The 2016 presidential election saw roughly the same percentage of youth voters as the 2012 election, but an increase in young voters who did not identify with either major party — something experts say reflects their views on American politics and poses a clear challenge for the major parties.
“Youth voters are skeptical about the two major parties,” said Abby Kiesa, director of impact at the The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. “Young people want drastic change, and they don’t think Republicans or Democrats will give them that.”
Young people are increasingly leaving behind the two major parties. This year, 35 percent of youth voters said they identify as independents, which is almost the same as the 37 percent who identified with Democrats before the election. This is compared to 29 percent independents and 45 percent Democrat in 2008.
The percentage of youth identification with Republicans has stayed roughly the same – around 26 percent – in the last three presidential elections.
This shift in party identification could result in less engagement in future elections, Kiesa said, because of the difficulties that come with mobilizing people who don’t align with a major party.
“The major parties provide more structure and access to engagement,” she said. “With so many young voters straying from that, we could see big decreases in their engagement.”
The 2016 election saw similar youth turnout as the 2008 election, hovering around 50 percent of eligible young voters, but increased from 2012, when only 45 percent of people aged 18 to 29 cast ballots.
Kiesa said that while the numbers aren’t drastically decreasing, they are cause for concern for the major parties.
While some experts say the increasing number of young voters identifying as independents could affect engagement, Barry Burden, an expert in American politics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it’s only going to help the Democratic party in future elections.
“If you look at how many young people identified as independent and still voted Democratic, that should be encouraging for that party,” he said. “Still, the Democratic party needs to work hard to win over those young people, or they will continue to deny both major parties and vote in a way that reflects that.”
One thing is for sure, Burden said: The youth vote is important, and winning over those who are unaffiliated with the major parties is going to become increasingly important.
Attracting independent voters was an important aspect of President Obama’s overall youth support in the last two presidential elections. He won 67 percent of the “Independent” or “other” group in 2008 and 57 percent in 2012, which is high compared to this year’s election.
This year, “Independents” and “others” made up an even larger share of the electorate, while Hillary Clinton won 49 percent of their votes, compared to 33 percent for Donald Trump and 17 percent who voted for a third party candidate.
The ability to win over young moderates and independents will increasingly be important, said Matthew Baum, Professor of Global Communications at the Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School of Government.
“If Republicans and Democrats can’t understand young voters, they’re going to run into trouble,” he said. “This election was their wake up call and they need to heed its warning.”