Students boost Obama victory in Virginia
Virginia university students, a group which helped deliver the battleground state for President Obama in 2008, helped make history again as the state remained blue for the second time in nearly half a century.
High turnout among younger voters sealed Obama’s 2008 victory in Virginia, which no Democratic presidential nominee had won since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. The wide margin they supported him by again nationally in 2012 – and propelled him to reelection – suggests a growing political reality in the most closely contested states.
An analysis by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University found that Mitt Romney could have won the presidency if he had won half of the youth vote in the battlegrounds of Virginia, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Subtracting the youth vote entirely in those states would also have given the combined 80 electoral votes to Romney.
As they left the polls on Election Day, students like College of William and Mary freshman Nico Sluyter-Beltrao said that while Obama earned their vote, they might have been open to casting it for Romney were it not for his perceived shortcomings.
“I wouldn’t say I was undecided, but I was at the point where if Romney had said something that I really liked in a debate, then I would have voted for him,” Sluyter-Beltrao said. “I thought he had the qualifications. But he wasn’t going about (the campaign) in a way that I liked, and he didn’t make clear enough what he was going to do.”
College of William and Mary junior Keenan Kelley said that he voted for Romney. But even before the end of Election Night, he didn’t think that his preferred candidate was going to win because of the GOP’s problems with appealing to a wide electorate. He said that the youth vote disparity – particularly views on social issues – provided one example.
“I think it’s a lack of a broader vision. America is a center-right country. But conservatives and moderates have failed to show how their vision works for the country,” Kelley said.
Nationally, the youth vote comprised a slightly larger share of the electorate than 2008 as it rose to 19 percent from 18 percent. Obama won the demographic by a historic 34 percent margin in 2008. This year, he won it by 23 points. While Obama lost some of his support from younger voters as many analysts expected, exit polling showed that he nonetheless won 18-to-29-year-olds by a wider margin than any other age group.
In Virginia, voters aged 18-29 made up 19 percent of the electorate in 2012, a two-point slide compared to 2008. But Obama increased his margin of victory from four years ago by one point to 61 percent over Romney’s 36 percent.
Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said that the sustained high turnout among young people was one of Election Night’s biggest surprises. He noted that, among other factors, the larger share of diverse millennial voters helped boost Obama’s performance in Virginia and nationwide.
“I don’t know if there’s a single explanation, but I think it’s pretty remarkable,” Skelley said.
Obama won localities in Virginia with large college populations by margins that reflected the youth vote nationally. The president won the city of Charlottesville by 75.6 percent with a boost from University of Virginia students, as well as 55 percent of the vote in Harrisonburg – which includes James Madison University. And in Williamsburg, Va., home to the College of William and Mary, voter turnout ultimately increased from the last presidential election as Obama won by 63 percent.
While reflecting upon the election results, William and Mary Young Democrats President Zach Woodward said that the GOP had underestimated the turnout among students and minorities.
“I think that the electorate has grown in diversity and changed what American people are looking for in their elected officials. The Republican Party has refused to adapt to the changing electorate,” Woodward said.
William and Mary for Romney Chair David Branton said that the election outcome signaled pressure for a “rebranding of the Republican image.”
“I think the Republican Party is going to be changing pretty soon,” Branton said. He predicted that once the younger, more socially libertarian Republicans and older, socially conservative Republicans achieve party unity, “I think looking forward in 2014 and 2016, we stand to make major inroads in battleground states.”