If the Iowa caucuses were supposed to provide clarity for the path ahead to the 2020 general election, that is not our current reality. By the time everyone left high school gyms and other caucus locations across the state late on Monday (February 3), the vote still hadn’t been called. That void quickly gave way to conspiracy theories, concern, and plenty of questions about who won, how a hastily-deployed app was at the center of this confusion, and what the path forward to the November general election could look like now. One thing we do know, however, builds on what we already saw in 2018: Young people showed up, and they will continue to be heard this election.
According to an entrance poll by the Washington Post, people aged 17 to 29 accounted for 24 percent of total Iowa Democratic caucus-goers in 2020. That’s up from 18 percent in 2016, and far exceeds the 12 percent of Republican attendees from that same age group from that same year. Combine that with the 21 percent of Democratic caucus-goers aged 30 to 44, and you’ll get a comprehensive view of both millennials and Generation Z, who comprise the largest bloc of potential voters that are becoming increasingly mobilized at the polls. In the 2018 midterm election, 36 percent of people aged 18 to 29 cast their ballots, a 16-percent increase from the 20 percent who voted in the 2014 midterm election.
Iowa’s status as the “first to vote” has been widely contested, and the state is by no means a perfect representation of the country as a whole — 85 percent of its residents are non-Latinx white people, and the caucus system is punishingly exclusionary by nature. But young activists still worked tirelessly to get out the vote saw their efforts pay off. Among them was the the climate activist group Sunrise Movement, whose Iowa chapter spent at least six months connecting with potential voters the hopes that they would vote for candidates who support the Green New Deal. When the group saw the initial entrance poll data on Monday, they were ecstatic, and tweeted “Looks like we're a force to be reckoned with,” from their account.
“For young people who have a lot going on in their lives, it’s a big commitment to turn out for the caucus,” Stephen O’Hanlon, Sunrise Movement communications director, told MTV News. “The fact that so many young people turned out is really notable, and is a sign of what’s to come in the coming months as we go through other primaries and caucuses.” He added that the rise in youth voter turnout in Iowa will likely be replicated in other states, where voting is imminent or has already begun.
“If young people are willing to put in the time in Iowa, they’re definitely going to be willing to go vote in primaries, in New Hampshire, and on Super Tuesday,” he said. “That can totally shift the 2020 race.”
Young people have always mobilized around the issues that matter to them, pushing back against the narrative that they don’t understand politics, or simply don’t care. While they have held some of the lowest voter turnout levels in past elections, there are a few reasons for that: Many are understandably skeptical of parties that have never seemed to center their needs or otherwise pander to them rather than sincerely engage; furthermore, disabilities or prior engagements, like school or an hourly job, can impact someone’s ability to make it to a polling place. Those roadblocks are steadily being dismantled across the country: In January, Illinois passed a law ensuring adult students would be granted two hours to cast their vote on election day, and plenty of activists are working to ensure their movements are as accessible as possible.
John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, wasn’t surprised by the rise in the youth vote on Monday; the Institute published a poll last April in which 43 percent of respondents aged 18 to 29 indicated a desire to participate in their state’s nomination process. Those numbers align with data that has held steady since 2017, when Donald Trump assumed the presidency. “We’ve seen increasing interest among both millennials and Generation Z to participate in politics,” Della Volpe told MTV News. And while he noted that early polls pointed to an “overall flat” caucus participation level from 2016 to 2020, he is heartened that the youth vote in Iowa rose in accordance with their share of the general population.
“A lot of pundits are saying that the electorate general is not as enthusiastic as it needs to be in order to beat Trump from the Democrat side, which may or may not be the case,” he said. “But what’s most noteworthy, if the data holds, is that Gen Xers and baby boomers were the ones who were less likely to have shown up Monday night. We saw an increasing share of young people, who needed to take those points from somewhere else. Almost all of those points were taken from that middle-aged group.” Per the Post’s entrance poll, 28 percent of Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa were between the ages of 45 and 64.
The dismissive write-off that young people “don’t care” about politics has been debunked plenty of times before, and data like this suggests that campaigns who still ignore the demands of an increasingly progressive bloc are all but ensuring their own failure. In addition to voting and even running for office themselves, many young people are ensuring their peers are registered and informed about the issues that matter to them.
“When we ask people what issues they’re concerned about in this election, again and again, climate change comes up as often the issue that people are using to decide who they’re going to vote for,” O’Hanlon said. That concern likely explains why 48 percent of entrance poll respondents aged 18 to 29 indicated support for Sanders, who was an early backer of the Green New Deal and debuted a comprehensive climate policy of his own last August.
“What unites young people today is fear: Fear of the future, fear for their family, fear for losing their freedoms, fear for their health,” Della Volpe said. “But the good news is that fear is being channeled in many cases to activism. Rather than tuning out and withdrawing, they seem to become leaning in again.”
“Our generation knows what's at stake in this election,” O’Hanlon added. “We're seeing the impacts of climate change shape our lives every day. We're struggling with student debt, seeing our healthcare system totally fail us, and living in fear every day about what our future's going to look like. This election is an opportunity to elect a president who will stand up for us and will take on Wall Street and the oil and gas lobby, and young people are jumping at the opportunity to try and make that happen.”
But that opposition to President Donald Trump and the policies he’s enforced or rolled back over the course of his administration doesn’t mean the Democratic candidate should take the youth vote for granted. O’Hanlon pointed to the lack of voter enthusiasm about Hillary Clinton as a harbinger of what could happen in November. “No matter who the nominee is, Sunrise is going to be doing everything in our power to turn out our generation to defeat Donald Trump,” he said. “But we know from 2016 and 2018 that the path to turning out young people in huge numbers is by nominating candidates who really speak to our generation, are serious about taking on the political establishment, and fighting for us.” In January, the group formally endorsed Sanders by an overwhelming majority vote, the New York Times reported.
Whether the data informs how candidates and their campaigns perform their outreach to young people remains to be seen — “It is literally the earliest day,” as Della Volpe pointed out. But he cautions politicians and pundits alike to pay closer attention to young people, and to seriously engage with their questions and concerns, which are primarily rooted in an increasingly progressive belief that Americans of all identities simply deserve better than what the country has been offering. They have always had the power to impact elections, and now, thanks to social media and other methods of 21st-century organizing, they’re making it even more impossible for anyone to ignore them.
Over 4 million people will turn 18 between now and the 2020 election. MTV's +1thevote is encouraging all potential first-time voters to register and vote this November. It's time to make voting easier to do, and part of the milestones already happening in your life, from prom to graduation to birthdays. It's a year-long party and +1thevote is inviting you to help us shape the future. Who's your +1?