It has been widely reported over the last few weeks that millennials will for the first time match baby boomers as the largest voting-eligible generation in 2016. The Wall Street Journal called it “a generational turning point.” But being eligible to vote and actually voting are two very different things, and young voters historically vote less often and more inconsistently than older voters.
Young voters are coming out in droves thus far in 2016, particularly on the Republican side. According to data from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, Republicans under the age of 30 set records for voter turnout in each of the four primaries/caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Total young Republican voting in the four states is up by a staggering 52 percent from 2008.
Young Democrats, who set records of their own coming out for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008, have not kept pace, though results in both New Hampshire and Nevada approached 2008 numbers. Overall, young voters are up 11 percent from 2008 (Table).
What do these gains mean for the general election? In order to gauge the full range of possibilities, we create three scenarios for a possible voting breakdown by age in 2016, based on the most recent U.S. Census population estimates.
In our baseline 2016 projection, we project voter turnout rates across all age groups to equal the average of the last four presidential elections. In our low 2016 scenario, we use voter turnout rates from 2012 across all age groups and apply them to the 2016 population. Finally, in our high 2016 scenario, we use 2008 voter turnout rates, which represent a high bar for voter turnout among young voters over the last 40 years (Chart).
The high scenario would bring out four million more 18- to 44-year-old voters than the low scenario, the majority of whom are millennials (ages 18 to 35). Fully half of those four million would be between the ages of 18 and 24.
To put these numbers into context, the split in the popular vote has been decided by an average of 4.3 million votes over the last four elections, and the split between Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012 was about five million votes. Any candidate who can mobilize widespread support among the potential four million additional young voters as President Obama did in 2008 would have an enormous advantage in the general election.
The big winner among young voters on the Democratic side is Bernie Sanders, who has pulled in over 80 percent of voters under the age of 30. No news here. What is more striking is that young Republican voters are not clearly oriented toward Donald Trump as is the rest of the population. While Trump dominates overall, having won three of four states so far, he has won only one state among young voters (New Hampshire) and is running six percentage points behind on average among young voters relative to the overall electorate. As the field narrows, Trump’s lead could diminish if he cannot tap into the pool of young Republican voters.
Millennial voters are angry and frustrated on both sides of the political spectrum. To some degree, integrity and authenticity matter as much or more to them than economic and social issues. Will Sanders’ young supporters turn to Hillary Clinton if she wins the nomination? Will young supporters of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz come out for Trump if he wins the nomination? One thing is clear: Connecting with young voters is no longer a bonus; it is a necessity.
 We consider millennials to be those born in 1981 or later, meaning voting-eligible millennials will be ages 18 to 35 in the 2016 election. Note that it is difficult to quantify exactly how millennials are voting because of inconsistencies and overlaps in the available data. Polling data cited in this article classifies youth voters as those ages 18 to 29, while U.S. census voting data from past elections cited in this article groups the electorate into age cohorts of 18 to 24, 25 to 44, 45 to 64, and 65 and over.
 U.S. Census International Database population estimates by age: https://www.census.gov/population/international/data/idb/informationGateway.php
 48 percent among 18- to 44-year-olds, 65 percent among 45- to 64-year-olds, and 69 percent among those ages 65 and over.
 Notably, the additional two million voters from this youngest age cohort closely mirrors an extrapolation of the 11 percent increase in aggregate young voters from the four primaries/caucuses that we cited above.
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