US election

Turnout Series: Young Voters are Unreliable

By October 3, 2016 No Comments

By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst

In the first of our series on turnout in American presidential elections, we take a look at turnout broken down by age groups. The youth vote is particularly interesting, because young voters have both the lowest turnout rates, and their turnout rates also fluctuate the most. In contrast, older voters turnout at higher rates, and also more reliably. Voters over the age of 60 are particularly likely to vote, and their turnout rate is remarkably stable around about 70%.

Turnout Rate By Age Group


This year, one of the big questions is what the turnout rate among young voters will be. Youth vote turnout rates were particularly high in 1992 and 2008, both years when young, Democratic candidates generated enthusiasm and were thus able to turn out young voters in larger numbers. It also was higher in 2004, when many young voters were animated by opposition to the Iraq War.

Hillary Clinton has a significant polling lead with young voters over Donald Trump. But they are not particularly enthusiastic about her either, with many saying they will vote for a third party candidate instead, primarily because they don’t trust Hillary Clinton. This is making it hard for Clinton to replicate this key part of the Obama coalition of 2008.

Clinton has invested significant time and resources into appealing more to younger voters, for example by appearing on the web comedy show Between Two Ferns, and sophisticated social media outreach, as well as her primary opponent Bernie Sanders encouraging young voters to turn out for her. By emphasizing to young voters that a vote for a third party candidate could hand Trump the keys to the White House, as Ralph Nader did for George W. Bush in 2000, Clinton is hoping she can convince enough young voters to come through for her in the end.

Despite this, all signs point to a year in which there will be comparatively low turnout rates among young voters, potentially even as low as 35%. Even among those who do turn out, many may choose to vote for a third party candidate, creating a headache for Hillary Clinton. This means that as a share of the electorate, young voters below the age of 29 may well return to providing only around 15% of the electorate or less.

Share of the Electorate by Age Group

Meanwhile, voters who are older than 60 have increased as a share of the electorate to where they are the largest at 31.5% in 2012. This is largely thanks to an overall ageing population and the fact that they vote reliably at very high levels. It gives Trump an advantage, since he leads with voters over the age of 45.

The fact that the age groups that favor Trump voters already turn out more reliably may be a big reason why his campaign has concluded that they do not need to have as extensive get-out-the-vote efforts as the Clinton campaign, instead focusing their efforts on defending their ground with reliable Republican Party voters.

On the other side, Clinton has sought to portray Trump as unacceptable and dangerous, in the hope that this will depress turnout among the generations that remember the Cold War well.


[Data: United States Elections Project at the University of Florida]