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The Psychology Behind How Young People Vote

Presidential candidates must win young hearts, not just minds.

K. Ho Toh/
Source: K. Ho Toh/

Young voters are playing an increasingly powerful role in U.S. presidential elections. Why the surge in influence? Numbers. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials have overtaken baby boomers as America’s largest generation. This shift means young people have more power to influence U.S. elections and policy than at any other time in recent history.

In 2012, young people chose Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a 23-point margin, a statistic that may have cost Mitt Romney the election according to the Center for Research and Information on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.

During this year’s primary season, we have witnessed a record-breaking youth turnout, suggesting that young adults will again play a major role in selecting the next president of the United States. However, youth have been lukewarm about the leading candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Only one candidate has stood out from the pack—Bernie Sanders.

In the states that have held primaries or caucuses thus far, Sanders has received more votes from young people than Trump and Clinton combined. Why has a 74-year-old senator won the hearts of youth? What can other candidates learn from Sanders’ success?

There have been many attempts to explain Sanders’ appeal to youth. Digital marketing analyst Yasamin Beitollahi suggested that Sanders appealed to two important millennial issues: student debt and single-payer health care. These issues, she said, affect youth individually because “millennials are drowning in student debt” and universal health care would make it so easy to “go to the doctor and show your insurance card.”

Taylor Gipple, a 22-year-old technology expert, made the case that Sanders mastered the internet like no other candidate in history. Sanders’ message is refreshing, claimed Gipple, and conveys the importance of honesty and transparency. Young people can now “look up your voting history, we can look up who your biggest donors are, and we can watch videos of you contradicting yourself.”

Beyond Issues, Polling, and Technology

"Bernie Sanders for President"/Phil Roeder/CC 2.0
Source: "Bernie Sanders for President"/Phil Roeder/CC 2.0

Political issues and marketing analysis tell us only pieces of the story when it comes to young voters. For researchers like myself who have studied the development of civic identity during the early adult years, it is no surprise that Bernie Sanders has led his rivals in both parties. That’s because there are developmental attributes of young voters that are predictive of voting behavior. Sanders has tapped into those attributes in a big way.

As we examine human development over the life span, young adults stand apart from other age groups. Voters between the ages of 18 and 29 are in the process of becoming adults, but don’t yet associate themselves with established centers of power. As such, they look at life through a different set of lenses than their older counterparts who have already formed roles in society—from powerful to powerless.

Young adults’ choice of presidential candidates evolves from their hearts, not just their minds; and the reasons behind their heartfelt voting actions are rarely reported by the media or understood by politicians. To understand the psychology behind the youth vote, we need to go beyond statistics and surveys to a deeper understanding of young adults themselves.

Five Psychological Qualities of Young Voters

1.Challengers of the Status Quo

Young adults are part of the in-between generation. Unlike their older adult counterparts who have accepted aspects of democracy they may not like or agree with, younger adults have a psychological need to challenge the status quo. In fact, it’s an important role youth play in all democratic societies. Leaders who earn the youth vote are successful at communicating passionate messages of hope and change. Those leaders connect emotionally with youth in ways that help these younger voters feel seen, heard, and understood.

2.Believers in the Common Good

Voters between 18 and 29 are evolving from the self-focus of their teen years to a felt sense of the common good. They have reached a stage of development where they believe laws should be changed to meet the needs of the greatest numbers of people. While their voting decisions are often issue-related, those decisions are not based on the more narcissistic reasons suggested by Beitollahi. Young voters care about student debt and single-payer health care because those issues connect emotionally with a young adult’s sense of ethics, morality, and fairness for all. Candidates who earn the youth vote in today’s democracies connect with young people on issues related to social justice and equality.

3.Speakers of Truth to Power

Cognition and emotional judgment change as young people move through stages of moral development. Young voters are generally more idealistic than older voters and have strong moral-ethical convictions tied to their civic identities. At this stage of life, they feel empowered to speak out on issues they believe in, even when those in power hold different beliefs. Political candidates who are not members of the powerful elite often connect with youth in ways that no other candidates can, solely because of their perceived outsider positions.

4.Followers of Role Models

Young adults are influenced by role models, and the qualities they associate with them are often reflected in the candidates for whom young people cast their votes. In the research study I conducted for my book, Tomorrows Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation, five qualities of role models stood out. Candidates are viewed as role models by young people when they possess 1) a capacity to infect youth with their passion; 2) a clear set of values and an ability to live those values in the world; 3) a focus on others rather than themselves; 4) an acceptance of people different from themselves; and 5) an ability to overcome obstacles in their lives. Leaders who earn the youth vote show many or all of these characteristics that are valued by young adults.

5. Advocates for Ethics

Probably at no other time in their adult development, twenty-something voters exhibit a high awareness of ethics and ethical behavior. Ethical problems related to political candidates have been shown by research to be catalysts for decision-making by young adults. Leaders who are able to insulate themselves from perceived ethical failures will appeal most to youth.

How Will Youth Vote in the General Election?

When viewed from a developmental perspective, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 have special psychological attributes that play important roles in democracy and in their voting patterns. It’s not difficult to see why Bernie Sanders has appealed so greatly to young people. Despite his age, he is as close to a perfect youth candidate than perhaps any candidate in recent history, including Barack Obama. How will young people vote in the predicted race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? One thing is for sure, they will vote from a unique developmental perspective, driven by their heartfelt passions and beliefs about the common good.


Kohlberg, Lawrence; T. Lickona, ed. (1976). "Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach". Moral Development and Behavior: Theory, Research and Social Issues. Holt, New York: Rinehart and Winston.

Kohlberg, L. (1981), Essays in Moral Development: The Philosophy of Moral Development, New York: Harper & Row.

Hunt, S.D. & Vitell, S.J. (1993), “The General Theory of Marketing Ethics: A Retrospective and Revision,” in Ethics in Marketing, N. Craig Smith and John A. Quelch, eds, Irwin, Inc., Homewood, Il., 775-784.


Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is the author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist and researcher, she works at the intersection of positive youth development and education.

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©2016 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles.