The Youth Vote

By Sarah Dutton 

Young people under age 30 seem highly politically engaged in the run-up to the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. It is impossible to predict how they will vote or why, but a look at their voting behavior, political leanings and priorities in the 2016 Edison Research exit polls suggest some trends to consider for the 2020 Democratic primaries.  

Throughout the primaries and caucuses in 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders received strong support from voters under 30, according to the exit polls conducted by Edison Research.  In the 2016 Iowa caucuses, the first of the Democratic nominating contests, caucus-goers under 30 supported Sanders over Hillary Clinton by a very lop-sided margin – 84% to just 14% for Clinton.  Sanders won voters under 30 by similarly large margins in New Hampshire (83% to 16%) and Nevada (82% to 14%).  

In fact, Sanders bested Clinton among voters under 30 in all the 2016 primary contests covered by the exit poll except Alabama and Mississippi. Looking at exit polls from all the Democratic nominating contests in 2016 combined, Sanders won 71% of the vote from those under 30, while Clinton won 28%; a landslide for Sanders and the inverse of the vote among those age 65 and older. 


In addition to their vote choice, younger voters also differentiated themselves attitudinally from voters who were older. The 2016 exit polls reveal an under-30 electorate that identified as more liberal (and preferred more liberal policies), more concerned about income inequality and less interested in a candidate’s experience than older voters. 

Importantly, voters under 30 were more liberal than older voters. Combining all the exit polls from the 2016 Democratic nominating races finds that 35% of younger voters described themselves as very liberal – far higher than the 28% of voters age 30 to 44, 21% of those age 45 to 64 and 22% of 65+ voters who did so. And these young voters were far less likely to call themselves moderates. 


Unlike older voters, those under 30 wanted the next president to promote policies that were more liberal than those of President Barack Obama.  


Like voters of all ages, voters under 30 prioritized the economy and jobs as the most important issue facing the country.  But they differed significantly from older voters in their concern about income inequality; 34% chose that as most important, the largest percentage of any age group. Health care and terrorism ranked much lower. 


The qualities they looked for in a candidate differentiated them from older voters too. In 2016, voters under 30 were notably less interested than older voters in a candidate’s experience and more attuned to whether he or she cared about them and was honest. 


But generating turnout among young voters can be a challenge. According to the exit polls, voters under age 30 were just 17% of all those who cast votes in the 2016 nominating contests. The coming months will determine whether that holds true in the 2020 nominating contests as well. 


Looked at more broadly, young voters are reliably Democratic voters in presidential elections and have historically favored Democratic candidates. While they were Sanders supporters during the primaries, in the 2016 general election Democrat Hillary Clinton won among this group by 19 points: 55% voted for her, while 36% voted for Republican Donald Trump.  In 2008, Barack Obama was elected with strong support from voters under 30, winning this age group by 34 points.  If recent history is a guide, whoever wins the Democratic nomination should continue to enjoy the strong support of voters under 30. 

Since 2004, The National Election Pool (NEP) and Edison Research have conducted the only national exit polls in the United States. The NEP is the source for projections and analysis for every midterm election, presidential primary and presidential election.