Harvard Youth Poll

39th Edition
Spring 2020


A new national poll of America’s 18- to 29- year-olds by the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard Kennedy School finds that former Vice President Joe Biden significantly leads President Donald Trump all young Americans (+23), and his advantage among likely voters (+30) is comparable to what Senator Bernie Sanders would have enjoyed at the top of the Democratic ticket.

Concern about the Coronavirus and health care, replaced the economy and environment (Fall 2019), as the issues of most significant national concern when young Americans were asked in an open-ended question.

“Well before COVID-19 struck, we knew this to be a generation anxious about their future. The pandemic brought these anxieties into focus,” said John Della Volpe, Director of Polling for the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School. “In the survey, we found that stress related to debt, the cost of housing, access to health care, mental health resources, and concern about whether or not loved ones will survive Coronavirus are the prism from which young Americans will view and engage in this campaign. Self-defense, in 2020, is one of the primary motivations for voting.”

Leading into the COVID-19 crisis, the vast majority of young Americans disapprove of Trump’s performance as President and twice as many young Americans report Trump making their life worse than better. Only a small minority of young people think the country is working as it should be, and more than half are weighed down by issues such as debt and housing. Broadly, the poll characterizes a generation of American voters impacted by economic struggle and dissatisfied with the inadequacies of politics today.

“Our analysis was informed by our on the ground experience talking with young voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina," said Cathy Sun ‘22, Chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project. “Their struggles with economic insecurity, confrontations with racial inequity, and disillusionment with political platitudes greatly informed our questions and analysis in this poll. Starting with these intimate conversations, we have dug deep into the roots of their political attitudes and their desire for generational change.”

Top findings of this survey, the 39th in a biannual series, include the following:

Key Takeaways

Former Vice President Joe Biden leads President Donald Trump among all young Americans 51%-28%; Biden’s advantage is extended to 60%-30% among the 18-to 29- year olds most likely to vote.

The Democratic advantage with Biden leading the ticket (+30) is similar to the advantage Democrats would enjoy if Senator Bernie Sanders had been the party nominee. In a hypothetical matchup between Sanders and Trump, 62% of likely voters reported that they would support the Vermont Senator, 31% President Trump (+31). Among likely voters, Biden captures 88% of young Democrats, Trump 90% of young Republicans; among Independents, 56% prefer Biden, and 25% prefer Trump.

Biden and Sanders hold similar advantage over Trump.

Less than 10% believe that the country is working as it should be; the majority of young Americans prefer reform over the replacement of current institutions.

When 18- to 29- year-olds were asked whether they believed that a) government was working as it should; b) we need to replace and create new institutions; or c) we need to reform, and not replace existing institutions -- we found that a majority (51%) preferred reform. About two-in-five (39%) preferred replacing and creating a new model, and only 8% believe that the government was working as it should. By a seven-point margin (51% replace, 44% reform), Democrats believe that current political institutions need to be replaced entirely. Two-thirds of Republicans (68% reform, 19% replace), and a plurality of independents (49% reform, 38% replace) believe in reforming existing institutions to address present-day problems.

Less than ten percent believe country is working as it should be.

COVID-19 and health care top the list of national issues for young Americans. Pluralities tell us they’re concerned about accessing health care, mental health services if needed, and that someone they know might die from Coronavirus.

In an open-ended question asking young Americans to name the national issue that concerns them most, a plurality volunteered Coronavirus (19%), followed by issues related to health care (17%), the economy (14%), and the environment (9%). It is noteworthy that concern over the economy and the environment are close to the level they were in the Fall 2019 survey, while health care has risen two-fold, from 8% to 17%.

In a series of questions probing concern over topics ranging from housing to health care, we found 45% of all young Americans under 30 agreeing that they are “concerned about accessing health care” and also “mental health care” if and when they need it. Forty-three percent (43%) agreed with the statement “I am concerned that someone I know will die from Coronavirus.” Similar to the results of other national polling conducted in March, we found sharp partisan divides related to Coronavirus. A majority of Democrats (52%) agreed with the statement measuring concern, compared to 30% of Republicans and 41% of Independents.

Covid-19 and health care top list of national concerns.

Two-thirds (67%) of 25- to 29- year olds carry debt; 63% of all young adults under 30 are concerned about the impact housing costs will have on their future.

Economic insecurity in the form of debt and housing affordability weigh heavily on the minds of young Americans. In a large focus group we conducted in Charleston, South Carolina, a week before the Democratic primary, one young voter told us that their “generation is struggling. We are drowning in debt.”

Overall, we find that 57% of all 18- to -29- year olds carry debt, 42% report they are debt-free, but the level and impact of debt varies considerably based on age. Among 18- to 24- year olds, 34% indicate that they have debt, but that it is manageable; an additional 16% tell us they have debt, and it is already affecting important life decisions. Forty percent (40%) of the older, 25- to 29- year old cohort have debt that they say is manageable, while 27% say the debt they carry is affecting life decisions. Additionally, we find members of the following subgroups are more likely than their counterparts to carry some form of debt: black Americans (66%), college graduates (64%), those who live in urban areas (62%), and likely voters (62%).

One of the topics that unified many subgroups was concern over the cost of housing and the personal impact it will have on their future. Overall, 63% of all surveyed agreed housing is a concern, including more than 60% of those across gender, racial/ethnic, and education lines. The cost of housing is more of a concern for Democrats (74%) than Republicans (52%), and among likely voters (69%) than those who indicate that they might (60%), or likely not vote (56%).

67% of 25 to 29 year olds carry debt.

85% percent of young Americans -- including 94% of Democrats and 76% of Republicans -- favor some measure of reform to student loan debt challenges facing their generation.

Presented with four options, we found that roughly equal numbers of young Americans under 30 favor programs that either a) would not cancel student loan debt, but help with repayment options (35%), or b) cancel student loan debt for everyone (33%). Nearly one-fifth (17%) preferred c) canceling debt only for those most in need, while only 13% indicated that d) the government should not change its student loan policy.  

Pluralities of current college students (41%) and college graduates (43%) prefer reform that does not cancel all student loan debt but broadens repayment options. The survey found that young Americans with no college experience prefer canceling all student loan debt by a slim three-point margin (33% to 30% for repayment options). Less than half of those who carry some financial debt, including those with a significant amount, favor canceling student loan debt for everyone.

Democrats are more likely to prefer canceling all student debt (43%), Republicans prefer helping with repayment options (48%); Independents are split between the two (35% repayment, 32% cancellation).

85% favor some measure of reform to student loan debt cancellation facing their generation.

Young Americans are divided sharply along racial lines in their identification with, sense of belonging and trust in American institutions.

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of young Americans agree with the statement, “America was built for people like me” 17% disagree, and 24% responded that they neither agree, nor disagree. The net level of agreement (agree-disagree) among 18- to 29- years old is +41 points. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of whites in the survey agree that America was built for them, 11% disagreed (+53 agreement) -- while less than half of young black Americans say the same. Forty-seven percent (47%) of black Americans agree with that statement, 32% disagree (+15); among Hispanic Americans, we found that 51% agree and 21% disagree (+30).

This pattern holds for a statement probing whether they agree or disagree that the “founders of America shared my values.” For this question, we found net agreement among whites to be +45 (60% agree, 15% disagree), blacks -7 (34% agree, 41% disagree), and Hispanics +26 (49% agree, 23% disagree).

These divisions are further heightened when we compare the degree of trust that white and black Americans have in several, but not all, public institutions. Overall, white Americans are more likely than black Americans to trust the following institutions to do the right thing all or most of the time: the President (35% white, 21% black, +14 gap), the military (60% white, 46% black, +14 gap), Supreme Court (49% white, 34% black, +15 gap), local government (46% white, 33% black, +13 gap), and police (59% white, 28% black, +31 gap).

Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to trust the media (14% white, 24% black, -10 gap) and their college administration (63% white, 77% black, -14 gap). We found no significant difference in trust levels by race for Congress (26% white, 25% black, +1 gap), Wall Street (19% white, 21% black, -2 gap), or state government (39% white, 40% black, -1 gap).

Identification with America's past sharply divided along racial lines.

More than three-in-five (61%) young Americans, and 75% of likely voters agree that the outcome of the 2020 presidential election will make a difference in their lives; President Trump is a highly motivating factor for young voters.

While Democrats (68%) and Republicans (70%) are generally aligned on the impact the upcoming election will have on their lives, we found significant statistical differences based on race and education. Young whites, at 64%, are more likely to agree that the election will make a difference in their lives compared to young blacks (52%). College students (64%) and those with a college degree (73%) were more likely than young Americans without a college experience (55%) to see the personal relevance in the election.

In addition, we found that the Trump presidency has been a springboard to political activism for many young Americans -- especially for those on the left. Forty-three percent (43%) of young Democrats say that they are more politically active as a result of President Trump, compared to 35% of Republicans. This trend extends to ideology, as self-identified liberals (65%) are more likely to vote than moderates (47%) and conservatives (56%). Compared to conservatives, young liberals are more likely to volunteer on a campaign (15% to 8%), donate to a campaign (28% to 11%), write an email advocating for a position (28% to 13%), and share or post a position online (39% to 21%). Despite the ideological differences in political participation, there is no statistical difference in the number of liberals (38%), moderates (37%), and conservatives (35%) who volunteer for community service.

Fifty-percent (54%) of young Americans under 30 indicate they will “definitely” vote for president in November; 69% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans, but only 31% of Independents/those not affiliated with a major party. At this point in the 2016 presidential cycle, 50% of 18- to- 29- year olds told us that they were “definitely” planning to vote. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.1% of 18- to- 29- year olds voted in that election, and they were the “only age group to report increased turnout compared to 2012.”

61% agree outcome of of election will make a difference in their lives.

Two-thirds (66%) of young Americans disapprove of President Trump’s job performance -- and by a two-to-one margin, they say the President has made their lives worse.

President Trump’s job performance rating of 32% approval stands at the same level it was during the initial months of his administration (Spring 2017), and seven points better than it was at its lowest point measured in our poll, in the weeks following the Parkland shootings. President Trump’s highest marks today come from his handling of the economy (44% approve), his lowest for climate change (24% approve). Thirty-nine percent (39%) approve of the President's handling of national security, 36% Coronavirus (interviews conducted March 11-23, 2020), and 31% health care.

Overall, 15% of young Americans indicate that as a result of President Trump, their lives are better, 29% believe they are worse, 39% responded no different, 16% were unsure. Across most demographic subgroups such as gender, race/ethnicity, education, and community type, more said their lives were worse than better under President Trump’s leadership. Nearly half of Republicans (46%) say their lives are better, 7% worse, 39% no different. For Democrats: 4% better, 46% worse; Independents: 9% better, 23% worse.

66% disapprove of President Trump's job performance overall; 62% on Coronavirus.

A dramatic change since the days after 9/11, 62% of undergraduates now consider themselves patriotic. Support for capitalism (45%) and socialism (30%) generally unchanged since 2016.

“Patriotism” very clearly means different things based upon the political party with which one identifies. Republicans (41% very, 45% somewhat patriotic) are far more likely to strongly embrace the label than Democrats (11% very, 45% somewhat patriotic).

One year after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the IOP youth survey which then only polled 18- to 24- year old college undergraduates found that 89% of the cohort considered themselves patriotic, with 33% embracing the “very patriotic” label (56% “somewhat patriotic”). Today, 63% of 18- to 24- year college students call themselves patriotic (-26 since 2002), with only 16% considering themselves “very patriotic” (47% “somewhat patriotic”). In a separate question that asked whether or not one supports “patriotism,” we found a five-point decrease since the Spring 2016 survey. At that time, 57% of 18- to 29- year olds polled supported patriotism; today, that number stands at 52% (Republican support for patriotism fell two points which is within the margin of error, Democratic support fell seven points).

When asked in an open-ended question what word they associated with “patriot,” Republicans were more likely than Democrats to associate positive attributes. Republicans used terms such as loyalty, pride, and responsibility; in contrast, many Democrats associated the word “patriot” with racism/xenophobia and a general ignorance about the reality of America today.

In addition, we also tracked support for capitalism, socialism, and Democratic Socialism and found that young Americans generally hold the same views on these systems than they did in 2016. Forty-five percent (45%) support capitalism (+3 since Spring 2016), 40% Democratic Socialism (+1 since Fall 2018, not asked in 2016), and 30% socialism (-3 since Spring 2016).

Patriotism means different things based upon the party with which one identifies.

Five political segments of young Americans identified, 43% representing an active left, 11% following President Trump’s Republican party.

Five distinct ideological segments of young Americans were identified (using 15 typology statements, factor analysis, and a K-means clustering algorithm) that transcend traditional labels and are useful in understanding the nuanced views that young millennials and Generation Z hold toward politics today.

Engaged Progressives (15% of 18-29 year-olds) are the most likely of any segment to vote in November, 85% support Joe Biden for president, and 51% identify with the Democratic Socialist label. They follow politics more closely than most others (27% very closely), are the most educated (39% have a college degree), and least religious (15% say religion is very important, 50% are “Nones”) of the five groups. They are more likely than others to live in urban areas (36%), and are strong advocates for more significant government investment in health care, climate, and programs to reduce poverty.

The Center-Left (28%) is the second-largest of the five segments, with the highest concentration of females (54%) and college students (26%). They are not as likely as other groups (Engaged Progressives and MAGA Gen) to vote (57% “definitely”), but support Joe Biden, 68% to 11%. Half of this group identifies as moderate, 43% call themselves liberal. Like the Engaged Progressives, they are less religious than others (28% say religion is very important, 45% are “Nones”). While they are closely aligned with Engaged Progressives on health care and climate, they are closer to the center on immigration, affirmative action, and school choice.

Sixty-two percent (62%) male, Multicultural Moderates (15%) have the highest concentration of black (24%) and Hispanic Americans (29%). While 29% say they follow politics very closely, only 53% say they will vote in November, which is the lowest percentage of the four “engaged” segments. Less than half are Democrats (45%), 30% are Independents, 25% are Republicans. Forty-three percent (43%) approve of Donald Trump's job performance. Joe Biden is preferred by 51%, to Trump’s 36% in November. Two-thirds of this group do not attend college, nor have a degree. They are also among the most religious of all the segments (58% say religion is very important, 28% are Catholic, and 17% are Fundamentalist or Evangelical). They strongly believe in health care as right, affirmative action, curbing climate change, and an active government to fight poverty. At the same time, Multicultural Moderates strongly support school choice, free trade, cutting taxes to stimulate the economy, the Bush foreign policy doctrine, and they believe that religious values should play a more significant role in government.

The smallest of the five segments, the MAGA Gen (11%) are 56% male, 81% white, likely to vote (66%), and the most supportive of President Trump. The President's approval rating among this group is 81%, and 80% prefer him over Joe Biden (9%). They are religious (65% say religion is very important, 29% are Fundamentalist or Evangelical, 21% are Protestant), and by far the most likely to proudly wear the labels of patriot (66%) and capitalist (59%). Ideologically, they are strongly opposed to government actions that curb climate change, provide health insurance to those who cannot afford it, and reduce poverty. They believe recent immigration has done more harm than good; they support cutting taxes to stimulate the economy and, like Multicultural Moderates, are more likely to think that same-sex relationships are morally wrong.

The Disengaged (31%) have a high proportion of small-town residents (18%) and young Americans who do not attend or have not graduated from college (64%). They are split about evenly between Democrats (31%) and Republicans (29%) but are more likely to identify as moderate (54%) or conservative (28%) than liberal (17%). They are the least likely to say they will vote in November (40%) or follow politics very closely (6%). Forty-one percent (41%) approve of President Trump’s job performance. Among this segment, we find equal numbers of Biden (35%) and Trump supporters (35%). They tend to neither agree nor disagree on the typology issues asked, but do lean toward recognizing that America is the best country in the world.

Detailed Visualization


This poll of N=2,546 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 probability-based sample source (n=1,002), while the sample to be calibrated was provided by non-probability, opt-in web panel sample sources (n=1,544). Interviews were conducted between March 11 and March 23, 2020. The margin of error for the total sample is +/- 2.78 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.