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Youth Leadership and Engagement Ahead of the 2020 Iowa Caucuses

Our exclusive poll finds that many young people feel they're part of a movement, know other youth who are working on campaigns, and are otherwise engaged with the caucuses.

Young people have the potential to play a critical role in the 2020 primary season. According to our exclusive CIRCLE-Tisch College/Suffolk poll of Iowa youth (ages 18-29), 35% say they’re “extremely likely” to participate—anywhere near that number would represent a major increase over youth turnout in previous Iowa caucuses. What’s behind this growing interest in political participation? Results from our poll about young people’s attitudes and previous experiences with voting, youth leadership, and civic engagement provide some answers.

We find that:

  • 57% of Iowa youth feel that they’re part of a movement that will vote to express its views (a sentiment correlated with likely turnout in 2018)
  • 44% of Iowa youth know another young person working on a campaign, and more than a third have been asked to volunteer for a campaign
  • 75% of Iowa youth who voted in 2018 have been contacted by a campaign or organization that supports a 2020 candidate

Building on last week’s release of a survey of youth in Iowa, we follow-up with a quick look at elements of local election engagement ecosystems that involve multiple stakeholders (including local media, social media, K-12 schools, election administration, and youth organizing) that provide entry points to electoral engagement. This post will focus on one part of such an ecosystem: youth leadership and previous youth engagement. While primaries and caucuses are quite different than a general election (and caucuses specific unto themselves), it’s helpful to understand what elements of an ecosystem might be levers for different types of election engagement.

Continuing Youth Leadership from 2018?

In the fall before the 2018 election, our national polling found that strong majorities of young people believed that it’s possible for youth to push political and social change. In that national poll of youth ages 18-24, half of young women and 43% of young men said they feel they’re part of a group or movement whose members would vote to express their views. This sentiment was higher among Black and Latino youth and lower among young White men. However, in Iowa, a state where the majority of youth are White (although demographics are slowly changing), our recent poll finds that 57% of young people feel they’re part of a movement that will express themselves at the polls. It’s even higher (66%) among youth who report that they’re extremely likely to caucus, suggesting a connection between belonging to a movement and likely electoral participation, similar to what we saw in 2018.

These high rates of engagement may be driven by peer-to-peer organizing: in our poll, 69% of Iowa youth reported that, over the past year, other young people have reached out to them about political issues or elections. Again, that rate is even higher (80%) among youth extremely likely to caucus. Additionally, 44% of Iowa youth know someone under 30 working on a campaign or volunteering for a campaign (62% among youth extremely likely to caucus), and 35% have been asked to volunteer on a campaign (53% among youth extremely likely to caucus). We also find that youth who have been reached out to by another young person are more likely to be registered to vote in Iowa.


Previous Voting Related to Likelihood to Caucus, More Contact

Voting and other forms of civic action can be habit-forming, and our research finds that likelihood to caucus in 2020 correlates with previous voting and previous caucus participation. In our poll, youth who voted in 2018 make up 67% of the youth who now report being “extremely likely” to caucus, and, 62% of youth who say they’re extremely likely to caucus said they have caucused before.

Because many political campaigns and organizations rely on voter rolls and contact lists from past campaigns for outreach, previous participation is usually also related to campaign contact. That’s the case among youth in Iowa: our poll finds that 75% of youth who say they voted in 2018 were contacted at least once in the past six months. While youth who did not vote in 2018 were contacted at a lower rate, there was not as large a gap as in 2018, when our research found that 65% of youth who voted in 2016 were contacted compared to 37% of youth who did not vote in 2016.  It’s worth nothing that contact from parties and campaigns may be especially important for closed presidential caucuses like Iowa’s, since party registration is required for participation and campaigns/organizations can provide guidance to youth about what can be a potentially intimidating and confusing caucus process.

This data provides some indication that there have been effective efforts to reach youth who have not previously participated in elections, and that there’s more room to grow the electorate of young caucusgoers. In upcoming data and analyses we’ll continue exploring that potential in Iowa and beyond, and talking about what it might mean for communities to create multiple entry points to electoral engagement for a wide diversity of young people.

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