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WASHINGTON (CNN) — A new survey of young adults finds that heading in to the 2016 presidential election, Democrats continue to have an edge among those under age 30, and that getting this group engaged in the political process may be easier to do with a Facebook status than a yard sign.
Overall, 55 percent of young adults surveyed in the Harvard University Institute of Politics survey said they would prefer to see a Democrat win the 2016 presidential election, while 40 percent would rather see a Republican take the White House.
A generic partisan preference is different than an election with real candidates, of course, but that 15-point edge is smaller than the broad advantages exit polls indicated that Democrats enjoyed among the under-30s who actually turned up to vote in 2012 and 2008.
Among those who say they are likely to participate in their state's primary or caucus come next year, large numbers on both sides say they're not sure who they'd support. More than one-third of young Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 36 percent, said they just didn't know who their first choice would be. A slightly smaller 28 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said the same.
On the Democratic side, as in most polling on the 2016 Democratic nomination race, there was one very clear leader despite that indecision. Hillary Clinton holds a broad lead in the survey with 47 percent saying she would be their first choice in the Democratic primary, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren had 11 percent support to land in second place, and Vice President Joe Biden stood at 8 percent support.
Those Republicans who chose a candidate were far from unified, however, with the lead candidate just barely in double-digits. The poll, which was conducted online and showed respondents both the image and name of each candidate, found former neurosurgeon Ben Carson in the top spot with 10 percent, just a shade more than Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul at 8 percent, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 7 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 7 percent. The rest of the candidates tested earned 5 percent support or less.
Choice for President:
- 55% want Democrat president
- 40% want Republican president
Choice for Democratic candidate:
- 47% for Hillary Clinton
- 11% for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
- 8% for Vice President Joe Biden
Choice for Republican candidate:
- 10% for Ben Carson
- 8% for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul
- 7% for Jeb Bush
- 7% for Mike Huckabee
The survey was completed before Clinton, Paul or Rubio formally announced their candidacies.
Just 21 percent in this age group describe themselves as "politically engaged" and only 6 percent say they've volunteered on a political campaign in the last year, suggesting that getting large numbers of young people involved in the 2016 election could be a challenge. In 2008 and 2012, voters under age 30 made up about 1-in-5 voters, slightly larger than their typical share of the electorate. Whether that figure can be sustained in 2016 remains an open question.
There may be some opportunity, however, for political campaigns to engage young adults via social media. Among those who have accounts, 19 percent say they've used their Facebook status to advocate for a political position, 16 percent have used Twitter to do so. Slightly fewer, 14 percent, say they've contributed to an online discussion advocating for a political position or opinion. But all outpace in-person measures of political action tested in the poll.
The survey includes some hints that detachment from politics could be related to dissatisfaction with it. A majority, 54 percent agree that "elected officials don't seem to have the same priorities I have," and 74 percent say they only sometimes or never trust the federal government.
But young Americans are more positive toward President Barack Obama.
Overall, 50 percent approve of the way Barack Obama is handling the presidency, 49 percent disapprove. Obama earns 50 percent approval for his management of race relations and handling of climate change, but fewer approved of the way he's handling the economy (47 percent), health care (43 percent) or ISIS (39 percent).
Despite being underwater, Obama's approval rating for handling the economy has grown 11 points among this age group since November 2014, according to the survey. At the same time, young people rate their own financial situation well, 65 percent say it's very or fairly good, and tend toward optimism when asked if they'll do better than their parents: 41 percent think that when they reach their parents' age, they will be financially better off, 13 percent that they'll be worse off.
But that doesn't mean young adults don't recognize the economic challenges that may arise. About three-quarters of those currently in college say it will be difficult for their classmates to find permanent jobs after graduation, and among all under 30, slightly more think the U.S.'s economic standing in the world will be worse in 10 years (24 percent) than better (21 percent).
The poll surveyed 3,034 Americans between 18-29 years old and was conducted online from March 18-April 1 using GfK's nationally-representative online KnowledgePanel. For results based on the full sample, the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.
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