Amidst Heightened Engagement and Rise of Warren, Sanders’ Once Commanding Lead Narrow Among Young Voters





November 5, 2019
Media Contact: Kelsey Donohue
(516) 551-2783

Cambridge, MA – A new national poll of America’s 18- to 29- year-olds by the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard Kennedy School finds Senator Elizabeth Warren surging into second place and trailing Senator Bernie Sanders by only six points among those most likely to vote in the 2020 primaries and caucuses. According to the 38th poll of young Americans, Sanders leads the field with 28%, Warren 22%, and former Vice President Joe Biden is third with 16%, with no other candidate polling in the double digits at this time.

Since the Spring 2019 Harvard Youth Poll, conducted March 8-20, 2019, among likely voters Sanders’ vote total has decreased three percentage points (-3 and within the margin of error), while Warren has gained 18 points (was 4%) and has improved her standing from fifth to second place. During the same time period the poll found:  Biden -4, entrepreneur Andrew Yang +4, Mayor Pete Buttigieg +3, former Representative Beto O’Rourke -6, Senator Kamala Harris -2, and Senator Cory Booker -2.

“The enthusiasm of young Americans that resulted in historic turnout in the 2018 midterms shows no signs of abating heading into 2020,” said John Della Volpe, Director of Polling for the Institute of Politics. “And unlike the last three Democratic primaries where President Obama and Senator Sanders dominated the youth vote, it is very much up for grabs in 2020.”

Sanders, Warren, and Biden are trailed by Yang (6%), Buttigieg (4%), O’Rourke (4%), and Harris (3%), with former Secretary Julian Castro, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Booker, and Tom Steyer all polling at 1%. Others in the poll received less than one percent at this time and 12% indicated that they were undecided.

The survey of N=2,075 18- to 29- year olds (including n=588 “likely” Democratic voters and n=292 “likely” Republican primary voters) was organized with undergraduate students from the Harvard Public Opinion Project and conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs between October 15 and October 28, 2019. The margin of error for the poll is +/- 3 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level, but higher for subgroups (likely Democratic primary voters 4%, likely Republican primary voters 6%). A more detailed methodology statement is at the end of this document.

Youth, especially Democrats, are more engaged than at the same point in the 2016 contests

Compared to this point in the 2016 presidential cycle, young Americans across the political spectrum are more engaged. Forty-seven percent (47%) of young Americans under 30 are following news about national politics closely and 30% consider themselves to be politically engaged -- which is 10 percentage points higher than at this time in the 2016 presidential cycle.

Young Democrats, which represent 40% of all 18- to- 29- year-olds are more likely than Republicans (representing 24%) to say that they are politically engaged, and they are also more likely to vote in their primary or caucus.

  • 41% of Democrats say they are politically engaged; 31% of Republicans and 17% of Independents say the same;
  • 55% of Democrats say they will definitely vote in the primary; 48% of Republicans say they will definitely vote in theirs. Compared to this point in the 2016 contest, young Democrats are 10 points more likely to say they will vote and Republicans are less likely by one point (not statistically significant).

Looking ahead to the general election in November 2020, 57% of young Americans under 30 say they will definitely vote, including 68% of Democrats, 66% of Republicans and 41% of Independents. According to the U.S. Elections Project, youth turnout (18-29) in 2016 was 43 percent. The highest youth participation since at least 1988 was in 2008 when 48% voted.

Democrats and Republicans value different attributes in presidential candidates

When young American voters were asked to choose which of 10 attributes were most essential in a presidential candidate, Democrats and Independents were more likely to choose “integrity” first; while Republicans chose “shares my vision for America.”

Overall, “integrity” ranked at the top of the list and was chosen as the top attribute by 27% of all young Americans surveyed (Democrats 28%, Republicans 23%, Independents 29%), followed by “shares my vision for America” (22% overall and Democrats 21%, Republicans 33%, Independents 17% ), “level-headedness” (13%), “authenticity” (9%), “willingness to compromise” (7%), “political experience” (7%), “an outsider’s perspective” (4%), “ability to relate to me” (4%), “youth” (3%), and “a candidate who is not a straight white man” (2%).

Trump enjoys a commanding lead in the Republican primary against Weld, Walsh, and Sanford

Among 18-to 29-year-olds likely Republican primary voters or caucus-goers, President Donald Trump, with 67%, holds a commanding lead over former Massachusetts Governor William Weld (4%), former Congressman Joe Walsh (4%), and former Governor and Representative Mark Sanford (2%). Slightly more than a fifth of young Republican voters (22%) are undecided.

In the 2020 general election, more than two-thirds of youth are likely to vote against Donald Trump

Looking ahead to November 2020, 68% of likely general election voters say that they will never (59%) vote to re-elect President Trump, or are unlikely to re-elect him (9%). In contrast, 27% say they are either sure to vote for him in 2020 (19%) or that there is a good chance (8%); 5% say it is possible. 

  • Republicans: 56% sure to vote for President Trump in 2020; 7% never
  • Democrats: 4% sure to vote for President Trump in 2020; 87% never
  • Independents: 9% sure to vote for President Trump in 2020; 61% never

Approval ratings of President Trump, Democrats and Republicans in Congress, largely unchanged since Spring

President Trump’s overall approval rating stands at 27% among young Americans in the survey, which is down two percentage points since the Spring 2019 poll and up one point since last Fall’s release -- both of which are inside the poll’s margin of error. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s approval rating is 39% (+3 since Spring). Approval of Democrats in Congress is 47% and approval of Republicans in Congress is 29% -- in both cases, there is no change since the Spring 2019 poll was conducted.

President Trump receives his highest ratings on the economy (39%) and national security (35%); his lowest approval ratings are for climate change (24%) and race relations (25%).

President Trump approval ratings by issue:

  • Economy: 39%
  • National Security: 35%
  • Tax Reform: 33%
  • ISIS: 31%  (Note: Nearly all interviews were conducted prior to the President’s announcement of the death of ISIS leader Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi on October 26)
  • Health Care: 30%
  • Impeachment Inquiry: 30%
  • Gun Violence: 29%
  • China: 28%
  • Immigration: 28%
  • Foreign Policy: 27%
  • Race Relations: 25%
  • Climate Change: 24%

Additional questions and insights from the Harvard Youth Poll will be revealed on Monday, November 18th, including opinions and attitudes related to impeachment, gun control, Medicare for All, and specific issues and policies associated with institutional reforms. This poll is the 38th release in a series dating back to 2000 that has tracked the youth vote going through several Presidential cycles and primaries.

This poll of N=2,075 18- to 29- year-olds, organized with undergraduate students from the Harvard Public Opinion Project (HPOP) and directed by John Della Volpe, was conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs using the KnowledgePanel Calibration approach. In this approach, the calibrating sample was provided by the KnowledgePanel probably-based sample source (n=1,020), while the sample to be calibrated was provided by non-probability, opt-in web panel sample sources (n=1,055). Interviews were conducted between October 15 and October 28, 2019. The margin of error for the total sample is +/- 3.02 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.                                  

About the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School

The Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School was established in 1966 as a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy. The Institute’s mission is to unite and engage students, particularly undergraduates, with academics, politicians, activists, and policymakers on a non-partisan basis to inspire them to consider careers in politics and public service.

The Harvard Youth Poll examines the political opinions and civic engagement of young Americans ages 18- to- 29. Since 2000, the student-led Harvard Public Opinion Project has provided the most comprehensive look at the political opinions, voting trends, and views on public service held by young Americans. The Institute blends the academy with practical politics and offers students the opportunity to engage on current events and to acquire skills and perspective that will assist in their postgraduate choices.