Skip to content

The polls are suggesting a huge shift in the electorate. Are they right?

Something weird is happening beneath the overall stability of the early 2024 polling — and it’s either a sign of a massive electoral realignment, or that the polls are wrong again.

Polls show former President Donald Trump is ascendant with the youngest bloc of the electorate, even leading President Joe Biden in some surveys, as less-engaged young voters spurn Biden. Meanwhile, Biden is stronger with seniors than he was four years ago, even as his personal image is significantly diminished since he was elected last time.

That would be a generational shift: For decades, Democratic presidential candidates have overwhelmingly won young voters, and Republicans have done the same with the other end of the electorate. Poll after poll is showing that’s flipped this year.

If these changes are real, it would have profound effects on the coalitions both campaigns are building for November. No Republican has won young voters since George H.W. Bush’s landslide victory in 1988, and no Democrat has carried the senior vote since Al Gore hammered Bush’s son, George W. Bush, on Social Security in 2000.

Or something’s wrong in the polls — and the mirage of an “age inversion” is really a warning sign of a structural problem in the 2024 election polling.

That would be a signal that the polls are once again struggling to measure the presidential race accurately after underestimating Trump in the previous two presidential elections. Maybe the young-voter numbers are wrong, and the polls are understating Biden; or maybe the older-voter numbers are wrong, and Trump is even stronger than he appears; or both.

“Seems like we know how to poll white, middle-aged people really well,” said John Della Volpe, the director of polling for the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and an expert on polling young voters. “But if they’re younger, older, Black, Hispanic — there seems to be no consensus about what’s the best practice these days.”

Is there a fundamental realignment underway of the American electorate? A systemic error in polling? A little bit of both?

The implications are enormous, but so much could change before then.

Here’s what we know right now.

What the polls show

Just last week, a new NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist College national poll showed Trump 2 points ahead of Biden among Millennial and Gen-Z voters, while Biden led overall among voters 45 years and older, including those in the Silent and Greatest generations.

A Fox News poll last month showed Trump leading Biden among voters under 30 by a whopping 18 points in a head-to-head matchup — and by 21 points with independent and third-party candidates included.

Not every poll shows a perfect age inversion.

Biden is at just 50 percent among voters under 30 in the Wall Street Journal’s national and swing-state polling. While that’s still about 10 points ahead of Trump, it’s a significant decline compared to the 2020 election — and roughly equal to his vote share among seniors, 48 percent.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week had Biden 20 points ahead of Trump among voters under age 35, close to the president’s margin in 2020 according to exit polls and other estimates of voting subgroups. But that survey also had Biden ahead by 8 points among voters 65 and older, which would be a significant reversal from recent elections, when Republicans won older voters.

On paper, it might seem like a good trade-off for Biden: Young people turn out to vote at significantly lower rates than seniors. According to census data, 48 percent of voters under age 25 participated in the 2020 election, compared to 73 percent of those between the ages of 65 and 74, and 70 percent of those 75 and older.

But winning over older voters doesn’t appear to be boosting Biden in the polls, which show him essentially neck-and-neck with Trump, with the Republican narrowly ahead in most swing states.

Trump’s youth-voter surge?

Some polls show Trump actually pulling even with — or slightly ahead of — Biden among young voters. But is that a shift or an outlier?

The evidence is mixed, and polls of the overall electorate contain only a small sample of young voters. And because it’s become increasingly difficult for pollsters to interview young people, that increases the chances of errors.

Traditional phone polling — which some media outlets and academic institutions still employ — could be difficult for capturing young voters.

“Even if they’re on a cell phone, they’re much less likely to answer it,” said Abby Kiesa, the deputy director of CIRCLE, a nonpartisan research institute on youth engagement based at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “That makes it hard when people are trying to use phone surveys to reach a representative sample of young people.”

But a drop in youth support for Biden keeps showing up in polls using different ways of reaching respondents, a sign that it may not just be methodological error.

The electoral analysis website Split Ticket recently conducted a survey of young voters using text-message interviews — a mode more familiar to people in that age group. It found Biden (35 percent) ahead of Trump (25 percent) and independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (23 percent), but well short of the 20-plus-point margin the current president enjoyed over Trump in the 2020 election.

The gap between Biden and Trump narrows particularly when pollsters also ask about independent and third-party candidates, like Kennedy, Cornel West or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, suggesting young voters leaving Biden aren’t necessarily flocking to Trump instead. In those polls, young voters are far more likely than other age groups to say they would vote for candidates other than Biden and Trump.

Young Americans have voted overwhelmingly Democratic since 2000, peaking with Barack Obama’s first election in 2008. There’s no one perfect source of estimates of how subgroups have voted, but exit polls and other surveys generally show Biden beat Trump by more than 20 percentage points in 2020.

But they have also voted for third-party candidates at higher rates, including in 2016, when Trump won the presidency despite losing the popular vote. According to estimates from Catalist, the Democratic data firm, 10 percent of voters under 30 chose a third-party candidate eight years ago, compared to 8 percent of voters 30-44, 5 percent of those 45-64 and 3 percent of voters 65 and older.

This year’s polls are clearly picking up broad dissatisfaction with Biden among young voters, even if they don’t uniformly show Trump gaining ground. The Split Ticket poll shows both Biden (68 percent) and Trump (70 percent) are viewed unfavorably by more than two-thirds of young voters — but, notably, Trump’s “very unfavorable” figure of 61 percent is significantly higher than Biden’s 44 percent.

The young voters Biden needs to win include the 24 percent who have a “somewhat unfavorable” view of him.

Biden’s senior moment

While Biden is bleeding support among young voters, the nation’s oldest-ever president might just be shoring up his standing with seniors.

That would be a shift from the general — though imperfect — trend of political evolution: Voters become more conservative as they age.

The latest New York Times/Siena College national poll, conducted in late February, showed Biden with a 9-point lead over Trump among likely voters 65 and older, 51 percent to 42 percent — even as Trump led the overall survey by 4 points.

And it’s not just in the horserace with Trump. While traditionally Democratic younger voters are more likely to say they disapprove of Biden’s job performance right now, older voters — even though they lean more Republican on the whole — aren’t.

“We’ve certainly seen in our older folks that they are leaning a little bit more to Biden,” said Don Levy, the director of the Siena College Research Institute. “Even on Biden approval, older folks in our most recent national [survey] are break-even on Biden job approval, despite the fact that the country as a whole is 25 points negative, and young people are 38 points negative on Biden approval.”

Symptoms of a broader realignment

The shifts along the opposite ends of the age spectrum could actually be part of a broader realignment along racial, class and gender lines.

Polls show Trump running stronger than he did in 2020 among Black and Latino voters, while Biden is holding his own with white voters, who tilted toward Trump last time. Generally speaking, white voters tend to skew older than other groups, particularly Latinos — who, especially as a share of the electorate, are younger.

Those numbers could be real — or they could be artifacts of a polling error that will only be discovered after the election. And the shifts could come from subgroups that intersect with each other, like age, class and race.

Della Volpe, the Kennedy School pollster and young voter expert, said the public poll numbers for Hispanic voters, especially young ones, are “all over the place.” Levy, the Siena pollster, said the entirety of Biden’s slippage with Black voters is coming from young Black voters — older Black voters continue to overwhelmingly back the Democrat.

There’s also the gender gap: Trump is openly courting young men across races and ethnicities, and there’s some evidence he’s gaining ground there, while young women remain in Biden’s camp.

The next seven months will offer more data about the continuously shifting coalitions. But don’t hold your breath wondering about whether these changes are real. The debate likely won’t even end on Nov. 5, even with voter surveys like the network exit polls or AP VoteCast.

It will then take weeks, even months, for the gold-standard post-election analyses of voter files or the Cooperative Election Study that will provide some of the answers — well after the next president is named or even inaugurated.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this report misstated the year of George H.W. Bush’s presidential election victory. It was 1988.