This election is turning the assumption that young people don’t vote on its head. More than 7 million young people ages 18-29 voted early or absentee in the 2020 elections according to the Tufts University/CIRCLE analysis of Catalist data.
“Young people are over performing expectations at this point, and it doesn’t mean that’s where we end up on election day, but it’s reasonable to believe we will see a 2008-level turnout,” said Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist for Clean and Prosperous America and New Democratic Network. “We are probably on track to see the largest turnout of young people.”
This comes after first-time voters, a group that tends to wait longer than any other age group to decide who to vote for, had to navigate how to vote during a pandemic.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I was surprised by this. I thought young voters would lag and then vote at the end," said Rosenberg.
In North Carolina, a key battleground state, 18-29 year-old voters are mobilizing at four times the rate of 2016. A Tufts University/CIRCLE analysis of Catalist data identified NC’s youth electorate as the second most influential youth electorate in the presidential election, in part because NC is projected to be one of the most competitive states and also because youth make up 17% of NC’s population. Young voters also have a large ideological gap with older voters: While NC went red in 2012 and 2016, young NC voters favored the Democrat each time by 35 and 20 points respectively.
As of Oct. 27, one week before election day, young voters make up 12.6% of early and absentee votes in North Carolina compared to 6.7% at the same point in 2016, according to Tufts University CIRCLE/Catalist. Compared to 2016, the share of early voters who are between 18 and 29 is up by 13% in North Carolina, according to Rosenberg’s analysis of TargetSmart data.
This is good news for Democrat candidate Joe Biden. A Harvard Youth Poll conducted between Aug. 28 and Sept. 9 found Biden’s support at 60% among 18-29 year-old voters compared to Hillary Clinton’s 49% in 2016 and Barack Obama’s 59% in 2008.
In North Carolina, the extent to which Biden leads (30-40 points, depending on the poll) can be attributed to his polling performance with young voters.
“The question was always could Biden, given his age, match Obama in turns of turnout," said Rosenberg. "All the early indications are that he’s on track to do that.”
Although overall voter turnout is up across all ages, young people across the nation make up a larger share of the early voting electorate than they did at this point in either 2018 or 2016.
“If the whole electorate gets bigger, you would expect it’d be hard for young people to keep their share because everyone is voting more,” Rosenberg told the Niner Times. “But in fact, young people are voting at a higher rate than 4 years ago, and young people tend to vote late. We weren’t anticipating this.”
Rosenberg says there could be many reasons that early young voter turnout is so high (and so Democratic) this year, including the coronavirus, resurgence in the Black Lives Matter Movement, natural disasters associated with climate change, and reactions to President Trump. According to a poll by Tufts University, 79% of young people say COVID-19 helped them realize that politics affect their everyday lives.
In general, Gen Z is also “more combative, willing to engage in confrontation and unwilling to wait for change.” According to Politico, Zoomers of voting age (18-23 yrs old) participated in greater numbers during their first midterm (2018) than previous generations had.
Although COVID-19 has influenced many to vote early by mail or in person, the historic early voting rate is not just higher due to the pandemic. All measures of voting are higher than they ever have been, says Rosenberg, who predicts there will ultimately be somewhere between 150 and 160 million votes.
“This election is fundamentally different,” commented Rosenberg. “The amount of votes is not just a sign of COVID; it’s a sign of interest. With the level of participation we're seeing, it’s very unlikely that we’re going to end up at the other end of this with levels equal or lower than 2016.”
Rosenberg says there is a “virtuous cycle” at play: When people see others voting, they feel pressure to do the same. It also allows campaigns to reach out to low-propensity voters who would not have been targeted before.
Whether or not young voters determine this election for Democrats, they are a growing force and as more Zoomers reach voting age, they could pose a real existential threat to the Republican Party. Rosenberg says it’s not necessarily true that voters get more conservative with age, and evidence suggests that the imprint left on a given generation by early political encounters is indicative of how they will vote over their lifetime.
At the end of the day, “A lot more people are voting, and a lot more people are voting Democratic,” Rosenberg says.