Young Voters: the Good News Story of 2020

An increase in turnout among young voters helped deliver the White House to Biden

Readers of this newsletter, Pod Save America listeners, and my friends and family know me as someone who can find a dark lining in a silver cloud. A friend once referred to me as someone who sees a glass as 1/10th empty. This (potentially annoying) personal tendency has manifested itself in much of my post-election analysis. I have focused on the areas where Democrats came up short or the structural challenges our party faces going forward. So today, I am going to go against type and talk about some good news: a spike in youth turnout.

In a race that was decided by less than 50,000 votes in three states (scary, huh?), young voters clearly played a decisive role in delivering the presidency to Biden. Understanding how and why that happened is essential. With a very tough House and Senate battlefield looming in 2022, Democrats need to keep these voters engaged in politics even as Donald Trump fades (hopefully) into the background.

Young Voters Save the Day

On paper, Joe Biden — a 78 year old, career politician running on a more moderate platform — did not seem like the candidate to fire up young voters. Biden won the primary despite struggling with younger voters. Even in South Carolina, where Biden won an overwhelming victory, Bernie Sanders beat Biden among voters age 17-29 by 16 points according to exit polls. Concerns about Biden’s performance with young voters persisted during the general election. I worked with Change Research on a series of polls of young voters. Our September poll indicated the Biden campaign had some work to do:

Younger voters under 30 report far less motivation to vote than their older counterparts. Just over half of voters 18-29 rate themselves a 10/10 in motivation to vote in the Presidential race. By comparison, approximately 8 in 10 voters 30-40 (77%) rate themselves a 10/10. White voters are more motivated than voters of color: 74% of White voters are a 10/10, compared to 59% of Latinx voters and only 34% of Black voters.

However, all of those fears were for naught. Young voters turned out in droves and overwhelmingly supported Biden. According to a recent report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University:

52%-55% of voting-eligible young people, ages 18-29, cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election. Using the same methodology and data from a week after the election in 2016, we had previously estimated that youth voter turnout in 2016 was 42-44%.

In many ways the 2020 election is very difficult to interpret. The unique circumstances of the pandemic and the reliance on new types of voting make it challenging to compare results against previous elections. The growing gap between the national popular vote margin (giant ass kicking) and the margin in the states that delivered the Electoral College (skin of our teeth) to Biden can also make it hard to determine what was truly decisive. The CIRCLE study makes it clear that the increase in young voters was about more than padding Biden’s margins in New York and California. According to estimates based on exit polls, CIRCLE found that young voters in Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia gave Biden a margin much larger than the amounts by which he won those states.

To put a very fine point on it: if young voters turned out at the level they did in 2016, Donald Trump would be entering his second term.

Youth Organizing

Before I get to the decisions that the Biden campaign made to increase turnout among young voters, there is another part of the story that cannot get lost. The increase in youth turnout was the result of years of grassroots — often local — organizing by young people. Back when we were allowed out of our homes, I spent the last months of the 2018 election visiting battleground states with Pod Save America. At most of our stops, we would meet with local youth organizers. To a person, these folks were incredibly impressive individuals running highly sophisticated organizing campaigns in their communities and on college campuses. Many of them were too young to vote in the upcoming election, but weren’t dissuaded from spending every free moment trying to get others to vote. A lot of these efforts were sparked by Trump’s shocking win in 2016. Others got involved in politics as part of the March for Lives movement after the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida or to combat climate change.

In 2020, young organizers flocked to Black Lives Matter protests to register voters. These efforts has a huge impact. According to a report in the New York Times:

Now, new voter registration data shows that a surge in sign-ups driven by the protests may have indeed rippled across the electorate. In the first half of June, a month when, during an election year, voter registration normally suffers from a summer lull, more than 520,000 Democrats registered to vote. That’s a nearly 50 percent increase over the previous month’s total and a rate that outpaced Republicans in nearly every state during those two weeks, according to data compiled by TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm.

Other groups started by young people recruited poll workers, chased mail ballots, and helped fight voter suppression. NextGen, the political organization started by Tom Steyer, spent millions registering and turning out young voters. Without these efforts, Joe Biden doesn’t win. It is on all of us — including the Biden White House and the national Democratic Party — to listen to these organizers, nurture their efforts, and fold them into the large progressive strategy.

A Focus on the Issues that Matter

When the story of this campaign (and perhaps the planet) is written, Biden’s decision to adopt a bold climate plan in the general election will play a prominent role. Democratic nominees usually kick off the general elections with moves to the middle to demonstrate their appeal to the independents and swing voters whose voices were not heard in the Democratic primary. Biden did the opposite and he may have won because of it.

In the primary, Biden rolled out a climate plan that would have been seen as quite progressive in any other election. His plan, however, was significantly more moderate than those of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and the Green New Deal that animated activists across the country. Biden could have easily just stood pat. Instead, he charged Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and former Secretary of State John Kerry with developing a climate plan. While the end result of that process was not the Green New Deal, it was big enough and bold enough to excite young voters and get buy-in from climate activists like the Sunrise Movement.

In October, another poll in that Change Research project found that informing young voters about the specifics of Biden’s climate plan was highly effective with less enthusiastic young voters. According to the poll, Forty-one percent of voters 18-40 that expressed less enthusiasm for voting, 59 percent of Black voters, and 57 percent of Latinx voters said they were much more excited to vote for Joe Biden after hearing about his climate plan.

The Biden campaign clearly understood the power of climate with young voters and messaged it aggressively down the stretch. When Jon Lovett and I spoke to Biden on Pod Save America, he spent much of the interview talking about how he planned to tackle climate change.

The Biden campaign also made climate change a focus of their advertising. They ran an ad in Michigan that focused on the impact that climate change has an agriculture, an ad in Arizona that focused on a firefighter battling climate change-related wildfires, and a very clever digital spot that put the stakes of the election in the context of Trump’s denial of climate change.

The Biden campaign also focused a lot of their earned and paid media on two other issues that the CIRCLE study found to be important to young voters: COVID and racism.

The lesson here for future campaigns is that speaking to young voters consistently about the issues they care about and supporting their grassroots organizing works. You can’t wait till the last minute. It takes time, effort, and investment.

The 2020 election demonstrated the substantial structural advantage Republicans have in the Electoral College and the Senate. When combined with the complete authoritarian lunacy of the bulk of the Republican Party, it’s easy to get cynical about the near term future of American politics. But here’s the thing that gives me hope: young voters are overwhelmingly progressive and they have shown in two consecutive elections that they are ready to make their mark. It is incumbent on all us to make sure our politicians and our policies are worthy vessels for the grassroots movements that young people are building. If Democrats do that, we win. It’s that simple.