A Quick Look at the Youth Vote in American Politics

With the country emerging from the 2016 election looking more divided than ever, some fissures have received more attention than others. Recently, the growing “generation gap” in vote choice has been noted by David Hopkins as one of the larger and under-acknowledged divisions in the electorate. Preliminary data in the form of exit polls more or less confirms this notion, as Hillary Clinton gained 55 percent of the vote from voters ages 18-29 compared to Donald Trump getting 37 percent. It’s worth contextualizing this trend in its broader history.

Below, I show how young Americans voted in elections from 1964 to 2016. All data comes from the American National Elections Studies except for 2016, which is based on exit poll data. Ideally, all data in the same graph would come from the same source, but pairing ANES data with 2016 exit polls allows me to go further back in time while still including the most recent election data (i.e. there’s no ANES data for 2016 yet–but they’ve already started on administering surveys).


Up until 1992, the youth vote was fairly torn between the two major parties, though it tilted more toward favoring Republican presidential candidates. In the seven pre-1992 elections shown here, Republicans won the youth vote five times. The one aberrant result was in 1964, when Democrats won the youth vote by a 73-27 margin–that perhaps could be ascribed to the nature of a landslide victory for Lyndon Johnson.

The election in 1992, however, heralded a change. From 1992 onward, Democrats have always claimed the majority of the youth vote, beating Republicans among this group by no less than 18 points in each election during this span. Support for Democratic candidates from 18-29 year olds has steadily risen since 1980 and hit a high point in 2008 with Barack Obama’s victory. However, Democratic control of the youth vote has declined a bit thereafter, with Obama doing slightly more poorly with young voters during his re-election bid. Waiting for the 2016 ANES data will give a better sense of this, but if exit polls provide any good indication–and generally they are (in some areas)–it seems that the decline has continued into the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton gained slightly less of the youth vote for the Democratic Party, and Donald Trump gained slightly more of it for the Republican Party.

Based on this early data, the generation gap–and namely the recent Democratic dominance of the youth vote–may be slowly shrinking. That might not be all that surprising, as in the last 50 years or so, no one party has ever exhibited consistent and overwhelming control of the youth vote.

At the same time, it’s crucial to note there’s a new factor influencing youth movement to Democratic candidates in the last few decades: racial diversification. Both in the general U.S. population and in the U.S. electorate, younger age groups are much more racially diverse than older ones in the present day. This is very important for understanding changes in the youth vote, as these racially diverse groups–Hispanics, blacks, and other racial/ethnic minorities–are much more attached to the Democratic Party than whites are and espouse more liberal ideologies than whites do. Thus, it might not be that young voters are getting more liberal and Democratic, but rather changing racial composition might be driving this change in political behavior.

The importance of controlling for race when examining youth vote is supported well by exit poll data seen in a tweet here by L.J Zigerell.  When broken up into the three major race/ethnicity groups, it becomes apparent that there isn’t much difference in vote choice by age group. What drives a more Democratic youth vote likely has more to do with racial composition of different age groups. Below, I expand on this idea a bit by using 2012 ANES data to look at vote choice, partisanship, and political ideology of 18-29 year olds broken up by white and non-white race.

Source: ANES.

While 18-29 year olds might have voted for Obama more than any other age group, disparities occur when this group’s behavior gets split up by race. While Republicans won white youths by about a majority, Democrats won non-white youths overwhelmingly, winning more than three times as many than Republicans did.

Source: ANES.

A similar story emerges for partisanship distribution: while more white youths identify as Republican, more non-white youths identify as Democrats and by an even larger margin.

Source: ANES.

Finally, looking at political ideology reinforces the same notion found when looking at the other two political measures: race divides the ideological disposition of youths. While more white 18-29 year olds see themselves as ideologically conservative than liberal, many more non-white youths identify as liberal than they do conservative.

All in all, this data on political behavior–along with the key plot from this tweet concerning the 2016 election–points to the same overarching conclusion: race, not age, is more important for understanding vote choice and political views of the youth. Once you control for race/ethnicity, the generation gap becomes a lot less wide.

Moreover, regarding the point I made earlier that the generation gap could be shrinking, this could be related to race. There is considerable evidence that the exit polls misrepresented the vote choice of Hispanics, inflating their support for Trump and underestimating their support for Clinton. Given that Hispanics have made up a disproportionately large share of the 18-29 age group, this exit poll underestimation of Democratic Hispanic vote could be making the 18-29 age group vote less Democratic than it really is. Once the higher quality ANES survey comes out, there’s a chance the same slight decline in youth Democratic preference–from exit polls–doesn’t show up.

A Quick Look at the Youth Vote in American Politics

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