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

Young Iowans Bellwether for Youth Electoral Support?

January 27th, 2016
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IowaMapPicYoung people (ages 18-29) make up nearly a fifth of the population in Iowa. The February 1st Iowa caucuses are an important testing ground for presidential candidates. They may also indicate which 2016 candidates resonate most with young voters. That’s especially true of young Iowa Democrats, who have favored their party’s eventual nominee more frequently than young Iowa Republicans in recent presidential caucuses. Indeed, Barack Obama owed his upset victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses in significant part to a dramatic increase in youth turnout, and without Iowa, it is unlikely he would have been elected president.

In 2012, too, Iowa youth made a significant impact. More than half of young Iowans (52.9%) cast a ballot in the 2012 presidential election—the second-highest youth turnout rate of any state in the nation. Additionally, over 18,000 Iowans under age 30[1] participated in the 2012 Iowa caucuses, representing about 15% of all caucus-goers. Then-Representative Ron Paul garnered 48% of young caucus-goers’ support in the Republican contest. The eventual GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, received only 14% support from youth—perhaps presaging his lack of support from young voters in the general election. The story was similar in 2008, when Iowa youth favored Mike Huckabee (40%), Mitt Romney (22%) and Ron Paul (20%) by wide margins over eventual nominee John McCain (7%).

Iowa youth participating in Democratic caucuses have a much better track record of supporting the party’s eventual candidate. In 2004 and 2008, these young Democratic voters in Iowa supported both John Kerry and Barack Obama in their respective caucus bids.

The 2016 Iowa caucus is likely to look a lot more like 2008, when both Republicans and Democrats had competitive races for the presidential nomination.  That year, more than 65,000 young Iowans participated in the caucus process, making up 13% of all caucus-goers. The estimated youth turnout in 2008, when then-Senator Obama won the caucus with 57% of youth votes,[2] was more than double that of 2004. More detail on youth participation in the Iowa Caucuses is provided in Tables 1 and 2.

IACaucusTable1 IACaucusTable2

When looking at whether Iowa is a bellwether for youth turnout and support, it is important to keep in mind that, historically, Iowans have voted at rates higher than the national average in both midterm and presidential contests. Young Iowans in particular have outpaced their peers nationally in the last four presidential elections, turning out to vote at rates at least ten percentage points higher. For example, in 2012, 52.5% of young Iowans turned out to vote, compared to 30.7% nationally.[3] Also, as noted above, young Republican voters in the state are not necessarily in step with the larger body of Republican voters.

Young Iowa voters are also distinctive from their peers in other ways. These differences should be kept in mind when projecting youth support nationally. For instance, current demographics[4] show that young Iowans are:

  • More white (91.9% vs. 75.1% nationally)[5]
  • More likely to be married (23.7% vs. 17.1% nationally)
  • Less likely to have a foreign-born parent (3.5% vs. 20.6% nationally)

CIRCLE will soon be releasing new analysis looking at states and congressional districts where the youth vote has the most significance for the 2016 presidential, Senate, and House races. Iowa and its congressional districts are represented, where youth have had real, historical impact on electoral results.

[1] Youth who are 17 years old are able to participate in the Iowa caucus process.

[2] See –

[3] Based on analysis of voter file data.

[4] Based on analysis of the 2015 Current Population Survey March Supplement.

[5] However, since 2000 the Latino population has doubled and a disproportionate number of Latinos in Iowa are young –

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