Trump were more likely (42%) to say they don’t know about online registration in their state than overall. And White youth (49%) and young Latinos (50%) were less likely to correctly identify whether their state allows OVR (49%), compared to Black youth (61%) and Asian youth (54%).

We have previously shared that, if mailing in ballots becomes the primary voting method in the 2020 elections, it will be an unfamiliar process for most youth. Indeed, only 24% of young people in our poll have previously voted by mail. There are major and troubling differences by race/ethnicity: 34.5% of Asian youth and 25% of White youth have had access to and experience with voting by mail, compared to 22% of Black youth and just 20% of Latino youth. However, greater availability of absentee voting in Western states (where all-mail voting is common) compared to Southern states (where excuses to vote absentee are often needed) means that access to this method of voting differs greatly, especially between Asian and Black youth because Asian American youth are concentrated in the Western States while Black youth are concentrated in the Southern States.

Approximately two-thirds of young people say they have seen information about absentee ballots this year, and the same percentage say that if their state’s voting occurs entirely by mail, they know where to get information about receiving their ballot. Of course, this means that a third of youth—more than 15 million—currently lack this critical information.

As the electoral landscape continues to evolve in many states across the country, one of the major challenges for our democracy will be ensuring that young people have access to timely information about the tools and processes that may determine whether they cast a vote in November. Our poll reveals that we are far from meeting that goal, and that it will be up to election administrators, educators, media, organizers, parents, and peers to act in concert to do so. It also highlights that these efforts must focus especially on youth of color in order to avoid perpetuating racial/ethnic inequities in political participation.

Campaign Contact, Key to Turnout, Still Needed in 2020

Are campaigns taking advantage of young people’s interest and engagement in the 2020 election? More so than in previous years, but the level of youth outreach still leaves youth out and votes on the table among 18- to 24-year-olds. More than half (53%) of young people, ages 18-24,  have not been contacted at any time this year by a political party, a campaign, or an organization advocating on behalf of candidates. Still, that’s a remarkable increase from 2016 when, just two months before the election, 69% of youth (ages 18-24) hadn’t been contacted. By contrast, according to our poll, half of youth in that age group have already been contacted this year, which is all the more remarkable given how the pandemic has disrupted the 2020 election cycle and many of the ways campaigns normally reach potential voters.

Historically, young people who have voted before are more likely to be contacted. That holds true against this year. Compared to 47% of all youth who have heard from a campaign or organization, 51% of young people who voted in 2016 and 56% of youth who voted in 2018 have been contacted. This is a perennial dynamic that has the potential to leave behind new voters (such as those who recently turned 18) and must be addressed in order to promote broader youth engagement.

Democrats have done a better job of reaching out to youth: 44% of young people say they’ve been contacted by the Democratic Party, compared to just 25% by the Republican Party. Likewise, Biden supporters are more likely to have been contacted than Trump supporters: 49% vs. 38%. Black and Latino youth were slightly more likely than Asian and White youth to be contacted by the Democratic Party, and they were also more likely to be contacted by a local youth group and another local community organization.

Contact is one of the key elements that contributes to youth voter turnout. Our research has previously found that young people who hear directly from campaigns or organizations are much more likely to vote—especially if they’re contacted multiple times. The COVID-19 pandemic has made reaching youth more challenging, but more important. Organizations must start building relationships with potential young voters now.

Youth Prefer Biden to Trump, But Questions about Biden’s Youth Appeal Remain

While young people are not monolithically liberal voters, their strong preference for Democratic candidates in recent elections and their disapproval of President Trump have been well-documented. Our youth poll bears this out: 58% of young people say they would vote for former Vice President Joe Biden if the election were held today, compared to just 24% for President Trump. By comparison, in our 2016 pre-election poll, 46% of youth were supporting former Secretary Clinton, 24% President Trump, and 30% other candidates—including the Libertarian and Green Party nominees, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

Asian youth report being most supportive of Biden (78%), followed by Black youth (73%), and Latino youth (59%). Meanwhile, President Trump’s youth support comes largely from White youth, who make up 72% of his support.

Three out of four young people (74%) disapprove or strongly disapprove of President Trump, compared to just 17% who approve or strongly approve of the President. That said, 84% of young people who voted for him in 2016 say they will do so again.

Our poll also reveals that Biden has work to do to shore up youth support. While young people may prefer him to Donald Trump, only 28% approve or strongly approve of him, compared to 40% who disapprove or strongly disapprove, with a third of youth in the middle. Among youth who preferred or would have supported Bernie Sanders in the primary, 66% say they will vote for Biden, but 30% want to support another candidate—most commonly, Sanders himself. Overall, 18% of youth say that, if the election were held today, they would vote for neither Biden nor Trump. Whether either candidate can persuade this sizable bloc of young voters could have a decisive impact on the election.