On Thursday, along with 30 Harvard undergraduate members of the Harvard Public Opinion Project, we released the 39th edition of a survey founded in 2000 by students at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Designed to provide the most comprehensive view of the values and political opinions of young Americans, the aim has always been to elevate youth voices in political discourse.
Fielded between March 11 and 23, the comprehensive survey included more than 2,500 interviews with young Americans aged 18 to 30. We found that young millennials and Generation Z have deep-seated anxiety and stress over health care, debt and the cost and availability of housing; there’s an abiding desire for fundamental structural change that cuts across most every corner of America’s largest generation. Large numbers of young Americans told us that in November, they will vote in self-defense — against the policies they said have made their lives worse, exacerbated their economic insecurities, and undermined their faith in government.
Here are our biggest takeaways:
— Looking ahead to November, Joe Biden leads President Trump among all young Americans 51% to 28%; Biden’s advantage is extended to 60% to 30% among the 18- to -9-year-olds most likely to vote.
The Democratic advantage with Biden leading the ticket (+30) is similar to the edge Democrats would enjoy if Bernie Sanders had been the party nominee. In a hypothetical matchup between Sanders and Trump, 62% of likely voters said they would back the Vermont senator, with 31% supporting the president. And Biden’s favorability vis-a-vis Trump does not mean that young Americans view him favorably in general — only 34% of all young Americans and 54% of young Democrats view him favorably.
— Although fewer than 10% believe the country is working as it should be, a majority of young Americans prefer reform over the replacement of current institutions. When asked whether they believed America’s current institutions were working as needed, only 8% of young Americans agreed. A majority (51%) of them believed reform to present institutions was necessary to address existing problems, and about two in five preferred replacing all institutions and creating an entirely new model. But by a seven-point margin (51% “replace” and 44% “reform”), Democrats believed that current political institutions need to be replaced entirely. By contrast, only 19% of Republicans and a 38% plurality of independents believed that present-day problems are so bad the whole system needs replacing.
— Young Americans are worried about COVID-19, health care, debt, and housing costs, with concern for health care rising more than two-fold since 2019. Coronavirus is, understandably, a huge concern of young voters, with (19%) ranking it as the top issue, following by health care (17%), the economy (14%), and the environment (9%). More than two in five young Americans are concerned about accessing health care and mental health services if needed and are fearful that someone they know might die from the virus.
— Young Americans are burdened by extensive debt and rising costs of living: Two-thirds of 25- to 29-year-olds carry debt, and three in five young adults are concerned that housing costs will impact their future. Economic insecurity in the form of debt and housing affordability weigh heavily on the minds of young Americans. Two-thirds of the 25- to 29-year-olds in the survey reported having debt. And in a large focus group we conducted in Charleston a week before the Feb. 29 South Carolina presidential primary, one young voter told us, “Our generation is struggling. We are drowning in debt.”
No surprise, then, that 85% percent of young Americans — including 94% of Democrats and 76% of Republicans — favor student loan debt relief. Roughly equal numbers of young Americans under 30 favor programs that either: (a) would help with repayment options (35%); or (b) cancel student loan debt for everyone (33%). Nearly one-fifth (17%) preferred option (c) — canceling debt only for those most in need — while only 13% agreed with the fourth choice offered on the survey, which was no change in the government’s student loan policy. Democrats are more likely to prefer canceling all student debt (43%), Republicans prefer helping with repayment options (48%), while independents are split between the two (35% repayment, 32% cancellation).
— Young Americans are divided sharply along racial lines in their identification with and sense of belonging and trust in American institutions. Fifty-eight percent (58%) of young Americans agree with the statement, “America was built for people like me.” The net level of agreement (agree-disagree) among 18- to 29- year-olds is +41 points. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of whites in the survey agree that America was built for them and only 11% disagreed (+53 agreement) — while fewer than half of young black Americans say the same. Forty-seven percent (47%) of black Americans agreed with that statement, while 32% disagreed (+15). This pattern holds for a statement probing whether they agree or disagree that the “founders of America shared my values.” For this question, we found net agreement among whites to be +45 (60% agree, 15% disagree) while for blacks to be -7 (34% agree, 41% disagree).
Similar — and sometimes greater — divisions were found when we compared the degree of trust white and black Americans have in several, but not all, public institutions. Overall, white Americans are more likely than black Americans to trust the following institutions to “do the right thing” all or most of the time: the president (35% white, 21% black), the military (60% white, 46% black), Supreme Court (49% white, 34% black), local government (46% white, 33% black), and police (59% white, 28% black).
— Two-thirds (66%) of young Americans disapprove of Trump’s job performance — and by a two-to-one margin, they say the president has made their lives worse.
Overall, only 15% of young Americans indicate that as a result of the Trump presidency, their lives are better, with nearly twice the percentage believing they are worse. (Thirty-nine percent reported no difference, with 16% answering that they are unsure. Across all demographic subgroups such as gender, race/ethnicity, education, and community type, more said their lives were worse than better under Donald Trump’s leadership. Party is the only exception. Nearly half of Republicans (46%) say their lives are better, 7% worse, 39% no different. For Democrats: 4% better, 46% worse; independents: 9% better, 23% worse.
— More than three in five (61%) young Americans, and 75% of likely voters, agree that the outcome of the 2020 presidential election will make a difference in their lives, and Trump is a highly motivating factor for young voters. Democrats (68%) and Republicans (70%) are generally aligned on the impact the upcoming election will have on their lives. Fifty-four percent (54%) of young Americans under 30 indicate they will “definitely” vote for in the presidential race in November. That number jumps to 69% for Democrats, 64% for Republicans, and drops to 31% for independents/those not affiliated with a major party. At this point in the 2016 presidential cycle, 50% of 18- to-29-year-olds told us that they were “definitely” planning to vote.
However, there are attitudinal differences based on race and education. Young whites, at 64%, are more likely to agree that the election will make a difference in their lives compared to young blacks (52%). College students (64%) and those with a college degree (73%) were more likely than young Americans without a college experience (55%) to see the personal relevance in the election.
Notably, the Trump presidency has been a springboard to political activism for many young Americans — especially for those on the left. Forty-three percent (43%) of young Democrats say that they are more politically active as a result of him, compared to 35% of Republicans. This trend extends to ideology, as self-identified liberals (65%) are more likely to vote than moderates (47%) and conservatives (56%). Compared to conservatives, young liberals are more likely to volunteer on a campaign (15% to 8%), donate to a campaign (28% to 11%), write an email advocating for a position (28% to 13%), and share or post a position online (39% to 21%).
Our survey sheds light on the motivations and issues that will drive young Americans to the polls in November. While COVID-19 has exacerbated the struggles this generation faces, these concerns predate the pandemic. Young voters seek leaders who empathize with their concerns, share (or at least understand) their world view, will rebuild trust in our public institutions — and make their daily lives better in tangible ways.
Harvard undergraduates Katharine Heintz, Rajvir Batra, Christine Li, Jing-Jing Shen, Sam Lowry, Ellen Burstein, and Alina Hachigian contributed to this report.