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Youth, Media, and the 2020 Iowa Caucus

Social and local media have played a key role, and there are challenges and great opportunities for media to connect diverse youth to information about engagement.

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—if anywhere near that number in fact do so it would represent a major increase over youth turnout in previous Iowa caucuses. What’s behind this interest in political participation?

Youth participation depends on local election engagement ecosystems which involve multiple stakeholders (including K-12 schools, election administration, and youth organizing, etc.) that provide entry points to electoral engagement. In this analysis we use new data from our Iowa youth poll to zoom in one part of that ecosystem: the media. We find that:

  • 42% of young Iowans say they have sought out information on the caucuses on social media at least occasionally 
  • 61% of Iowa youth they’ve seen information they care about in news coverage of the Iowa caucuses
  • 57% of young Iowa Democrats say they trust local reporters, compared to 39% of young Republicans 
  • 22% of Iowa youth said it is hard to know where to find information about how to participate in the caucuses

Youth in Iowa Turn to Social Media for Information and Engagement

In 2018, many young people did not rely on traditional political outreach/contact to learn about that year’s midterms. In fact, 28% only heard about the election on social media and not via outreach from partisan organizations. This entails some challenges, since social media can be a source of mis- and dis-information, but it can also be an influential channel for political outreach and discussion. As we learned in 2018, social media platforms have extraordinary reach and immense power to spur engagement among youth, and conversely young people who were already engaged took to social media for activism and engagement. Moreover, patterns in social media usage among young people can reveal how they are engaging, sourcing information about how to register to vote or change parties, and learning about events to attend. 

This year, many young people in Iowa have also turned to social media for information about the election. Our poll finds that 26% of young Iowans sought out information about the Iowa caucuses on social media “often” or “fairly often” in the month before being surveyed, and 42% said they did so at least occasionally. Seeking out information on social media was related to political agency; those who did so at least occasionally were more likely to consider themselves part of a group  or movement, and were more likely to have been contacted by other young people over the past year about political issues or an election.

Young people were also motivated to look for political information on social media if they knew people who were volunteering on campaigns—perhaps because social media provides opportunities for hearing information from trusted friends and other peers in their communities. Sixty percent of young people who knew campaign volunteers said they sought out information on social media at least occasionally, compared to just 31% of young people who did not know any volunteers. While research has shown that online spaces can be a gateway to engagement opportunities, engagement can also expose youth to new networks and groups online.  

Nearly three in four Iowa youth (71%) say they saw others post about the caucuses or about a presidential candidate on social media, with 48% saying that they saw others post on these topics “often.” However, just 17% of all youth say that they “often” or “fairly often” thought about getting involved as a consequence of these posts. They were also similarly unlikely (15%) to say they often or fairly often thought about getting involved after seeing others share their experiences participating or specific opportunities to get involved on social media. For some youth, this may be because they already have taken action. While our research has previously suggested that there’s a connection between online political activity and in-person engagement, this finding highlights the importance of more access, opportunities, and more concerted outreach in order to move young people from engaging with online content to “offline” civic and political participation.

Youth Seeing Issues They Care about in Caucus Coverage, But Want More from Local Media

While social media is an essential and ascendant source of information for youth (and may include following local media on social networks), local media outlets and news sources have the potential to play a more pivotal role helping to inform young people and, as a result, increasing their political knowledge and efficacy. However, the prevalence and quality of local news media is inequitably distributed in many communities, and previous CIRCLE research has found that many young people do not trust or cannot easily access relevant local media

To some extent, young Iowans report positive engagement with media about their communities and believe themselves to have good access to information. Encouragingly, a majority (61%) of respondents in our poll say they see issues they care about being reported in media coverage of the Iowa caucuses. In addition, three-fourths of young people say they do not find it difficult to know where to look for information about participating in the caucuses, indicating that young people in Iowa are confident in their ability to identify accurate sources on this topic. In these respects, it appears local media may be doing a good job informing potential young voters.

However, young people were more skeptical about the impact of local media. Fifty-three percent of Iowa youth said that local media did not make them feel better prepared to participate in the caucuses, while just 36% said that they felt more prepared due to local media. This tracks with our findings from CIRCLE’s pre-election poll in 2018, in which only 31% of youth—and 33% of youth who were new to voting—said that they found local news helpful in preparing them to vote. Interestingly, respondents’ trust in local media seems not to impact their self-reported likelihood to vote: Iowa youth who trusted local reporters and felt that local media helped them prepare were just as likely to report being “extremely likely” and “somewhat likely” to participate in the caucus. Young people were also split on whether they trusted local reporters and journalists to cover issues in their communities accurately, with 49% saying that was the case. 

On this subject, differences were evident along party lines. Young Iowans who support Democratic candidates said they held more trust in local media and in the media’s ability to cover issues that they find important: 57% of young Democrats say they trust local reporters, whereas just 39% of young Republicans say the same. Young independents were more evenly split, with 50% saying they trusted reporters in their communities. Interestingly, despite their stronger distrust of the media, Republicans were ten percentage points more likely to believe that it is easy to find good information about the Iowa caucuses (79% to 69%).

While emerging research has highlighted the importance of local media to civic engagement, there’s more to be done to understand influences on young people specifically, especially on youth from a wide range of communities and experiences. We found young people who expressed uncertainty or believed in incorrect information about the Iowa caucuses. More than one-fifth (22%) of all Iowa youth said it is hard to know where to find information about how to participate in the caucuses, and 55% didn’t know that they have to register with a party to caucus—which is in fact mandatory for both Democratic and Republican caucusgoers. And differences in knowledge emerged among people depending on whether they trusted journalists; young people who trusted their local journalists were nine percentage points more likely to know that they’d need to register with a party than those who did not share that trust.

This highlights a question of how local media outlets approach election cycles. Will an outlet cover candidates and events, or focus on providing practical information about the voting process? Is there capacity for both, or to do even more? Local media seem particularly suited to meet an ongoing need among young and first-time voters that our data here and elsewhere have illuminated, as a lot of information about how, when, and where to vote or caucus is local. And if young people feel that they're receiving much-needed practical information about how to participate, it may help increase their attention to and trust in local media.

Conclusion and Implications

The ecosystem that shapes young people’s electoral engagement is complex and includes a wide range of stakeholders. Media is a critical part of it, and  young people’s  interactions with all types of media are an important lever in efforts to increase engagement—whether it’s social  media, which can reach young people who are otherwise not contacted through traditional means, or the local news outlets that are uniquely suited to cover issues and elections in a given community. As we study youth engagement throughout the 2020 election season, we should be paying attention to how media strategies do or do not promote participation, and whether those strategies are focused on youth who are already engaged or on growing potential new voters.

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


Authors: Kristian Lundberg, Abby Kiesa, Noorya Hayat, Alberto Medina