Alex Roarty | May 10, 2021
A sharp increase in the number of voters from the youngest two generations helped President Joe Biden win the 2020 election, according to a new study from a Democratic analytics firm, boosting him over former President Donald Trump despite the incumbent’s high levels of support among seniors.
The report, published Monday by the Democratic firm Catalist, found that millennial and Generation Z voters together constituted a much higher share of the electorate in the 2020 presidential race compared to 2016, casting nearly one-third of all votes (31%) last year. The two generations accounted for 23% of all votes four years earlier.
Even in an election that saw across-the-board increases in voter turnout, the jump in participation from two youngest generations was particularly notable, and the study concluded it was a leading contributor to Biden’s success.
“In short, 2020 accelerated a massive change in the composition of the electorate, with Millennials and Gen Z taking an increasingly prominent role in the future of American elections – a demographic change that is functionally permanent,” wrote Yair Ghitza and Jonathan Robinson, the co-authors of the Catalist study.
Ghitza is Catalist’s chief scientist, and Robinson is the group’s lead research scientist.
The study conducted a deep and broad assessment of the 2020 election, relying on a detailed collection of voter data stretching back to 2008 to determine how different demographic and generational groups voted. In many cases, they found only marginal changes in support between the two partiescompared to the 2016 race.
Among seniors, for instance, the study found that Biden received 48% support compared to 52% for Trump. That was only a modest improvement for the Democrats from 2016, when Clinton received 45% of seniors’ support compared to Trump’s 52%.
The relative stability of Trump’s numbers with senior citizens may surprise some pollsters, many of whom predicted before the 2020 election that Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic had severely weakened him with that generational cohort.
But Biden improved on Clinton’s performance with young voters. Generation Z — defined in the Catalist study as voters born in 1997 or later — saw its participation soar by 289%, according to the study.
Such a stark increase for America’s youngest generation was at least somewhat predictable: Only a small slice of Generation Z was eligible to vote in 2016. But not only did Catalist conclude that nearly 2 million more voters ages 18-21 cast a ballot in 2020 than 2016, it also found sizable increases in votes from the millennial generation, all of whom were able to vote in 2016.
Catalist found that voter turnout among millennials, defined as those born between 1981 and 1996, increased by 27% from 2016 to 2020.
Overall, a greater share of the total population voted in last year’s election than in any presidential race since 1992, according to the Census.
But increases in turnout from older generations were much more modest. Generation X, which consists of voters born between 1965 and 1980, saw only a 15% turnout bump. Baby boomers, comprised of those born between 1946 and 1964, saw just a 5% rise, while the silent and greatest generations each had fewer voters participate.
Millennials and Generation Z have grown from 14% of the electorate in 2008, to 17% in 2012, to 23% in 2016, to 31% in 2020, according to the study.
The baby boomer and older generations, in contrast, have shrunk from 61% of the electorate in 2008, to 57% in 2012, to 51% in 2016, to 44% in 2020, the study found.
Generation X has accounted for 25% or 26% of the electorate in all four races.
The study did not suggest any reasons for the spike in turnout from younger voters, although it does point out generational change happens with every presidential election and that voter participation generally rises as people age.
Younger voters also supported third-party candidates at a much lower rate:just 3% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for one in 2020 compared to 10% in 2016. That led to both Biden and Trump receiving more overall support from younger voters.
Here are some of the other notable findings from the Catalist study:
- Biden attracted a much more racially diverse group of voters, with 39% of his support coming from voters of color and 61% coming from white voters. By comparison, 85% of Trump’s voters were white and 15% were nonwhite.
- Confirming other assessments of the 2020 election, Catalist found a significant drop in support for the Democratic ticket among Latino voters, from 71% in 2016 to 63% in 2020. Turnout with these voters was up 31% overall.
- Support for the Democrats also dropped with Black voters, from 93% in 2016 to 90% in 2020. But because overall turnout along Black voters increased by 14% from 2016, Catalist concluded Biden still received more raw votes from this group than Clinton did.
- The study theorized that support for Biden dropped within communities of color of the high turnout of many previously infrequent voters, many of whom felt much less of an allegiance to the Democratic Party. But Catalist emphasized that the drop in support requires further evaluation.
- Asian-American and Pacific Island voters saw the largest rise in turnout of any racial group, soaring 39% relative to the last presidential election.