How Do Young Independents Vote?

In August of 2022, we published an analysis on the partisan affiliation of young voters. Our conclusion was that we were currently in the largest period of sustained age polarization in recent American political history, and that the extreme Democratic lean of young voters was a historical abnormality.

But there’s something that we think is worth looking at that goes deeper than exit polling. Party registration is still an excellent predictor of partisanship, but that isn’t the whole story when it comes to younger voters. Recent party affiliation numbers show a rising independent share in voter registration, spearheaded by younger voters who are more likely to abstain from partisan identification than their older peers. Understanding how this tranche of the electorate behaves is crucial, as their relative loyalty to either party could sway elections as they mature into a powerful voting bloc.

This begs the question: how do young independent voters vote? Are they more conservative than their party-registered counterparts, or do they skew much more Democratic?

It is difficult to provide confident estimates, especially because young independents have some of the lowest survey response rates. Despite the difficulty, Jesse Richardson published a study in which he trained a model to learn the correlation between demographics and partisanship for registered young partisans in North Carolina. In terms of two-way vote share, he found that young unaffiliated voters in the state were about 3% more Republican than their party-registered counterparts.

While this study was insightful, Richardson himself admitted that the model’s correlation (R2 of 0.37) wasn’t amazing. Political scientist David Shor pointed out that the study might actually suffer from a few pitfalls related to voter file modeling. But because North Carolina has a large collection of current and historical voter file data, we decided to try a different approach suggested by Shor. We tracked how young independents voters from 2016 affiliated in 2022. Given that most political science research suggests political affiliation is mostly decided at an early age, we assume that these voters would be manifesting pre-existing partisan inclinations by switching registration later in life.

For this approach, we took the pool of young independents in 2016, identified those who had reregistered as Republican or Democratic by 2022, and calculated the two-way party registration margin for the group.

Our results are attached below. Note that the numbers provided measure young voters from 2016 in both 2016 and 2022. For example, how did North Carolina voters aged 18-34 in 2016 register in 2022? And how did the young voters registered as independents in 2016 register in 2022?

Our results show two interesting things. First, the partisan affiliation of young voters stayed largely stable on the whole across cycles, which is a strike against the notion that they are destined to become more Republican as they age. Second, although independent young voters in North Carolina are slightly more Republican than party-registered young voters are, they are still more Democratic than not. But there are some interesting gender and racial splits that may be worth examining in more detail.

The data suggest nonwhite independent voters are significantly more Republican than nonwhite partisans are. But that dichotomy is reversed for white voters. Young, white independents in North Carolina are significantly more Democratic than their registered partisan counterparts are. And we find that the gender split holds across races; no matter the sub-demographic, independent women are much more likely to register as Democrats later on in life than independent men are.

In effect, this shows two countervailing trends. The first is with regards to voting patterns and their relationship with ethnicity. Voting patterns are pushing voters of all ethnicities away from traditional voting behavior and towards a new regime defined by educational polarization. This can be seen in the data, both as the partisan gap between younger, white and nonwhite voters is comparatively smaller than that of older generations, but also in the affiliation preferences of previous cycle’s independents, who are feeding into the trend by being less polarized in registration than their predecessors (and it is worth noting that these numbers are accompanied by an overall rise in the share of independents).

The second trend is an expanding gender gap. Women are substantially more likely to be registered as Democrats than men of the same age and ethnic cohort. This difference is expanded in the re-registration preferences of independent men and women, who are picking parties at substantially different rates.

We stress that this is only one way to look at the data. Our approach is not perfect, especially the assumption that the independent voters who do register as partisans later in life are reflective of independents as a whole, but it is simply one lens under which to examine things. Moreover, because of the data at our disposal, we are only able to deal with the voter files provided by one state, and it is more than possible that these patterns differ by state. However, it is worth noting that this analysis does deal with an extremely large sample size and thus does give quite robust results, because we are looking at well over a million records in the voter file.

Ultimately, we do think our research adds to the growing mountain of evidence that Republicans probably cannot rely on a hidden future Republican vote among unaffiliated young voters to save them from a massive generational gap. The partisanship of the 2016 youth voters hardly changed through 2022 on the whole, and the independents that did pick a party weren’t much more conservative than the partisans were. In other words, despite all the caveats, there is no way to spin the youth vote being D +12–15 in a Republican-leaning state like North Carolina as anything other than a huge problem for the GOP.

There is little to suggest that Republicans will gain massively with the youth vote as time continues. At some point, the bill does come due, and as the median voter becomes born closer and closer to the 1990’s (currently, it is around 1970), the electorate will likewise reflect the partisan attitudes of such voters. Republicans will either need to conjure a conservative generation from nowhere, or break historical trends with party affiliation changes to succeed in elections in the not-so-distant future.

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