The Shrinking Youth Vote: Why 2016 May Be More Competitive Than Pundits Predict

Author: Jesse S
Created: 16 December, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
6 min read
2008 was a historic year for young voters. After a steady increase in youth turnout between the 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential elections, the 2008 election was said to have one of the highest youth voter turnout rates in the history of the United States -- thereby ending a historical trend of persistently low youth turnout with the first majority turnout by youth voters since


An estimated 22 million Americans under the age of 30 voted in the 2008 presidential election. With a 51 percent turnout rate, youth voters comprised 18 percent of the electorate that year. Their share of the electorate actually rose in the 2012 presidential election to 19 percent, despite the number of youth voters decreasing to about 20 million.

So how is it then that youth voters’ share of the electorate plummeted to a mere 13 percent in 2014?

Everyone knows that voter turnout rates are consistently lower in midterm years than in presidential election years, but this historical trend does little to account for shifts in the composition of the electorate. 18-29 year-old voters comprised 19 percent of the electorate in the 2010 midterm election, and their share of the electorate rose steadily for almost 20 years leading up to the 2014 election.

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It doesn’t seem viable for such a massive shift to occur within the U.S. population, but statistical trends might prove otherwise.

Only 12 states had a higher turnout in 2014 than in the 2010 midterm elections, and overall turnout dropped from 40.9 percent to 36.6 percent for the country.

Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Michigan, Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, Maine, New Hampshire, Alaska, and Wisconsin saw increases in voter turnout between 2010 and 2014. So what is it that these 12 states have in common? All of them also saw significant increases in their elderly population during that same period, especially Colorado, Nebraska, North Carolina, and New Hampshire.

The 65+ age group is the fastest growing demographic in America, according to Census data from 2013. More than 43 million Americans now fall into the 65 and older age group, and their population increased by 7.1 percent from 2010 to 2012 -- a statistical anomaly.

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This trend could, in part, explain why seniors’ share of the electorate rose by 6 percent between 2012 and 2014 -- directly antithetical to youth voters’ loss of 6 percent in that same timeframe.

The elderly are consistently the most reliable voting demographic in the country, so as the Baby Boomer generation continues to retire, this trend might become more pronounced. Contrasted to another startling fact that 2013 saw the lowest birth rate in U.S. history, and America could see a massive shift in the electorate in the coming years.

All of this information could certainly explain how Democrats saw massive losses in 2014, even with an 11-point margin from youth voters, who carried them to victory in the 2008 and 2012 elections.

Young voters are no longer as crucial of a demographic as they were a mere six or even two years ago. Coupled with the fact that young Americans are growing disillusioned by Democrats (66% of youth voters supported Democrats in 2008 and 60% in 2012), there are indications that the 2016 presidential election might be more competitive than many pundits are currently predicting.

There is already a massive ideology gap between youth and elderly voters -- a record 21-point difference in 2008 when only 45 percent of 65+ voters supported Obama versus the record majority from youth voters. While this gap has always been prevalent in U.S. history, it has grown steadily in the past 40 years, leading up to that record year in 2008 and a 20-point difference in 2012.

So, as youth voters continue to comprise less of the electorate in the coming years, it should be no surprise to see increases in GOP support.

Another unfortunate trend reported by the Huffington Post supports this theory.

In a poll published last month, the Huff Post asked voters who they think should vote -- only well-informed Americans or all eligible Americans -- and yet again, there was a massive ideological difference between the two opposing age groups. 60 percent of voters age 18-29 said that only well-informed Americans should vote, versus 67 percent of Americans 65 and older who believe that all eligible Americans should vote.

When you consider another contentious issue faced by youth -- the ever-growing amount of student loan debt taken on by American college students -- it is certainly feasible to predict that youth turnout could decrease even more. The average member of the class of 2014 graduated with $33,000 in student loans, which is a new record and makes them the most indebted class of all time.

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Even when adjusted for inflation, the average amount of student debt taken on by graduating college students has

risen steadily for the past 20 years. Despite running on promises of student loan reform in both the 2008 and 2012 elections, Obama, as well as the rest of Democrats in the House and Senate, have done virtually nothing to help students with this issue.

Even though job growth has been consistent since the end of the economic recession, and unemployment is at a mere 5.8 percent, the majority of employment growth, 44 percent, has been in low-wage industries. Compared with job losses during the economic recession, during which only 22 percent of lost jobs were concentrated in lower-wage industries, it might not be surprising to assume that the average young voter might be a bit busy worrying about money, at least more so than they were prior to the economic recession.

Today, there are almost two million less mid-wage and higher-wage jobs than at the start of the economic recession, but there are about 1.85 million more lower-wage positions.

Far more recent college graduates had multiple jobs in 2009 (14%) than in 2001 (7%) or 1994 (3%). Student loan debts typically follow college graduates well into their thirties. So, if the average recent college graduate is too busy working multiple jobs to be well-informed, then by their own standards, how likely are they to vote?

Unfortunately, the growing student loan debt trend is projected to continue to increase, as the class of 2015 will most likely take the mantel from 2014 as the most indebted graduating class of all time this spring. Without sensible student loan reform, it is illogical to expect youth turnout to return to 2008 levels in 2016, and it definitely seems impossible that they could increase from that historic year.

If economic recovery continues to be hyper-concentrated in low-wage job areas while student loan debt continues to increase, coupled with a massive increase in the elderly American population and a lower birth rate, it seems very likely that the American electorate might move ideologically closer to the right in the coming years.

What this means for the 2016 election is unclear at this time, but the one definitive conclusion that can be drawn from this data is that, unless over the next two years the GOP passes a plethora of legislation that Americans do not support, it seems likely that the Democrats could have a serious battle on their hands in the next presidential election.

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