The youth turnout is something that politicians and pundits bring up constantly when talking about the current U.S. presidential primaries. So I decided to look for the data. I found some data at the United States Election Project, a site maintained by Dr. Michael McDonald. The key chart is this one:
This is classic Excel.
Here is a quick fix:
The key to the fix is to recognize the structure of the data.
The sawtooth pattern displayed in the original chart does not convey any real trends - it's an artifact that many people only turn out for presidential elections. (As a result, the turnout during presidential election years is driven by the general election turnout.)
The age groups have an order so instead of four different colors, use a progressive color scheme. This is one of the unspoken rules about color usage in data visualization, featured in my Long Read article.
What do I learn from this turnout by age group chart?
Younger voters are much more invested in presidential elections than off-year elections. The youth turnout for presidential elections is double that for other years.
Participation increased markedly in the 2018 mid-term elections across all four age groups, reflecting the passion for or against President Donald Trump. This was highly unusual - and in fact, the turnout for that off-year is closer to the turnout of a presidential year election. Whether the turnout will stay at this elevated level is a big question for 2022!
For presidential elections, turnout has been creeping up over time for all age groups. But the increase in 2016 (Hillary Clinton vs Donald Trump) was mild. The growth in participation is more noticable in the younger age groups, including in 2016.
Let's look at the relative jumps in 2018 (right side of the left chart). The younger the age group, the larger the jump. Turnout in the 18-29 group doubled to 32 percent. Turnout in the oldest age group increased by 20%, nothing to sneeze at but less impressive than in the younger age groups.
Why this is the case should be obvious. The 60+ age group has a ceiling. It's already at 60-70%; how much higher can it go? People at that age have many years to develop their preference for voting in elections. It would be hard to convince the holdouts (hideouts?) to vote.
The younger age groups are further from the ceiling. If you're an organizer, will you focus your energy on the 60% non-voting 18-29-years-old, or the 30% non-voting 60+ years-old? [This is the same question any business faces: do you win incremental sales from your more loyal customers, hoping they would spend even more, or your less loyal customers?]
For Democratic candidates, the loss in 2016 is hanging over them. Getting the same people to vote in 2020 as in 2016 is a losing hand. So, they need to expand the base somehow.
If you're a candidate like Joe Biden who relies on the 60+ year old bloc, it's hard to see where he can expand the base. Your advantage is that the core voter bloc is reliable. Your problem is that you don't have appeal to the younger age groups. So a viable path to winning in the general election has to involve flipping older Trump voters. The incremental ex-Trump voters have to offset the potential loss in turnout from younger voters.
If you're a candidate like Bernie Sanders who relies on the youth vote, you'd want to launch a get-out-the-vote effort aimed at younger voters. A viable path can be created by expanding the base through lifting the turnout rate of younger voters. The incremental young voters have to offset the fraction of the 60+ year old bloc who flip to Trump.