Over the past four years, the activism and political engagement of young Americans has reached an astonishing level. Young people across the country, from big cities to small rural towns, have led marches and sustained movements to fight for solutions to the issues that matter to them. Breaking with tired stereotypes and stale pundit predictions, they turned out to vote in record numbers in the 2018 midterms and sent the youngest and most diverse cohort of new lawmakers into government. But the story doesn’t end there. The momentum of Millennials and Generation Z’s political participation has only accelerated since 2018—and data show that they are poised to play a significant role in determining the results of the 2020 election.
The impact of these generations on the outcome of the election hinges on two key factors that data have indicated the country is likely to see: a sizable swing in youth voter choice and a sharp increase in voter turnout.
Since the end of the Democratic primaries, young voters have coalesced around Joe Biden’s candidacy, favoring him over Trump by near-historic margins. According to the just-released Fall 2020 Harvard Youth Poll, young voters favor Biden by 38 percentage points, a split that is 19 points greater than the split between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Other polls, including the most recent YouGov poll, have estimated the split to be 33 points, which is still a sizable and significant increase from the Clinton-Trump split. This represents one of the greatest voter choice shifts of any voter constituency since 2016.
If young people comprise the same share of the electorate that they held in 2016, which was 19 percent according to exit polls, the shift in young voters’ candidate preferences would yield 5 to 6 million more young votes for Biden than Clinton received.
Young voters’ impact could be even more significant in swing states. In Texas, for example, a recent poll suggests that Joe Biden has a slight lead in large part because of his success with Texas’ youngest voters. Eighteen- to 24-year-old likely voters favor Biden by a whopping 63 points and 25- to 34-year-old voters favor Biden by 29 points. Per the 2016 exit polls, Clinton won 18- to 29-year-old voters by just 19 points.
In North Carolina, Biden has a 33-point lead with 18- to 29-year-old voters, compared to a 22-point split for Clinton in 2016—and in Georgia, Biden is polling 41 points ahead of Trump with 18- to 29-year-old voters, compared to a 30-point Clinton-Trump split in 2016. In Florida, polling suggests Biden has a 33-point lead with young voters, compared to an 18-point Clinton-Trump split in 2016.
The overwhelming support of 18- to 29-year-olds is a big reason that Biden is competitive in these battleground states.
Forecasts and early vote data suggest that youth turnout will increase in this election compared to 2016 and 2018. Even before early voting started, there was good reason to expect that youth turnout would be impressive, starting with the momentum that originated around the 2018 midterm elections. That year, voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds jumped by 79 percent from the previous midterm election, and electoral enthusiasm has grown since then.
The Harvard Youth Poll also found strong markers of voter enthusiasm among young people: sixty-three percent of 18- to 29- year-olds respondents say they will “definitely be voting” in 2020, compared to 47 percent during this same time before the 2016 presidential election. If young people turn out at the rate they did in 2008, which these metrics suggest is highly possible, the impact of their voting bloc will be even more weighty.
Voter registration was another early indicator of high potential turnout. Despite a pandemic that has made it much more difficult for on-the-ground groups to organize, register, and activate potential voters, as of October 27, 2020, there were higher registration numbers among 18- to 24-year-olds in 32 out of 40 states—including in the key battleground states of Michigan, North Carolina, Arizona, Colorado, and Georgia—compared to November 2016. These registration numbers likely grew further following huge digital efforts, including National Voter Registration Day on September 22, 2020, which saw 1.5 million people register—the highest-ever figure for any National Voter Registration Day.
But there is no longer a need to talk strictly in hypotheticals. Now that early voting has started, there is concrete evidence that young people are eager and ready to vote. As of October 27, 2020, over 6 million people under the age of 30 have already cast a ballot either by early in-person voting or voting by mail, and around 60 percent of those voters did not vote in 2016.
In battleground states, early turnout is even more significant—nearly 3 million of under-30 votes cast have been in the fourteen states considered most critical to the outcome of the presidential election. Young people under age 30 in Florida have already cast 433,700 ballots, compared to just 134,700 ballots cast by that age group at this point in 2016. In Michigan, 170,600 early or absentee votes have been cast by voters under 30 compared to only 14,900 in 2016.
Voters of all ages are voting earlier this year because of the COVID pandemic, but young voters are outpacing their older counterparts and represent a larger share of the electorate at this stage than in 2016. Some of the most significant gains are in the battleground states.
As the election progresses and the nation inches closer to Election Day on November 3, the evidence that Millennials and Generation Z will have a significant impact on this election continues to mount. Young people are voting early in huge numbers, but the election is far from over, and it is likely that young voters will continue flocking to the polls until they close on November 3. When the election is over, young people must be seen as the important voter constituency that they are, and the worn-out narrative that young people are too disengaged to vote should be retired once and for all.