Voters under 30 are trending left of the general electorate
They could make a difference for Democrats in 2024 — if they bother to vote.
Voters under the age of 30 have largely been part of the Democratic camp since former President Barack Obama won two-thirds of them in 2008. That same age group may have helped put President Joe Biden over the top in 2020, and assisted Democrats in broadly overperforming expectations in the 2022 midterms. And there's some evidence that these young voters are staying liberal even as they age, defying the trend of previous generations. That's especially true of millennials, the now-27 to 42 year-olds who were so taken with Obama's first campaign. (Throughout this analysis, we use the Pew Research Center's definitions of millennials and Generation Z.)
Young voters are consistently more liberal than the general electorate is on a range of issues, according to a 538 analysis. We took a look at data from the Cooperative Election Study, a Harvard University survey of at least 60,000 Americans taken before the 2020 elections and the 2022 midterms, and found notable differences between younger voters and the general electorate on key issues like the environment, abortion and immigration. That could make a big difference in the general election — that is, if young voters actually show up to vote.
In 2020 and 2022, voters under 30 made up 21 percent of the electorate, according to our analysis of the CES data. In both of those elections, the cohort of 18 to 29 year-olds was composed of a mix of millennials and Gen Z, those born after 1996. More of Gen Z will be eligible to vote next year than ever before, and so far, they seem to be voting like the millennials that came before them. If history holds, they are likely to become more politically active as they age, and if they keep the political preferences they exhibit now, then like millennials, they'll have a bigger and bigger impact on elections to come. That impact may begin as soon as 2024.
Young voters are more diverse
Overall, young voters* have a higher share of demographic groups that tend to be more liberal. In both 2020 and 2022, only 59 percent of young voters were white, compared to 69 percent of the general electorate. And in both years, young voters were also slightly more likely to be Black, Hispanic or Asian than the general electorate. These are groups that tend to vote for Democrats and make up a large share (around one-third) of the Democratic base.
CES data shows that young voters are also, on average, becoming more educated as a voting group, a trend supported by other studies that show millennials and Gen Z are achieving higher rates of education than generations before them. Like voters of color, voters with higher levels of formal education tend to vote more Democratic. Younger generations are also less likely to identify as born again Christians (25 percent in 2022) — a group that tends to hold more conservative views on topics including abortion and LGBTQ+ rights — than the general electorate (nearly 33 percent). All of this suggests that many young voters are likely to be part of several overlapping Democratic groups, reinforcing and supporting the general leftward lean within this age bracket.
Young voters want action on the environment and climate change
Historically, addressing climate change hasn't been top-of-mind for many voters. In our post-election survey with Ipsos in 2022, only two percent of voters cited climate change as the issue that most impacted their decision on who to vote for in the midterms that year. But several surveys have shown young voters disproportionately care about climate change, so much so that the League of Conservation Voters ran a targeted ad campaign to convince them to turn out for the 2022 midterms.
There's certainly a lot of evidence that those under 30 support action by the federal government to address climate change. According to CES data, young voters in 2020 were 3 to 5 percentage points more likely than the general electorate to support a whole host of climate initiatives, including giving the Environmental Protection Agency power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, requiring that each state use a minimum amount of renewable fuels, strengthening EPA enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and raising the average fuel efficiency for all cars and trucks. And individuals in that age group who were actively registered to vote were even more supportive of environmental regulations — 8 to 10 percentage points more than the general electorate in 2020.
By the 2022 midterms, differences between 18 to 29 year-olds and the electorate as a whole were even bigger. Support for the same environmental regulations increased among young voters that year by more than 4 points on average, while support among the general electorate decreased slightly on average. Ultimately that year, young voters were 8 to 13 points more supportive of these environmental regulations than the general electorate.
While most voters seem to know little about the the landmark 2022 policy package from Biden and Congressional Democrats known as the Inflation Reduction Act, which contained a slew of policies meant to address climate change, a survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that Gen Z and millennials are the age group most supportive of the legislation once they learn about it, with 78 percent in favor.
Young voters hold more liberal views on abortion
Since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision last June that overturned the constitutional right to abortion, abortion rights has emerged as a major electoral issue for Democrats, helping them win in key elections nationwide. Those victories were propelled, in part, by young voters, who are very supportive of abortion rights. Sixty-four percent of young voters in the CES data said they supported a policy that "always allow a woman to obtain an abortion as a matter of choice" in 2020, compared with 56 percent of the general population. Those numbers increased to 70 and 59 percent in 2022, respectively.
Young voters aren't alone in becoming more liberal on reproductive health issues. More voters than ever before — especially women and Democrats — are generally supportive of abortion rights and support fewer regulations later in pregnancy, while the share of people who think abortion should be illegal in all cases, a view mainly held by Republicans, is falling. (Interestingly, this view was the only abortion issue on which young voters didn't exhibit a clear difference from the general electorate: Both were almost equally likely to support making abortion illegal in all circumstances, 21 to 20 percent in 2020, and 16 to 17 percent in 2022).
Young voters are further to the left on immigration
Immigration was at the center of former President Donald Trump's first campaign for president 8 years ago. But a younger, more racially diverse generation of Americans seems to differ critically from older voters on immigration policy, especially Republicans.
In 2020, 78 percent of young voters supported granting legal status to all illegal immigrants who have held jobs, paid taxes and not been convicted of a felony, 10 points higher than the general electorate. They were also less likely to support increasing border patrols, withdrawing federal funds from police departments that don't report the immigration status of detainees, reducing legal immigration and increasing funding for border security and building a wall. The differences were even bigger in 2022.
That sets them in sharp contrast to Republican primary voters and Republican presidential candidates, who, by and large, back the kinds of policies Trump promoted during his tenure. And it could mean that the eventual Republican nominee alienates a sizable chunk of this critical bloc if he or she is too far to the right on this and other key issues.
Young voters are further to the left but vote less
Overall, young voters in the past two elections have been further to the left than the general electorate on these and other issues, including health care, policing and foreign trade. Other surveys have shown the same. (The CES data showed young voters weren't very far from the general electorate on some of the most commonly proposed gun control policies, like banning assault rifles and bolstering the background check process for gun ownership, despite years of high-profile youth activism on the issue.)
Effective messaging on these key policy issues could be crucial for Democrats hoping to turn out the growing base of young voters more likely to align with their causes. Kelly Jacobs, a 27-year-old graduate student studying energy and environmental policy who lives in Delaware, thinks that she and her peers are deeply concerned about issues that may have mattered less to older voters. "In addition to climate change, abortion rights is probably the second most important determinant in who I end up voting for in 2024," she said. "I'm definitely more progressive in my thinking compared to the older folks I've interacted with." She pointed to fellow millennial, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, as a leader in advocating for policies like the Green New Deal.
Turnout among millennials and Gen Z, many of whom will be voting in their first presidential election, will be key in 2024. The youngest voters in any given election year have historically been the least likely to vote, with around 46 percent in that age group voting in 2016, more than 15 percentage points lower than the general electorate. Turnout rose in 2020, as it did for all groups, when an estimated 50 percent of young voters and 66 percent of the general electorate voted, but declined some in 2022 compared to the previous midterm in 2018.
One factor offsetting the muted impact of lower turnout among young voters is the fact that younger generations are starting to overtake the aging Baby Boomer generation, which still holds an outsized influence on national politics. Millennials, especially, are a huge generation and still make up a sizable chunk of young voters. "When you are a large generation, even a 1 percent shift in your voting turnout is a hell of a lot of people," said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at Brookings. "The voting behavior of those generations matters, mostly because there's just so damn many of them."
*In this analysis, "young voters" in the 2020 survey consist of all respondents born between 1991 and 2002, while young voters in 2022 were born between 1993 and 2004, regardless of their voting status at the time of the survey because this status as an active voter can easily change. The general electorate consists of all respondents who were at least 18 years old. For more information on methodology, see the italicized section below.
The Cooperative Election Survey is administered by YouGov and consists of a nationally representative sample of American adults. The 2020 pre-election survey included 61,000 adults (referred to in this analysis as the general electorate), of which 11,864 were considered young voters (ages 18 to 29 at time of survey, according to birth year) including 5,950 young, actively registered voters. The 2022 pre-election survey included 60,000 adults, of which 9,253 were considered young voters including 3,971 young, actively registered voters.
The general electorate was the broadest group of adult Americans: all adults aged 18 or older, regardless of their status as active registered voters. If we limited our analysis only to those who were active voters at the time of the survey, the analysis might not be representative of the broader general electorate that is currently eligible to vote, as an individual's status as an active registered voter can easily change.
We compared adult Americans to young electorates (among all respondents and those who were actively registered at the time of the survey) from the last two elections and found that opinions were fairly similar between years across all groups except where noted in the story above. Actively registered voters were verified by the CES, according to Catalist (in 2020) or TargetSmart (in 2022) records.