Youth are the future of our elections – even those who can’t yet vote.
On the brink of the 2020 presidential election, a new study from West Virginia University’s Department of Psychology introduces insights into how teenagers view President Donald Trump.
To date, minimal research has considered how demographic characteristics like race and ethnicity, place, socioeconomic status and gender influence teens’ political views. This study has begun to close that gap to inform future voting and civic engagement trends.
“We were interested in how adolescents develop as political agents and the origins of political reasoning. Little research has really looked at how kids think about their political leaders or the reasons that underlie their views,” said Aaron Metzger, associate professor of psychology. “Our study focused on the wide range of rationales adolescents used to justify their approval or disapproval of the president.”
The research team surveyed more than 1,400 students enrolled in grades 9-12 at public high schools in rural West Virginia, suburban Minneapolis and urban Los Angeles. Students gave their approval or disapproval rating of the president using both a sliding scale and open-ended responses.
“We explored youths’ attitudes toward a current, well-known politician like President Trump, and their rationale for those attitudes,” said Metzger. “This provided important information about adolescents’ developing understanding of politics and offered insights into individual differences in youths’ political views including what they value in a political leader.”
The three geographic sites ensured a diverse demographic sample. Thus, the study’s findings considered how race, ethnicity, immigration status, socioeconomic status and region affected youth’s political attitudes and opinions.
“There are a range of views from adolescents about the current president. We should anticipate that youth voting patterns should more closely mirror the diversity we see among adults rather than assuming young people are either uninformed and apathetic or more homogenous in their political views.”
— Aaron Metzger, Associate Professor of Psychology
“We captured views from youth who had different contextual experiences,” Metzger said. “This geographic diversity really allowed us to hear a wide array of youth voices and opinions and investigate how contexts and experiences helped shape adolescents’ emerging political views.”
In their responses, youth evaluated Trump’s plans to address social and policy issues in the U.S. as well as his leadership qualities. The research team was surprised by their knowledge and awareness, especially given that most of the youth surveyed were not yet of voting age.
“I think there is an assumption that youth often don’t engage that much with politics. We assume that they are apathetic or that they are blindly idealistic or liberal. What really stands out about their responses is that they are quite sophisticated,” said Lauren Alvis (PhD Psychology, 2019), a postdoctoral fellow at the Baylor University College of Medicine. “Youth have strong opinions, and they can articulate their rationale for those opinions. They are not just mirroring what they see or hear. They can point to specific political or social issues that they care about and compare their views on those issues with what they are seeing from the president. Youth are really informed and have a lot of political knowledge.”
Because of this awareness, the researchers urge the public to not underestimate youth and their influence on future elections.
“They are a good resource for moving elections forward and have a lot to say. A lot of them are prepared to participate,” Alvis said. “We should consider them as a resource for political elections rather than assuming that since they can’t vote they won’t have a role. Many youth are very involved in advocating and pushing for their views.”
Many of the connections identified between demographics and political views are similar to trends seen in adults, explained psychology PhD student Katelyn Romm.
"A lot of the patterns we saw were similar to those often found in adulthood in terms of youths' demographic characteristics predicting their approval or disapproval ratings of Trump as well as the reasons they give to support their opinions," she said.
This finding counters the societal stereotype that youth are predominantly liberal.
“Our youth are characterized as being more liberal in their views on political issues. In some respects this is the case, but our data point to experiences and contexts mattering as much age,” Metzger said. “Youth are developing political views that are greatly affected by their unique contextual and cultural experiences, and we see that across the three distinct geographic locations in the United States. There are a range of views from adolescents about the current president. We should anticipate that youth voting patterns should more closely mirror the diversity we see among adults rather than assuming young people are either uninformed and apathetic or more homogenous in their political views.”