Young Voters, Motivated by Climate Change and Environmental Justice, Helped Propel Biden’s Campaign

They turned out in big numbers and overwhelmingly supported the former vice president. Young voters of color played a critical role in battleground states.

Nov 7, 2020
Youth activists with the Sunrise Movement demonstrate in a Count Every Vote rally in Philadelphia. Credit: Rachael Warriner

Youth activists with the Sunrise Movement demonstrate in a Count Every Vote rally in Philadelphia. Credit: Rachael Warriner

If Joe Biden wins the presidency, young voters between 18 and 29 will have played a critical role in his election, turning out in force and favoring the former vice president over President Trump by 61 percent to 36 percent, according to an analysis by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning at Tufts University.

The Center concluded that those young voters, and particularly young people of color and women, may have helped put Biden over the edge in crucial battleground states, based on an analysis of votes counted by midday Friday. 

The Tufts' center estimated the youth share of the vote in the 2020 election at 17 percent, compared to 16 percent in the 2016 presidential election and 13 percent in the 2018 midterms, based on the 2020 VoteCast from the Associated Press, the National Election Pool exit poll from Edison Research and its own analyses of census population data. That figure could change as more data becomes available and the election comes to a close.

The center, a non-partisan, independent research organization focused on youth civic engagement, also projected that once all votes are counted, youth turnout may rise to 53 to 56 percent, compared to 46 percent in the 2016 election and 36 percent in the 2018 midterms. That would represent the highest youth voter turnout since at least 1984.

Young Black, Asian and Latino voters supported Biden over Trump by margins of 77, 72 and 49 points respectively. By comparison, young white voters supported Biden over Trump by a margin of only 6 points. Support for the two candidates also divided along gender-based lines within racial and ethnic groups, with young white women preferring Biden over Trump by a 13-point margin, while young white men preferred Trump over Biden by a 6-point margin.

The center's analysis also found substantial pro-Biden youth voter turnout in key battleground states, including in closely-watched Georgia, where youth comprised 21 percent of the vote and gave Biden a 19-point edge over Trump. Specifically, young Black voters, who favored Biden over Trump by an 82-point margin, "put Georgia in play," the center said in its analysis. 

With a recount underway, Biden currently leads in Georgia by just over 4,000 votes. The center estimated that youth voter turnout across the 11 crucial battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Montana, Colorado, Wisconsin, Texas and South Carolina could rise to 51 to 53 percent by the election's end.

"In many ways, the energy young people have brought throughout this election cycle—that will have catapulted Joe Biden into the presidency if we get that result" and given him a "climate mandate" in office, Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate organization, said at a press conference on Thursday. 

Prakash added that Sunrise and allied climate and progressive organizations played a critical role in making a youth-powered Biden victory possible by pushing for the Green New Deal and advocating for climate more broadly. For young voters across the political spectrum, she said, climate is "essentially a litmus test for the 2020 election."

Garrett Blad, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, said Biden's use of climate change as a "closing argument" in advertisements in swing states down the election's final stretch testified to the group's success in shaping climate as a dominant issue in the Democratic Party and national political dialogue.

"This is going to sound so simple but when a campaign is actually talking with young people publicly, I think that matters a lot," said Abby Kiesa, the Tufts' center's deputy director, who attributed Biden's favorability among young voters in part to his effort to appeal directly to youth from early on in his campaign after the primary.

Kiesa added that young voters could distinguish authentic appeals from political rhetoric. "Young people aren't dumb; they know when someone's just out to get their vote," she said. 

Blad offered a similar analysis. "To Biden's credit, like a lot of politicians don't do, he listened to young people," said Blad.

He said he thought Biden's heavy communications about climate change was a driving force behind the vast uptick in his favorability among young voters between May and October. 

Zanagee Artis, co-founder of Zero Hour, a youth climate justice organization, said the Unity Task Force on Climate Change Biden formed with Sen. Bernie Sanders, which included Green New Deal champions Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sunrise's Prakash, signalled the former vice president's willingness to listen to and work with young people. 

Though Biden's refusal to commit to a ban on fracking and fully embrace the Green New Deal frustrated many young progressive climate activists, Artis said he felt encouraged by how successful the youth climate movement had been in pushing Biden to adopt a much bolder climate policy plan than he would have otherwise. 

Artis was among several climate activists who said youth helped propel Joe Biden into office on the promise that his presidency would deliver not only bold action, but specifically climate justice. 

Rather than talk strictly about science or decarbonization, Biden spoke about climate in terms of green job creation and investment in marginalized communities—language that helped energize young people who had coalesced around Sanders in the early Democratic primaries. 

"Climate is a mobilizing issue because climate is an intersectional issue," said Saad Amer, an environmental activist and director of Plus1Vote, a youth voter mobilization organization. He said climate was inseparable from racial justice and health equity.

Alex Leichenger, strategic communications manager at NextGen America, an organization of young voters created to elect pro-climate Democrats, said Biden's focus on environmental justice as part of his climate policy may help explain his higher support among young people of color and young women. Research has found that people of color and specifically, young people of color, are more likely to be concerned about climate change.

The center's analysis of APVoteCast data shows young Biden voters were more likely than young Trump voters to say coronavirus, racism and climate change were top issues facing the country by 21-point, 14-point and 9-point margins, respectively, with young Trump supporters being significantly more likely to prioritize the economy and jobs. 

That disparity reflects the gap between Biden, who linked climate to health and environmental racism, and Trump, who has continuously denied the science around the climate and Covid-19 crises while painting climate action as a threat to people's jobs in the fossil fuel industry.

Leichenger said he looked forward to seeing more data on the breakdown of youth voter turnout to better understand how racial and gender disparities affected young people's support for Biden over Trump, along with any disparities between Gen Z and millennial voting trends.

Beyond having the right messaging, Biden's campaign may have benefited substantially from concerted organizing efforts by young climate activists to get out their peers' votes.

Danielle Deiseroth, a climate data analyst for the progressive think tank Data for Progress, said hundreds of thousands of postcards Sunrise sent out to young voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and Florida were emblematic of the large-scale, youth-led organizing that may have played a critical role in swaying the election.

Blad said Sunrise made a total of 1.8 million phone calls, sent 2.5 million texts and mailed 778,000 postcards to eligible voters, reaching 3.5 million unique voters just since the end of the presidential primary.

Digital technologies may also have played an important role in mobilizing young voters, both Leichenger and Amer said. With in-person campaign events next to impossible because of the pandemic, they said, youth took advantage of their social media and internet savvy to get out the vote using platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

And for many climate organizers, this year's powerful youth turnout is only the beginning. Youth have "shown that they are relevant, that they are here and they are going to have a say," said Natalie Mebane, associate director of U.S. policy at 350 Action.

Leichenger said he thinks Gen Z voters between 18 and 23 are "only at the beginning of exercising what can be very substantial power." 

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