CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

How Do Young People Decide Who to Vote for?

Data from past elections suggest that young voters care more about issues than candidates’ perceived personal qualities, but given a choice of personal qualities, they especially favor candidates whom they feel are “in touch with” people like them. This is the first of two posts about what matters to young voters; the second will consider the question through the lens of party identification.

Issues or Leadership/Personal Qualities?

In both 2000 and 2008—two very different presidential cycles, which resulted in two very different outcomes among youth[1]—voters of all ages were more likely to report that issue positions were important to their vote than leadership/personal qualities, with young voters valuing issue positions by a wider margin than any other age group.

In 2000 and 2008 (but not 2004 or 2012), the national exit poll asked voters “Which was more important in your vote for president today?” and gave two options: “My candidate’s positions on issues” or “My candidate’s leadership/personal qualities.” In 2000, 69% of 18 to 29-year-olds answered “My candidate’s positions on issues;” and in 2008 said the same.

These results suggest that criticism of young voters as superficial (e.g. preferring candidates because they are “cool”) may be a misconception.

Which Candidate Quality Mattered Most?

While most young people may care more about issues than personal qualities, the latter can still loom large in voters’ estimation of candidates. In the last four presidential cycles, the national exit poll asked which candidate quality “mattered most in deciding how you voted for president.” From year to year, the possible answers have changed, making comparisons between years impractical.  Additionally, the number of possible answers was reduced from seven to four in 2008.

Almost half of youth who voted in 2008 reported that a candidate’s ability to “bring about needed change” was most important to them, more than coalesced around any other quality. It’s reasonable to think that this answer may have been influenced by the Obama campaign’s “Change” narrative. This option was not in the exit poll in 2012; however, a third of young voters reported that a candidate’s having a “vision for the future” was most important to their vote. Both of these answers look forward, which could be indicative of young people’s interest in candidates who talk about what is possible instead of what has been.

In a separate exit poll question asked in 2008 (but not in other years), voters were asked, “Which candidate is in touch with people like you?” Perhaps unsurprisingly, young people generally chose the candidate for whom they voted. Indeed, in that presidential contest, youth vote choice (i.e. which presidential candidate a young person voted for), correlated with whether or not a young person reported that a candidate was in touch with people like them.

Among youth who voted for then-Senator Obama in 2008, 78% said only he was in touch with people like them (14.5% said both he and Senator McCain). Almost two-thirds of youth (62%) who voted for Senator McCain said that only he was in touch with people like them. Roughly one-sixth of each group said both candidates.

An April 2015 poll by Pew Research offers additional insight into what young voters value in presidential candidates. According to that poll, registered youth were almost split on whether it was more important for a presidential candidate to focus on compromise (50%) or stick to core values and positions (46%). However, the registered young people in that poll reported being more interested in a candidate with “new ideas & different approach” (56%) than with “experience & proven record” (38%).

A wide range of factors can influence someone’s vote, and it is difficult to get a complete picture from surveys with limited answer options, and that only capture a snapshot in time. But the data we do have makes the case that young people are more interested in issue positions than leadership qualities; strongly prefer a candidate who they feel understands them; and want a president who has a vision for change.

More on young voters and presidential candidate qualities in an upcoming post

[1] In 2000 then-Governor G.W. Bush was running against then-Vice President Gore, and nationally young people very slightly preferred Gore. However, in 2008, youth preferred then-Senator Obama by a wide margin over Senator McCain (more on youth vote choice in presidential elections here).