Executive Summary

In recognition of the key role young voters played in the 2018 midterm elections, and will play in the 2020 presidential election, TargetSmart’s Research and Analytics team commissioned a TargetSmart/Civiqs poll of 1,912 Democratic primary voters aged 18-34 in all fifty states and the District of Columbia in partnership with The Alliance for Youth Action. The survey, conducted from May 16-22, 2019 is the largest of its kind focused exclusively on the attitudes and perspectives of likely Democratic millennial and generation Z voters heading into the 2020 primary election. This poll is the first in a series of research projects that the TargetSmart polling team will conduct throughout the 2020 election cycle and make available to the public through insights.targetsmart.com.

Results from this poll show that young voters are highly engaged in the political process and enthusiastic about the Democratic presidential primaries. Far from being disaffected or pessimistic, most young Democratic voters view the 2020 election as an opportunity to achieve meaningful policy change. Young voters want the Democratic candidates to focus on new, progressive policy proposals (63 percent), not just defeating Trump. Only 31 percent say the highest priority is defeating Trump, even if that means taking a more moderate approach on policy.

Young Democratic voters are already forming preferences about who they will support for president. Seven-in-ten (70 percent) say they have one or two preferred candidates in mind at this point. Only about one-in-four (27 percent) say it’s too early to say who they will support.

Contrary to popular misconceptions about political cynicism among millennial and generation Z voters, a large percentage of young Democratic primary voters say they feel engaged with the political process and their participation can make a difference (67 percent), while just 18 percent say they feel disconnected from the process and that their participation doesn’t make a difference. Engagement is particularly high among young black voters—more than eight-in-ten (82 percent) say they feel engaged in the process. Enthusiasm about the 2020 Democratic presidential primary contest is also high among young voters of color—almost seven-in-ten (68 percent) black voters say they are very enthusiastic and nearly eight-in-ten latinx voters (77 percent) agree.

Young voters plan to vote for their favorite presidential candidate rather than the candidate perceived to have the best shot at beating Trump, by an almost two-to-one margin (63 to 32 percent). And a substantial majority (65 percent) say their vote choice won’t be influenced by endorsements from politicians, celebrities, friends or family—or even by contact from a campaign.

We also measure some apprehension among young voters in this survey. While seven-in-ten (70 percent) expect the Democratic candidate to defeat Donald Trump, just 15 percent are confident in this prediction. What’s more, the large field of candidates is concerning to a plurality (46 percent) of millennial and generation Z voters, and one-in-three (33 percent) worry that a long and bruising primary will damage the eventual nominee’s chances against Trump.

Young Democratic voters have an ideological perspective that leans heavily left, with three-in-four (76 percent) describing themselves as liberals. Fewer than one-in-five (19 percent) describe themselves as moderates and virtually none (2 percent) describe themselves as conservatives.

View the poll toplines and crosstabs HERE

Young Democratic Voters Share Worries about the Primaries

Nine-in-ten likely Democratic primary voters aged 18-34 (90 percent) say they are enthusiastic about voting in their states’ 2020 Democratic presidential primary election or caucus, while 69 percent say they are “very” enthusiastic. This pattern extends across demographic subpopulations in this electorate, with near-identical proportions of men and women (69 and 70 percent) and similarly high proportions of white (67 percent), black (68 percent), and latinx (77 percent) voters, saying they are very enthusiastic. Likewise, around seven-in-ten blue-collar voters (70 percent), college graduates (73 percent), and those with post-graduate degrees (69 percent) report that they are very enthusiastic about the 2020 presidential primaries and caucuses. Voters residing in urban areas are particularly enthusiastic (76 percent very enthusiastic), although enthusiasm remains high among both suburban (65 percent very enthusiastic) and rural (67 percent very enthusiastic) voters. In contrast, while 74 percent of self-described liberals are very enthusiastic, only around half of self-described moderates (52 percent) and conservatives (53 percent) say the same.

When survey respondents are segmented by their TargetSmart ElectionBase vote history, almost three-in-four (73 percent) of those who have previously voted in a Democratic primary say they are very enthusiastic about voting in their state’s 2020 presidential primary or caucus. Notably however, two-thirds (66 percent) of those who have not previously voted in a Democratic primary also say they are very enthusiastic about voting in the 2020 presidential primaries and caucuses.

Similarly, over eight-in-ten (85 percent) of young voters say that they have seen, heard, or read at least “a fair amount” about the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates or campaigns in the last couple of weeks, whereas only 15 percent say they have seen, heard, or read “a little” or “nothing at all”. Further, two-thirds of voters (67 percent) say they feel engaged with the political process and see their participation as making a difference, against fewer than one-in-five (18 percent) who feel disconnected with the political process and who doubt their participation makes much or any difference. Strikingly, black voters in this sample are most likely to say they feel engaged and empowered (82 percent), compared to both white (65 percent) and latinx voters (63 percent). Liberals are also more likely to say they feel engaged (69 percent) relative to moderates (60 percent). Respondents who registered to vote for the first time following the election of Donald Trump are also especially engaged, with more than three-in-four (76 percent) saying they feel engaged and empowered by the political process compared to about three-in-five (64 percent) of those who registered before November 9, 2016.

Despite these high levels of engagement and enthusiasm, more young Democratic primary voters say they feel worried that having too many Democratic presidential candidates (46 percent) will expose divisions among Democrats than say they are excited that a large, diverse field will result in bold new ideas (36 percent). These worries appear especially acute with women, who are more likely to be worried (54 percent) than excited (31 percent) by more than 20 percentage points, while men are more likely to say they are excited (42 percent) than worried (35 percent). Similarly, while white voters (48 percent to 33 percent) are clearly more worried than excited on average—latinx (46 percent to 41 percent) and particularly, black (39 to 38 percent)—voters are much more evenly divided. New registrants are also relatively less worried about the size of the Democratic field (39 percent worried; 41 percent excited) compared to those registered before Trump’s election (47 percent worried; 35 percent excited).

Likewise, while seven-in-ten (70 percent) of young likely Democratic primary voters say they think a Democrat will ultimately defeat Donald Trump, only 15 percent are confident a Democrat will prevail, with the balance (55 percent) saying they think a Democrat will win, but are not confident about it. This pattern in opinion appears consistent across most demographic subpopulations, though black voters are somewhat more confident in a Democratic victory (22 percent confident) compared to both white (12 percent confident) and latinx voters (18 percent confident). Interestingly, voters who say they prioritize electability in their choice of a Democratic nominee are somewhat more sanguine in their assessment of Democratic prospects in 2020, with 78 percent predicting a Democratic victory (61 percent not confident; 17 percent confident) compared to those who plan to vote for their favorite candidate (53 percent Democrat, not confident; 14 percent Democrat, confident). Voters are also divided on whether the crowded Democratic primary campaign will help or harm the eventual nominee with a plurality (40 percent) saying it will prepare the nominee for a tough general election against Donald Trump, while one-in-three (33 percent) say it will weaken the nominee. In general, subpopulations who are more likely to think the primary will help the nominee include men (47 to 29 percent), black voters (49 to 22 percent), and blue-collar voters (42 to 32 percent).

Figure 1: Q.3 What’s the first thing that comes to mind that you’ve recently heard about the 2020 Democratic primary campaign for president?
2020 Campaign Word Cloud

These trends are reinforced in how young Democratic primary voters respond to open-ended questions about Democratic presidential candidates. As shown in Figure 1, when these voters are asked an open-ended question on the first things that come to mind when thinking about the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, the most salient fact to emerge is the sheer number of candidates. More than one in three voters (35 percent) mentioned the large number of candidates. All other responses were far more diffuse, with fewer than ten percent mentioning Joe Biden in a positive or neutral context (7 percent), any specific issue or policy (7 percent), a generic desire for an anti-establishment candidate (6 percent), Bernie Sanders in a positive context (5 percent), Elizabeth Warren in a positive context (5 percent), Joe Biden in a negative context (5 percent), or any other candidate in a positive context (5 percent).

Figure 2: Q4. What qualities are you looking for in an ideal 2020 presidential candidate?
2020 Candidate Word Cloud

When these voters are asked to describe the qualities they are looking for in their ideal 2020 presidential candidate, (see Figure 2) they are much more likely to list ideological liberalism and progressivism (18 percent), a commitment to various progressive policy goals (64 percent total) like climate change (12 percent), healthcare reform (9 percent), women’s rights (8 percent), economic inequality (7 percent), civil and LGBTQ rights (6 percent), education and student debt reform (4 percent) than they were to name bipartisanship or ideological moderation (5 percent), or an ability to defeat Donald Trump (17 percent)1. Overall, even the most commonly-listed personal qualities these voters say they are looking for in an ideal presidential candidate appear to be influenced by their policy preferences, including being honest and transparent (17 percent), having a clear vision and consistent policy platform (14 percent), possessing government experience and a record of good leadership (9 percent), being smart or an intellectual (8 percent), and caring about the interests of ordinary people (6 percent).

Young Voters Lean Heavily Left, Care Less about Electability, and Favor Bold Policy Change

Whereas recent media coverage of the overall likely Democratic primary electorate has frequently emphasized its relative ideological moderation, openness to a variety of potential nominees, and prioritization of defeating Donald Trump2, this survey of younger Democratic voters suggests that these voters lean strongly to the left of the overall Democratic electorate, say they know who they favor in the primaries, want the nominee to be their favorite candidate rather than the one perceived to be most electable, and prioritize bold policy change over defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential contest.

Over three-in-four (76 percent) of young likely Democratic primary voters surveyed describe themselves as ideologically liberal—far more than describe themselves as moderate (19 percent) or the vanishingly few (2 percent) who call themselves conservative. Unsurprisingly, women were more likely to identify as liberal (82 percent) than men (68 percent). When segmented by self-identified race, latinx voters lean more towards the ideological center (67 percent liberal; 27 percent moderate) relative to both white (78 percent liberal; 17 percent moderate) and black voters (75 percent liberal; 17 percent moderate).

These young voters also say that they already know which Democratic presidential candidates they favor—seven-in-ten (70 percent) say they have one or two favored candidates in mind at this point, compared to about one-in-four (27 percent) who say it’s still too early for them to identify a preferred candidate or candidates. In terms of how they decide on a candidate, these voters indicate by a nearly two-to-one margin (63 to 32 percent) that they plan to vote for their favorite candidate rather than the one they see as having the best chance to beat Donald Trump. New registrants are just as likely to say they will be supporting their favorite candidate (65 percent) as earlier registrants (63 percent) as are potential first-time primary voters (64 percent) compared to those who have previously voted in Democratic primaries (62 percent). In contrast, men are more likely than women to say they will choose their favorite candidate (69 to 58 percent) and black voters are less likely to do so (55 to 41 percent) compared to both white (64 to 31 percent) and latinx voters (65 to 34 percent).

Consistent with this group’s self-described ideology, voters in this survey also overwhelmingly say they want the 2020 presidential election to be about bold change to address systemic inequality and fix American democracy (63 percent) rather than just getting Donald Trump out of office (31 percent). These sentiments largely hold across gender, education, and age categories, though black voters are relatively less likely to prioritize bold policy change over defeating Trump (57 to 36 percent), though they still favor it by a more than twenty-point margin. Notably, even self-described ideological moderates prioritize bold policy change over beating Trump (47 to 45 percent). And newer voters are just as committed to bold policy change as more established voters: new registrants are about as likely to prioritize bold policy change (62 to 31 percent) as those registered before Trump’s election (65 to 31 percent), while would-be first-time primary voters do so at identical rates when compared to previous Democratic primary voters (63 to 31 percent).

Figure 3: Q.11 What are the top three most important issues that you would like a Democratic presidential candidate to be focused on?
2020 Candidate Word Cloud

A similar progressive trend emerges in voters’ open-ended responses when asked to name the top three most important issues they would most like the Democratic candidate to tackle. As shown in Figure 3, the most commonly-named issues include healthcare and Medicare for all (26 percent and 10 percent, respectively), economic inequality (22 percent), abortion rights (16 percent), and criminal justice reform (11 percent). However, two issues may differentiate these young voters from older progressives: a concern with student debt and the cost of college (23 percent), and particularly, a sense of crisis around climate change. More than three-in-five (61 percent) of voters surveyed in this study list climate change, global warming, or the Green New Deal as one of the top three issues they would like the Democratic presidential candidate to focus on—more than twice as many as the next-highest issue (healthcare at 26 percent).

Young Voters Say They Won’t Be Easily Influenced; Campaign Contact Largely via Text

Results from this survey suggest that millennial and generation Z voters will not be easily won over by endorsements or campaign activities. Nearly two thirds of surveyed voters (65 percent) say that their choice of candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary will be unaffected by endorsements from other politicians, friends or family, celebrities, or contact by a campaign. Notably, voters were most likely to say endorsements from other politicians (14 percent) and campaign contact (10 percent) would impact their votes, rather than the support of family or friends (6 percent) or celebrity endorsements (2 percent). This pattern holds for voters across a wide range of demographic categories, though black voters were particularly independent-minded, with 79 percent saying their votes would not be influenced by endorsements or campaign contact.

Nonetheless, most young likely Democratic primary voters indicate that they receive information about the 2020 presidential campaign from sources like social media (59 percent), traditional media like newspapers and television (77 percent), and conversations with friends and family (67 percent). Over three-in-five voters (63 percent) also report being contacted by a political campaign via text message in 2018, far more than those who say they were contacted through a voice call (41 percent) or via door-to-door canvass (20 percent). Notably, both black 67 percent) and latinx voters (72 percent) were more likely to report being contacted via text than white voters (59 percent), though black voters were least likely to say they had been contacted via canvass in 2018 (11 percent) compared to both white (20 percent) and latinx voters (30 percent).

Data and Methods

This report describes the results of a Civiqs survey of 1,912 Democratic presidential primary voters age 18-34 in the United States, from May 16-22, 2019. The survey was conducted online among selected members of the Civiqs research panel. Sampled individuals were emailed by Civiqs and responded using a personalized link to the survey at civiqs.com.

The survey results are weighted by age, race, gender, education, and region to be representative of the population of Democratic presidential primary and caucus voters in the United States. The general design effect due to weighting is 1.66. The survey has a margin of error of 2.9% at the 95% confidence level, accounting for the design effect. More information about Civiqs can be found online at civiqs.com/methodology.

  1. Note that because respondents could provide more than one answer, these percentages do not add up to 100. 
  2. See for example:

    Cohn, Nate and Kevin Quealy. (2019) “The Democratic Electorate on Twitter Is Not the Actual Democratic Electorate: A detailed look at the voters with the numbers to decide the 2020 Democratic nominee”, The New York Times, 19 April.

    Page, Susan and Deborah Barfield Barry. (2019) “Eyes on the Prize: In poll, Democrats care more about victory than ideology in 2020 nominee”, USA Today, 22 March.