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Young voters shaped the 2020 election. Can they do it again in 2024?

A new poll by 538 indicates that Biden and Trump are in a dead heat. That makes the edge that the youngest voters could give to either candidate that much more important. Divisive issues like Gaza and abortion may tip the scales and lure Gen Z to the polls.

Photo by Kari Sullivan via Unsplash

By Cameron Priester | MediaLab@FAU

Jun 19, 2024

After leaving their mark on both the 2020 and 2022 election cycles with near-record turnouts, young voters are ​expected to again have a tangible impact on the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.

In the 2020 election, President Joe Biden’s victory was boosted by a sweeping win over his opponent, former ​president Donald Trump, amongst young voters. Voters under the age of 30, according to the Pew Research ​Center, favored Biden over Trump by a whopping 24 percentage points in 2020 (Biden 59%, Trump 35%).

Biden’s victory in the first-time and young adult voter category was made all the more paramount by their ​huge turnout to the polls, which was a vast increase from 2016 and the highest young voter participation rate in ​decades. 

“I have said this multiple times and I’ll say it again: youth have, historically, not turned out,” said Jayden ​D’Onofrio, Chairman of the Florida Future Leaders PAC. “But that changed in 2018, that changed in 2020 ​and it changed in 2022.” 

More than half—an estimated 55%—of eligible voters aged 18 to 29 cast their ballots in the 2020 presidential ​election, according to Statista Research, a sharp uptick from the 44% turnout from that group in the most ​recent 2016 presidential election. That 55% in 2020 also marked the largest young voter turnout in over 40 ​years, the highest since 55.4% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the 1972 presidential election.

The momentum from 2020 rolled over to the midterm elections as young voters turned out to the polls at high ​rates. An estimated 23% of eligible voters aged 18 to 29 cast a ballot in the 2022 midterm elections, according ​to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. 

Though 2022 yielded a 5% decrease from the 28% of young voters that turned out for the 2018 midterms, it ​still represents a significant increase from the eye-poppingly low 13% turnout in the 2014 midterms. 

But the seeds of this turnout increase among voters were sown before Biden or Trump were even campaigning ​for the oval office. Signs started to show when former President Barack Obama was on the trail. 

“I will tell you, the youth vote was particularly strong in both of Obama’s elections,” said Dr. Kevin Wagner, ​dean and professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University.

In the 2008 presidential election between ​Obama and Sen. John McCain, an ​estimated 52% of eligible voters between ​the ages of 18 and 29 cast a ballot, ​according to Circle, which stood as a ​record-high in the 21st century and the ​most since the same percentage turned out ​in 1992. 

Those numbers dipped slightly to 50% in ​Obama’s second election cycle in 2012, ​falling again in 2016 to 44% in 2016 before ​the record turnout that the 2020 ​presidential election drew.

“In fact, I think in one of Obama’s elections, the 18 to 25 turnout was actually a higher turnout than over 65, ​which is very, very unusual,” Wagner said. “I don’t think Biden reached quite those levels, but the youth vote ​did turn out relatively well in those elections.”

Now, as Biden and Trump gear up for a rematch in November, young voters are expected to again be a driving ​force in the 2024 presidential election. 

Only “a handful of votes” gave Biden the edge in 2020, and the latest poll published by 538, a leading polling aggregator, said the incumbent and former President Trump are “locked in a practically tied race.”

In this cycle, however, experts say more and more young voters are ​being driven to the polling stations by specific issues rather than allegiance to a given political party.

The Supreme Court’s polarizing decision in June 2022 to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which ​protected the right to an abortion, was forecasted then—and still is now—to be a hot button issue amongst ​young voters, one that has a tangible effect on their lives and would motivate them to hit the polls. 

But experts say young voters in this election are being driven by a multitude of issues—the cost of education, ​the cost of living, climate change, multiple wars happening overseas—not just the issue of the right to an ​abortion.

“I think the cost of education is the biggest issue,” Wagner said of what appears to be most pressing to young ​voters. “Certainly for many young voters the conflict in the Middle East, especially Israel, has become a pretty ​big issue for them as well. And one of the things that seems to be consistently important is the high cost of ​living.”

In the 2022 midterms, 59% of youth—the highest of any age group—said President Biden was “not a factor” ​in their vote, according to a survey done by CIRCLE. This signaled to many that in a presidential election in ​2024, young voters will again be driven by issues, not candidates. 

Furthermore, a survey conducted in December by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that 69% of ​young women and 55% of young men described the issue of the right to an abortion as “very important.” And ​as protests over the war in Gaza have turned to unrest and even violence at university campuses across the country, that, too, is ​expected to be a deciding factor for many young voters come November. 

“There is a lot of availability,” D’Onofrio said, “to really cast immense influence for youth here in this ​election.”

No matter which way they cast their ballot, the youth voter turnout in this election will be their chance for an ​entire generation’s voice to be heard.

“This is what I always tell my students when they ask me, 'Should I vote': If you want to be accounted for, if ​you want your issues to matter,” said Wagner, “then you have to turn out.”

Photo by Phil Scroggs via Unsplash

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