There seem to be at least three things that were true of Millennials in last year’s presidential election. First, they heavily favored Sanders over Clinton in the Democratic primary. Second, they heavily favored Clinton over Trump in the general election. But, third, they were substantially less likely than older folks to vote at all.
The charts below give a look at these patterns using data from the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES). (It’s important to remember that this is just one sample. As I showed in a prior post, there are various differences among the ANES, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), and the exit polls.)
If you’re used to thinking about exit polls, the big difference here is that I’m also showing non-voters. According to the ANES results, substantially more Millennials than older folks didn’t vote in the primaries (73% vs. 51%) and didn’t vote in the general election (38% vs. 20%). This isn’t something new—younger folks are usually quite a bit less likely to vote than older folks.
The ANES numbers, however, are almost certainly underestimating non-voters across the board. According to the United States Election Project (which uses actual vote tallies rather than after-the-fact surveys), around 41% of eligible voters didn’t vote in the general election. This is substantially higher than what the ANES sample suggests. In fact, to get to a 41% non-voting total, you’d have to assume something like a bit over half (rather than 38%) of Millennials and a bit over a third (rather than 20%) of older generations not voting. The problem with after-the-fact surveys is in part that some non-voters lie about voting, but it’s also that voluntary surveys disproportionately pick up the kinds of people who have opinions and don’t mind sharing them—that is, the kinds of people who are more likely to vote in the first place.
Millennials and the primaries
The top two charts show the primaries. And, sure enough, the ANES data suggests that, when they voted in the Democratic primaries, Millennials overwhelmingly chose Sanders over Clinton. But keep in mind that these data also suggest that older Democratic primary voters chose Clinton over Sanders in about the same overwhelming proportions. Here too, though, there are reasons not to oversell the exact numbers. The ANES sample gives Clinton a bigger total margin over Sanders (with about 59 Clinton votes for every 39 Sanders votes) than analyses based on the actual vote totals (where Clinton received 55 votes for every 43 Sanders votes). Also, the CCES sample shows Clinton running almost even with Sanders among Millennials, something that seems very unlikely given the ANES and exit poll results, but nonetheless represents a cautionary data point.
While Millennials seem to have heavily favored Sanders over Clinton in the primaries, their actual favorite option by far was to not turn out to vote (again, even the 73% non-voting number in the ANES sample for Millennials in the primaries is probably substantially too low). And, even among those Millennials who turned out, there were probably at least as many non-Sanders primary voters as Sanders voters. If you neglect these points, it’s easy to overstate Millennials’ support for Sanders.
Millennials and the general election
In the general election, we see again that Millennials were a lot less likely to vote than were older generations. And, as I discussed earlier, the ANES non-voting estimates for the general election are too low.
But for those who did vote, Millennials substantially preferred Clinton over Trump. Millennials also were more likely than older generations to support third-party candidates.
A big reason why Millennials generally favor Democrats over Republicans relates to generational differences in demographics such as race and religion. This shows up clearly in the CCES sample (which I analyzed in prior posts on Clinton/Trump voter demographics). Just looking at Clinton vs. Trump general-election voters in the CCES data, Clinton got 64% of the two-party vote among Millennials while she got only 48% of the two-party vote among older generations. That’s a 16-point gap.
And while a 16-point gap might seem like a big deal, it’s really not when you compare it to various bigger deals. So, for example, in the CCES data, there’s a 49-point gap between whites (42% voted for Clinton over Trump) and blacks (91% voted for Clinton over Trump), and there’s a 37-point gap between evangelicals (34% voted for Clinton over Trump) and non-Christians (71% voted for Clinton over Trump). Start combining such items—focusing, say, on white evangelicals—and the gaps grow even larger.
In fact, it turns out that the lion’s share of the Millennial gap in the CCES is due to the fact that, compared with older generations, Millennials have more racial minorities, fewer evangelicals and other Christians, more LGBT folks, and fewer military veterans. In short, what begins as a 16-point Millennial gap in the two-party 2016 vote gets reduced to a mere 5-point gap when statistically controlling for race, religion, sexual orientation, and veteran status.
While these fundamental demographics can explain most of the Millennial gap in the general election, they can’t, as far as I can tell, explain much of the Millennial gap in support for Clinton vs. Sanders. I have yet to see anything that really explains the strong generational splits within the Democratic primary (e.g., when I analyzed the issue positions of Millennials, it turned out that they’re actually not unusually liberal on Sanders-emphasized redistribution issues, even though they are unusually liberal in some other areas, such as views on homosexuality, marijuana, Middle Eastern conflicts, and immigration).
Another thing we don’t really know is the future. There are some safe bets, though. Like other generations before them, Millennial voter participation is likely to increase as they age. It’s also likely that, for the time being, given their demographics, Millennials will continue to prefer Democrats over Republicans when they do vote. Eventually, though, Millennials and those who come after them will inevitably force changes in the current party coalitions—there just won’t be enough white Christians around to support a viable national party organized primarily around white Christians, and so the parties will continue to evolve.