Why 2020 could be the year of the young voter

Oct 27, 2020, 8:05 AM | Updated: 9:27 am
Students vote at a polling station on the campus of the University of California Irvine, on Novembe...
Students vote at a polling station on the campus of the University of California Irvine, on November 6, 2018 in Irvine, California on election day. - Americans vote Tuesday in critical midterm elections that mark the first major voter test of Donald Trump's presidency, with control of Congress at stake. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

    (CNN) — Just after sunup on a Saturday morning, when most college students are still sound asleep, sophomore Libby Klinger stands outside her dorm waiting to be picked up.

In the car are three fellow members of the University of Virginia College Republicans, all ready to spend the day knocking on doors to get out the GOP vote.

“People are really fired up and involved more than ever, which is amazing to see that level of involvement from such young people,” Klinger said while canvassing for votes.

Meanwhile, the college Democrats set up phone banks on the campus lawn and use an app that allows people who need a ride to vote early to find one.

Students display “I Voted” stickers on their phones and laptops.

Signs that young voters are more engaged than in past elections are everywhere this year, with a once-in-a-century pandemic and the most polarizing president in modern history driving a surge in energy and focus toward politics among a younger generation.

Build your own road to 270 electoral votes with CNN’s interactive map

Turnout among young voters is usually low, but organizers and activists hope that 2020 could be different.

“It is everywhere on my social media, in my circles,” said Kate Rasmussen, a freshman.

“People on social media, they’ll post a picture of them and their ballot, and their ‘I voted’ sticker. Of course, I’m only 19, I haven’t seen that many or been aware of that many presidential elections, but this seems different, from what I can see.”

That difference is backed up by data: 2020 has been a record-shattering year for early voting among young people. Early voting among people aged 18 to 29 is up across the 14 critical states, according to data from Catalist, a company that provides data, analytics and other services to Democrats, academics and nonprofit issue-advocacy organizations and is giving insights into who is voting before November.

In Minnesota, a state where Hillary Clinton won by only about 44,000 votes in 2016 and the Trump campaign is hoping to flip this year, younger voters have seen the largest increase in their share of the early vote — up roughly 7%.

In the battleground of Florida, the share of the youth vote is almost double what it was this time four years ago.

It remains to be seen whether young voters will actually turn out in higher numbers overall, or are just voting earlier this year.

But there are signs enthusiasm is up. In CNN’s polling, 51% of registered voters ages 18 to 34 say they are extremely or very enthusiastic to vote in 2020. In 2016, that number was just 30%.

“It seems like everyone is more interested in voting this year,” said Courtney Britt, who is with the national College Republicans. “I don’t know if it’s because the pandemic has reduced the number of activities that we can do, but everyone’s turned their attention” to the election.

She added, “There’s fewer sports to follow. So, this is the thing everyone is focused on.”

Excitement for issues over candidates

In interviews with CNN, students at the University of Virginia said they were motivated more by the issues and less by the candidates themselves.

Students voting Democrat said the climate crisis and the fight for racial equality top their list of issues, along with defeating President Donald Trump. Republicans said it’s the economy and jobs driving them to vote for the President’s reelection.

“He was almost none of our members’ first choice,” Keira Goddu, the president of UVA College Democrats, said of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. “Even when we got to Super Tuesday, almost all of our members voted for somebody else in the primary. But I think for us, there was a very quick rallying to, this is just what we have to do. And we want him to win.”

“I am not excited about him. But I liked that he at least focuses on climate policy. That’s the closest thing that I can align with him on — that’s about it,” 19-year-old Vishal Talla said as he took a break from throwing a football with his buddies on the UVA lawn.

A group of young women sitting close by — all of whom voted for Biden already — voiced a similar sentiment when asked if they are excited about him.

“No,” replied Cyndie Bolton flatly.

“I’m excited that we won’t have a President who disavows racial equity training in public places,” Makana Brooks said.

Visit CNN’s Election Center for full coverage of the 2020 race

The university is in Charlottesville, Virginia, where in 2017 a white supremacist rally took place. Afterward, the President said there were good people on both sides of the rally and the counter-protest to it. Biden called Trump’s response the reason he decided to run for President.

“I was not happy with the way Trump reacted to the white supremacists’ rallies that happened here,” said 20-year-old Daniel Strauch in explaining his early vote for Biden.

Christopher Tomlin, head of UVA College Republicans, said he was a supporter of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016.

“Trump, I had my concerns he wasn’t too conservative,” Tomlin said. “However, I’m a big fan of the tax cuts, a lot of his foreign policy actions and things like that. Again, not a fan of everything he’s done. But again, I think compared with the competition, I think he’s definitely the better of the two.”

Kaylee Corvin, who already cast her vote for Trump, echoed those sentiments.

“I like his foreign policy. I like his tax cuts. I don’t always agree with the things he does as a person. I don’t believe that he always serves as the best role model,” she said.

Youth voter registration up

New research from Tisch College’s CIRCLE at Tufts University, which studies youth voting trends, shows that in 32 of 40 states for which it has data, voter registration among young people is higher now that it was in November of 2016.

In many of the states that will determine the outcome of the presidential race like Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the increase in youth registration was modest.

But in Georgia — a battleground in the presidential race and a state with both of its Senate seats on the ballot — youth voter registration skyrocketed, with an increase of more than 33%, making the young voters potentially critical in the outcome of races there.

That alone could make the traditionally red state of Georgia more competitive given that the state’s young voters went for Democratic candidates by a 30-point margin compared to the overall electorate, according to CIRCLE’s research.

Being registered does not mean that someone will actually cast a vote. In 2016, according to Catalist data, 28 million 18- to 29-year-olds were registered in 43 states where data was available, but only 19 million young people in those states voted

But the youth vote in the 2018 midterm elections shattered records.

“Young people, the oldest Gen Z-ers and the youngest Millennials, voted at rates higher than Baby Boomers when they were young, when Gen X, when they were young,” Abby Kiesa, a researcher at CIRCLE, said of 2018 turnout.

She said the mass protests this year could keep that surge going, because their studies show there is a relationship between protesting and voting.

“We found that young people who were marching and demonstrating not only were more likely to be registering people to vote but were much more likely to be talking to other young people about the election and issues that they care about,” Kiesa said.

Earlier this year, CIRCLE researchers were concerned that because of the pandemic, young voters would have trouble figuring out how to register to vote, but their new data show that has not borne out.

Finding young voters where they are

The Biden campaign motto in reaching young voters is finding them where they are. That means investing money and time in online platforms, from social media to gaming.

They launched Biden-Harris designs for players on the popular Nintendo game “Animal Crossing,” and got a lot of buzz recently with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez playing the game “Among Us” on the platform Twitch.

The Biden campaign also goes out of its way to engage influencers followed on social media by millions of young people. Biden did a live chat with singer Cardi B, and his granddaughters Finnegan, Maisy and Naomi have done several Instagram sessions with people from model Kaia Gerber to Maddie Ziegler of the television show “Dance Moms.”

They have a full-time staffer who oversees that engagement with young voters, and other who coordinates “Students for Biden,” which the campaign says has 400 chapters across the country.

Most celebrities and influencers skew liberal, so the Trump campaign and College Republicans are focused largely on peer-to-peer contacts.

“We’re promoting digital advertising on platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and other mediums. I think that young people care more about the ideas and the policies and the platforms than they do care about the endorsements from Hollywood and people like that,” argued Chandler Thornton, Chairman of the College Republican National Committee.

“One silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that we’ve all really been leaning into this digital world. We’re finding that we can connect with more young voters across the country on Zoom and on online platforms. So, I would say we’ve actually engaged more voters across the country online and over the phone now than we ever have before,” said Thornton.

The Trump Victory program, coordinated by the Republican National Committee, just wrapped up a March Madness-like competition they called “Maga Madness” that was aimed at mobilizing young supporters to maximize door knocking and phone banking.

The RNC said the result was over 3.1 million voter contacts, which compared to 2.5 million voters contacts in 2018.

Wisconsin’s young Republicans won the competition.

“It is a bit different this year because of the global pandemic, that’s not scaring people away from helping canvas and helping campaign for President Trump,” said Keely Collins, communications director for University of Wisconsin at Madison’s College Republicans.

“There has been a huge push for voter registration at UW Madison specifically. We’ve seen an increase in the number of people asking questions about how to get registered to vote and trying to get registered to vote,” she added.

Trump’s surprise Wisconsin win in 2016 helped secure his victory. Before that, no Republican had won the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Reagan won the under 30 vote in the Midwest 60% to 38%, per the exit poll.

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Why 2020 could be the year of the young voter