Young voters may be turning Virginia blue

6:14 PM, Oct 29, 2013   |    comments
Former President Bill Clinton waves to the crowd along with Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe during a rally at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. (Photo: Steve Helber AP)
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FAIRFAX, Va. - As an ugly gubernatorial race grinds to conclusion in Virginia, Republicans in the commonwealth face a growing demographic problem: young people.

Young voters in Virginia are a growing chunk of the state's electorate, and as a group, their politics have shifted dramatically in favor of Democrats over the past 15 years.

The question facing Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli is whether they will show up at the polls in big enough numbers to matter next week.

Both campaigns are playing to their slice of the youth vote: McAuliffe campaigned with former president Bill Clinton in college towns across Virginia this week, including Blacksburg (Virginia Tech), Charlottesville (University of Virginia) and Harrisonburg (James Madison University). Cuccinelli appeared at Lynchburg's evangelical Liberty University - the fastest-growing school in the state - with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. on Monday.

In 1996, voters age 18-29 made up 15% of the state's presidential vote, and they voted for Republican Bob Dole over Bill Clinton, 49%-42%, bucking the national trend. That year, 53% of young people nationwide voted for Clinton, according to exit polls.

By 2012, the under-30 crowd had grown to 19% of the state's voters and their politics had shifted. They voted 61% for President Obama's re-election, 1 point higher than the national total for their peers.

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"For young people age 18-29 there has been a dramatic shift in the voting and party identification," said Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, a Tufts University research center on youth voting and civic engagement. "Young people are dramatically more liberal in Virginia than they were in '96."

In 2012, there were 1,162,000 citizens age 18-29 eligible to vote in Virginia, up from 979,000 in 1996 - a jump of nearly 20%. Part of this growth is reflected in significant increases in higher education enrollments in the state, which also tends to be a heavily Democratic constituency. The significant exception is Liberty, which went from 7,700 students in 1996 to 74,000 last fall, but only about 12,600 of these students are residential - most of the rest take classes online.

Overall, the "fall headcount" at Virginia colleges and universities grew from just under 342,000 in 1996 to just under 540,000 last year, according to data collected by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Tod Massa, the council's director of policy research, said a recent study by the state predicted the total undergraduate enrollment would increase 9.6% though this decade. And student body expansion also means increases in staff, faculty, services and the economic footprint of the institution.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the state is trending toward becoming reliably Democratic in statewide campaigns in part because of the academic presence. "This is a state with a remarkably large number of college communities (that) are heavily Democratic and major employment magnets."

Virginia overall has grown by more than a million people over the past decade. According to the Census Bureau, Virginia's population was 7 million in 2000 and about 8.2 million in 2012.

Craig Brians, a political science professor at Virginia Tech, said, "those million people are not a random sampling of people - those are folks who are younger, more educated and they are more likely to be Democratic." But he noted that young voters "only vote at a 40-50% rate.

For Democrats, the issue becomes getting the young voters to the polls, which is much easier during a presidential race than an off-year gubernatorial election.

But the state may be helping.

Fairfax County added a new polling precinct on the campus of George Mason University in 2011 to accommodate the university's dramatic expansion. Once a sleepy commuter college with no on-campus housing, the school how has 6,000 beds and a total headcount of around 33,000.

Fairfax County election manager Judy Flaig said the first year the polling place opened, "there was a lot of publicity and we had maybe 1,800 or so" students registered. Now there are "about 3,000 students registered at that polling place" and the county is anticipating about half of those will turn out to vote Nov. 5.

Tom Kramer, the executive director of Virginia21, a non-partisan non-profit that encourages student engagement in public policy, said that on campuses and college communities around the state, "Voter registration is notably higher in 2013 than it was in 2009," which suggests that "youth turnout in 2013 will be higher than it was in 2009."

Mohammad Ahmad, a George Mason freshman who will turn 18 and vote in his first election this year, said he thinks students will vote in strong numbers. "People are more interested in government now because of the shutdown," he said. Ahmad noted that many students have families in the area whose employment was directly affected by the battle over federal spending.

George Mason student Miranda Haynie, 18, agreed, "I definitely noticed that," she said. "Just in class - we had discussions about the shutdown, and it was all over the Internet." Both Haynie and Ahmad say they plan to vote for McAuliffe.

Polls have shown McAuliffe, a businessman and Democratic fundraiser, has a consistent lead over Republican Attorney General Cuccinelli in a race that has been unrelentingly negative. Democrats have hammered Cuccinelli for accepting improper benefits in a scandal that has engulfed GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell and for his advocacy of strict anti-abortion legislation. Republicans have attacked McAuliffe for a series of questionable business deals, including an investment with a Rhode Island estate planner who has been charged with stealing the identities of terminally ill patients.

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