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Voting with their Wallets: The Largely Untapped Potential of Youth As Political Donors

Our research show that youth contribute to electoral campaigns at similar rates than older adults.

Donating to a political campaign is an important form of civic participation. It’s one of many ways that individuals can be engaged in an election, and offer concrete support to the party or candidate that they feel will advance their interests and represent their values. Increasingly, particularly among Democrats, some of whom shun large corporate donors and rely instead on “small-money” contributions, the number of donors to a candidate has become a key measure of broad public support. In fact, the Democratic Party has used it as a qualifying criteria for their 2020 primary debates; for the past few weeks, some candidates scrambled to reach the 130,000 individual donor threshold and secure their spot on stage in September and October.

Young people are not frequently thought of as political donors. Their electoral engagement is often framed in terms of volunteering, social-media activism, and other forms of non-monetary support to campaigns. However, CIRCLE survey data from the 2016 and 2018 elections shows that, politically, young people have been putting their money where their mouth is. Many young people donated to a campaign and many more say they’re willing to do so, suggesting that—as in other areas of youth participation—there is interest and vast potential to engage more young people in this vital political activity.

More than 2 Million Donors in 2018, More Possible

In our 2018 post-election poll, we found that 8.3% of young people, ages 18-24, reported they had donated to a political campaign in that year’s midterm cycle—slightly higher than the 7.7% in our pre-election poll. That translates to an estimated 2.1 million youth who contributed to a party or candidate, and is about the same as the 8% of youth who said they donated to a campaign in our 2016 pre-election poll. As with other indicators of youth engagement in 2018, it is remarkable that the donation rate in a midterm cycle matched or even exceeded that of 2016, since presidential election years have historically garnered much greater participation.

It’s also notable that, for some groups of youth, the donation rate was even higher in 2018: for example, 11% of young Latinos said that they donated to a campaign. That’s somewhat surprising, since young Latinos often lag behind youth of other races/ethnicities in voter turnout, though it may be explained by competitive races in states with substantial Latino populations, or the high salience of immigration issues and campaign rhetoric about Latinos during the election cycle.

Previous research shows that the proportion of young people who donate to political campaigns is not significantly lower than that of all adults. Data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) analyzed by Pew Research  found that, in 2016, 12% of adults donated to an individual candidate and 9% to a political party. A Pew Research survey from that same year found that 9% of youth (defined here as ages 18-29, as opposed to 18-24 in our 2018 poll) donated, compared with 12% of adults aged 30-49 and 14% of adults aged 50-64. (Considerably more people ages 65+ said they donated to a campaign.) Given that many youth, especially those in the 18-24 age range, may not be in the workforce or may have low-paying, entry-level jobs, it is telling that they donate at nearly the rate of older adults—and may suggest a significant desire to support particular candidates or issues. Party preference also seems to matter: Pew Research asked a similar question of registered voters before the 2018 election, and found that youth who had prevously voted for Democratic House candidates donated to campaigns at higher rates than youth who had voted for Republican candidates. 

Indeed, just as millions of young people are undermobilized as voters (meaning, they register to vote but are not mobilized and do not cast a ballot), our research suggests they may also be undermobilized as donors. In 2018, one in five young people (19.7%) said they had not contributed money to a campaign but might consider doing so if given the opportunity. That’s 4.9 million potential donors. As with youth who have donated, there are differences by race and ethnicity; for example, in 2018, 24% of Black youth reported that they had not but would potentially make a donation.

Connecting to Issues

Another sign of young people’s largely untapped potential as campaign donors is that youth have proven willing to contribute money in other contexts. Our post-election survey in 2016 found that 36% of youth had donated to a cause or organization that year, and another 23% said they had not but would do so if given the opportunity. This suggests that six out of ten young people are willing and able to contribute to a group or movement they care about, and it points to one important avenue to translate that willingness into increased political donations: speaking to issues that matter to youth.

Our research has consistently shown that young people care deeply about many different issues facing the country, and that they support candidates who connect with them on those issues. As with other strategies to increase youth voting and engagement, it is critical to talk to diverse groups of young people, listen to what matters to them, and shape messaging that helps them see how their donation will go toward advancing, not just a politician’s candidacy, but their vision for the country and progress on issues they care about. Young people also want to feel like their support is making a tangible difference. The fact that their contributions—however small the amount—can mean that their preferred candidate qualifies for a televised debate, may be a powerful message to that effect.

Looking Forward

In an era when every election cycle sets new records for “most expensive” electoral races at the national, state, and local levels, contributions to candidates and campaigns may play an ever larger role in American politics. Our data shows that young people recognize that and are acting accordingly, donating money at not-too-dissimilar rates than older adults. More importantly, it highlights that there is a willingness to contribute even more, and suggests that there is a vast untapped potential to include young people as potential donors and ask them to contribute, along with the other ways that individuals can support candidates by leveraging their time, efforts, and relationships. As with other youth electoral engagement strategies, this should not happen in a vacuum or be purely transactional. Instead, campaigns should see this as another way that they can listen to youth, connect with them on issues, and make them valuable stakeholders in the short and long term.