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Young Voters in the 2016 South Carolina Republican Primary

Our analysis highlights the issues and candidate qualities that mattered most to Republican youth in the state.

For the first time this election cycle, more youth participated in a state’s Republican primary than in its Democratic contest. Last Saturday’s Republican primary in South Carolina saw an estimated 74,000 young people participate in the Republican primary, while this past Saturday, roughly 55,000 young people participated in the Democratic primary. In a state where former Governor Romney handily won in the 2012 general election, what can we learn about the youth mobilized to participate in South Carolina that might shed light on other southern contests in early March—especially regarding their views of front-runner Donald Trump?

Who Voted in the South Carolina Republican Primary?

Young voters in the South Carolina Republican primary were 96% white (compared to 56% of young citizens in the state) and roughly evenly split between male and female. Among all young citizens in South Carolina, 50% have no college experience, but only 14% of primary voters were in that category, indicating that youth with college experience were likely overrepresented in the primary electorate. This is a stubborn trend in U.S. politics and not unique to South Carolina, though the gap there does appear to be extreme.

There have been questions about whether less-frequent voters and Independents are participating in 2016 open or semi-open primaries and caucuses. In the case of South Carolina’s semi-open primary, 75% of young primary voters said they usually consider themselves Republicans, while 16% are Independents and 8% are something else. Youth were not the age group most likely to identify as Independent, surprisingly, as 29% of those 60-64 said they are Independent.

The majority of young people who participated in the South Carolina Republican primary (81%) reported being from suburbs, a small city, or a rural area. Only 19% reported being from a city with a population over 50,000. Young people were more likely than older voters to be from a rural area, and less likely to be from a city over 50,000.

Youth More Concerned about Economy/Jobs than Older Voters

When asked which of four issues is “the most important facing the country,” youth were more likely than all Republican primary voters to say the economy/jobs (41% vs 29%) and less likely to answer government spending (15% vs 26%).

When it came to what candidate quality mattered most to young South Carolinians, they answered very similarly to SC Republican primary voters of all ages. The largest percentage said they were most concerned whether a candidate shared their values (37% of youth), followed by 29% who wanted a candidate to bring needed change. Only 18% of youth chose “telling it like it is,” and only 13% said the ability to win the general election mattered most (15% of all SC GOP primary voters said the same).


Youth Differ from Older Voters, Less Likely to Support Trump

Last week, we reported exit poll-based estimates that youth participating in the South Carolina Republican primary were less likely than all primary voters to support Donald Trump. Instead, they were more likely to support Senator Ted Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson. That said, like all voters, they distributed their votes across three candidates. While Trump is considered to be the front-runner, he’s succeeded in winning young Republican voters only once in the first four contests.

According to a late February YouGov/Economist poll, young people are most likely among all ages to have an unfavorable view of Trump. However, the same poll asked registered voters who they would choose as Republican nominee for president between Cruz, Rubio, and Trump.: 38% chose Trump and 36% Rubio, the same differential as youth in the SC primary. Among those three candidates, the YouGov/Economist poll found that youth were more likely to say that Rubio and Cruz are honest and trustworthy, but they rated the three candidates the same in “deal[ing] wisely with the U.S. economy.”

Youth who participate in Republican contests early on in the primary season, including in South Carolina, have historically supported candidates who do not end up winning the party’s nomination.