New poll: Young people energized for unprecedented 2020 election

Young people prefer Biden by 34 points; youth engagement is higher than 2016 and 2018, though campaign outreach still a concern in both parties
A graph showing large gains in youth activism from 2018 to 2020
Image courtesy of CIRCLE and Tisch College
June 30, 2020

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Jen McAndrew

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. (June 30, 2020)Young people are interested and engaged in the 2020 election, believe they can make a difference, and stand ready to make their voices hear, perhaps in historic numbers, according to a new national poll of young Americans out today from researchers at Tufts University’s Tisch College. With this potential electoral power, today’s survey results show that young voters overwhelmingly prefer presumptive Democratic presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden to incumbent President Donald Trump.

The 2020 CIRCLE/Tisch College Youth Poll offers important insights, revealing that youth are more active and engaged than in 2016 and 2018 and reporting much higher rates of protesting and peer-to-peer voter outreach. 

The survey was designed and analyzed by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), the preeminent, non-partisan research center on youth engagement at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, and was conducted by Gallup, Inc., from May 20 to June 18, 2020. Unless otherwise noted, survey results refer to people ages 18 to 29.

Key findings include:

  • Strong preference for Biden over Trump. By a staggering 34-point margin, 58% of youth say they support former Vice President Biden, compared to 24% who plan to vote for President Trump. However, 18% of youth say they would prefer to vote for another candidate. Asian American youth report being most supportive of Biden (78%), followed by Black youth (73%), and Latino youth (59%). Trump’s youth support comes largely from White youth, 29% of whom say they will vote for him, as do 22% of Latino youth. 

    Image courtesy of CIRCLE and Tisch College

  • Youth ready to seize their power. Young people see 2020 as a time to exercise their potential power. Overall, 83% of those surveyed believe young people have the power to change the country, 60% say they feel they are part of a movement that will vote to express its views, and 79% of young people say the COVID-19 pandemic has helped them realize that politics impact their everyday lives.
     
  • Youth take to the streets. Young people report that they are protesting at more than five times the rate of 2016. 27% of youth (ages 18-24) say they have attended a march or demonstration in 2020, a remarkable increase from the 2016 (5%) and 2018 elections (16%).
     
  • Young people reaching out. Along with political activism, peer-to-peer voter outreach is increasing to even greater rates than in 2018, which saw a surge in youth participation. After the 2018 election, 33% of youth reported trying to convince their peers to vote, and 11% said they had registered new voters. Those numbers have skyrocketed: Today, months before the election, 50% of youth say they’ve already tried to convince others to vote, and 25% say they have helped register voters.
     
  • Campaign contact still a concern but up from 2016. 47% of youth (ages 18 to 24) say they have been contacted by a political campaign this year, which still leaves more than half without contact thus far. While a concerning gap, this is an improvement from 2016, when just over 30% of youth had heard from a campaign at this point in the cycle. This is noteworthy given the impact of the pandemic on traditional forms of campaign outreach.
     
  • Information and guidance on online voter registration and vote-by-mail needed. In the midst of a pandemic, our poll reveals that getting accurate information to young people, especially first-time voters, is crucial. We asked youth if they could register to vote online in their state, and a third (32%) said they did not know. Among those who answered yes or no, 25% were incorrect. In addition, only 24% of youth report having voted by mail before.
     
  • Trump’s performance unpopular; Biden has work to do. Almost three-quarters of young people (74%) strongly disapprove or disapprove of President Trump overall, compared to 16% who approve or strongly approve of the president. However, 84% of young people who voted for President Trump in 2016 say they will do so again. At the same time, Biden has work to do to shore up youth support. While young people strongly prefer him to Trump, only 28% approve or strongly approve of him, compared to 40% who disapprove or strongly disapprove, with a third of youth unsure.
     
  • Issues matter. Climate change, racism, and the lack of affordable healthcare are the top 3 issues most commonly named by youth as the most important in driving their votes this year. Getting back to normal after the pandemic and police mistreatment also ranked highly.

"It is clear that 2020 could be a watershed election for youth participation," said Alan Solomont, dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life. "Young people are leading on issues, and they are organizing and demanding change. They know that their generation has the power to make a difference. At the same time, we know that campaign contact is one of hte key drivers of youth voter turnout. And we see that both parties need to do more in this regard. In 2020 and beyond, we can and should lift up the voices, energy and leadership of young people."

“Our poll shows that the unprecedented rise in youth activism in 2018 is continuing in 2020, with political activism and peer-to-peer engagement now becoming the norm among young people. In the face of considerable disruptions and confusion in electoral procedures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this energy must not go to waste,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of Tisch College’s CIRCLE. “We must convey clear and accessible information about when, how and where young people can register and vote and actively reach out to youth, especially those who are historically marginalized in our elections.”

Throughout the election cycle, CIRCLE will be sharing additional research and analyses about young people’s participation, including youth of color, young people living in rural areas and first-time voters, who could have a particularly large influence on the 2020 elections.

Read the full analysis here.

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About CIRCLE

CIRCLE (www.civicyouth.org) is a nonpartisan, independent, academic research center that studies young people in politics and presents detailed data on young voters in all 50 states. CIRCLE is part of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. The only university-wide college of its kind, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life (http://tischcollege.tufts.edu/) offers transformational student learning and service opportunities, conducts groundbreaking research on young people’s civic and political participation, and forges innovative community partnerships. Its work is guided by two core beliefs: that communities, nations and the world are stronger, more prosperous, and more just when citizens actively participate in civic and democratic life; and that higher education has a responsibility to develop the next generation of active citizens.

About Tufts University

Tufts University, located on campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville and Grafton, Massachusetts, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.