CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

More Young White Men, More College-Grads Among 2016 Youth Electorate

November 14th, 2016
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The results of the 2016 election surprised most observers, and our previous analysis highlighted that youth made their voices heard in the race for the presidency. We estimate that 24 million young people cast ballots on November 8, and while youth vote choice nationally did not differ much from 2012, it’s worth looking more closely at the composition of the youth electorate. Electorates can change for many reasons, including population change and differences in mobilization and motivation.

Our analysis[1] of the national exit poll suggests that the 2016 youth electorate had similar levels of racial and ethnic diversity as the 2008 and 2012 youth electorates. At the same time, the 2016 youth electorate had a higher percentage of youth with at least some college education than in those two previous elections. Finally, young white men made up a larger proportion of the white youth electorate than young white women, which had not been the case in recent elections.

Youth Electorate Remains Diverse, More So Than Older Voters

The 2016 youth electorate (ages 18-29) was 61% White, 15% African-American,17% Latino, 5% Asian-American, and 3% other. In contrast, the 30+ electorate this year was 73% White.


Despite a general belief that whites were over-represented in the 2016 electorate as a whole, the youth electorate (ages 18-29) was racially representative of the population of young citizens in that age group and no less diverse than the youth electorates in 2008 or 2012, which were themselves more diverse than the 2004 youth electorate.


Shifts in the White Electorate

While the overall racial composition of the youth electorate was very similar to that of recent elections, there were important shifts in which segments of White youth went to the polls more than in recent presidential cycles.

Notably, exit poll analysis suggests that young White men were more influential this year than they have been in recent elections. In 2004, 2008, and 2012, the share of young White men in the electorate lagged behind that of young White women. In 2016, however, we estimate that  young White men cast 1 million more votes than in 2012: from 6.8 million to 7.8 million. They far outnumbered young White women who cast an estimated 7 million ballots—roughly the same as in 2012 but below the estimated votes from 2004 and 2008.


Within that gender shift, there were particularly stark differences by educational attainment. In 2008, young White women without a college education made up 34% of the young White electorate. This year, they made up just 24% in 2016, while the share of all other gender/education segments of the White youth electorate has gone up.


The most dramatic shift was the increase in the share of young White women with college degrees, who made up just 19% of all young White voters in  2008, but this year equaled young women without college degrees at 24%. At the same time, the share of young White male voters has gone up regardless of educational attainment, but the rate of increase also appears to be slightly greater for men with college degrees.

There are multiple possible explanations for these changes. For one, President Obama’s first campaign in 2008 mobilized then-college students and young Millennials who may have become committed voters once they completed their studies. On another note, during the primaries, 25 to 29-year-olds were more supportive of Secretary Clinton, and targeted outreach may have focused more heavily on this older segment of youth who are more likely to have already completed college.  

More Educated Youth Electorate

While much has been made of Donald Trump’s ability to motivate non-college educated voters, that does not seem to have been the case in 2016—at least among youth. In fact, it appears to have under-mobilized those who have never gone to college in this election; they made up less than 20% of the youth electorate even though there are twice as many “non-college youth” in the general population.

The electoral overrepresentation of youth with higher levels of formal education has been an enduring pattern. This year, we recorded the lowest share of youth without any college experience  in the past four elections, and a nearly 10-point drop from 2012.


Follow CIRCLE’s work this week for more national data and analysis of the youth vote in the 2016 election . CIRCLE is co-hosting an event in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, November 17 at the Brookings Institution to present more of our findings. Visit this page for more information and to register for the event.

[1] The following analysis is based on estimates taken from the National Exit poll conducted by Edison Research

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