What Didn't Happen?

Young Voters

Young Voters 

SOON AFTER THE 2016 election, some analysts identified young voters as a group that was key in swinging the presidency to Donald Trump. Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, for example, stated that lower-than-expected support from young voters was “why we lost.”7 Overall youth voter turnout was not unusually low in 2016, however. In fact, voters age 18 to 29 were the only age group that participated at a significantly higher rate than in 2012, up from 45 percent to 46.1 percent nationally.8 In raw numbers, an estimated 21.62 million voters age 18 to 29 cast ballots in 2016 (15.7 percent of the electorate), out of a total of 46.87 million (20.9 percent of eligible voters) who could have done so.9

Secretary Clinton ultimately carried a smaller share of 18 to 29 year-old voters than President Obama did in 2012, however. Even as this demographic gave Clinton a much larger margin than any other age group, her 55 percent paled in comparison to Obama’s 60 percent. Further, according to exit polls, Clinton did worse among young voters in some decisive swing states. In Florida, for example, Obama defeated Mitt Romney among young voters by a 34-point margin. Clinton won the same group by only 18 points. In Pennsylvania, Obama won by 28 points, while Clinton’s edge was just nine. Most dramatically, the margin of young people in Wisconsin favoring Obama in 2012 was 23 points, but sank to just three for Clinton in 2016.10

Clinton’s losses among young voters are best explained by disaggregating the age group by race/ethnicity. First, if we break down the overall 18 to 29 yearold turnout, we see that the increased participation rate is concentrated in one segment of these voters: whites. Indeed, Census Bureau estimates show that young white voters are the age-race group that most increased its 2016 participation rate over that from 2012. Though young Latinxs and Asian Americans also went to the polls in greater numbers in 2016, their share of the youth vote did not grow on pace with their share of the voting-eligible population. Meanwhile, turnout among young African Americans fell considerably since the last presidential election.11

The growing share of the youth electorate made up of whites was, as with all age groups, far more likely than the rest of its age cohort to support Trump. An estimated 46 percent of the young adults who voted for Trump were young white men, and another 33 percent were young white women.12 Trump in fact won more of the votes of young whites than Clinton did, though it is significant to note that both candidates did worse with this group than their respective parties’ 2012 candidates. Whereas Clinton lost young white voters 47-43, President Obama lost them to Mitt Romney 51-44. 

These figures point to a final significant trend in youth voting in 2016: a spike in the number of votes cast outside the two major parties. Among white voters age 18 to 29, the rate of “third-party” voting increased from 5 to 10 percent since the previous election. For voters of color in the same age range, it went from around 2 to 6 percent. When we expand to include all voters under the age of 40—accounting for around 31 percent of the 2016 electorate—between 9.5 and 10 percent voted for someone other than the Democratic or Republican nominees for president.13 This is well above the 4 percent of voters age 40+ who did so, not to mention the 2-3 percent of the under-40 cohort that voted third party in the previous two elections.

This section has shown that the claim that young voters did not turn out in 2016 is misleading. To understand the influence of the 18 to 29 year-old electorate, we must further disaggregate the group by race/ethnicity. Doing so reveals that turnout rates decreased among young people of color, but actually increased among young whites. Clinton’s margin among young people did not reach the level of President Obama’s due to these shifts, as well as the influence of high rates of third-party voting.

Voters age 18 to 29 turned out less than other groups, but increased their participation rate relative to 2012, from 45 percent to 46.1 percent.

Young voters supported Hillary Clinton by a larger margin than any other age group, but the share of their vote she received (55 percent) was smaller than that for President Obama in 2012 (60 percent)

The increase in young voter turnout was almost entirely comprised of young white voters, who were far more likely than young voters of color to support Donald Trump.

  • 7. Aaron Blake, “Yes, you can blame millennials for Hillary Clinton’s loss,” The Washington Post, December 2, 2016.
  • 8. Young voters participated at the unusually high rate of 51 percent in 2008. See Thom File, “Voting in America: A Look at the 2016 Presidential Election,” Census Blogs, United States Census Bureau, May 10, 2017.
  • 9. United States Census Bureau, “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2016,” May 2017, Table 1.
  • 10. As Blake cautions, these state-level figures are inexact representations that likely overestimate the change in youth vote margins. But assuming, as we do, that they are not radically inaccurate, they suggest a shift in youth voting with significant implications. See Blake, “Yes, you can blame millennials for Hillary Clinton’s loss.”
  • 11. File, “Voting in America.”
  • 12. William A. Galston and Clara Hendrickson, “How Millennials voted this election,” The Brookings Institution, November 21, 2016.
  • 13. This 9.5-10 percent range is consistent for national exit polls and the larger sample of voters surveyed in the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES).