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The Millennial Surge: How Young Voters Are Changing the Electoral Landscape

09/12/2012 12:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2012

The American electorate is changing.

You might have heard this change reflected in the words of President Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Julian Castro at their respective national conventions. Slipped in between the convention rhetoric about the American Dream and the economy, a new list of priorities emerged for both parties: College affordability, education reform, and youth unemployment are now bona fide platforms for politicians across the partisan spectrum.

Indeed, in 2012, politicians are scrambling to entice a new, critical voting bloc: the Millennials.

This growing cadre of young voters is becoming the new kingmaker in American politics. Today, 46 million Millennials are eligible to vote, accounting for 24% of the potential electorate. By most estimates, in less than two election cycles 52 million Millennials will vote each year. This emerging voter bloc could outweigh even the traditional paragon of voter strength, senior citizens, by seven million ballots this year. What is more, youth participation has been on the uptick for the past several election cycles--a trend that shows no signs of abating in November.

Pleasing the teenagers, college students, and young professionals of this generation--who rival the baby boomers in sheer numbers--is fast becoming a political necessity.

This year in particular, Millennials will prove decisive in crowning the next president. With five battleground states including Virginia, North Carolina, and Nevada possessing some of the youngest median populations in the union, Millennials will play a significant role in determining the already razor thin margin separating President Obama and Mitt Romney.

Moreover, a candidate's young supporters not only vote, but also provide the unquantifiable campaign lifeblood of energy and manpower. Young people staff field offices, volunteer, organize voter registration drives on college campuses, and vehemently argue their candidate of choice's case to family members and friends.

Young voters will surely have broad rippling effects throughout this election, but who are the Millennials and how will they vote?

Largely, the Millennials are progressive. According to polling, as Millennials come into voting maturity they are overwhelmingly Democratic and pro-government, even during the current recession. Millennials are unsatisfied with the status quo and want to address wealth inequality, climate change, marriage equality, immigration, and other systematic, broad-based issues.

For evidence, look no further than 2008. Millennials turned out in droves that November and fueled President Obama's historic drubbing of Senator John McCain. Out of the ashes of the previous administration came Senator Barack Obama, who represented a glimmering, reformist future in line with the Millennial worldview. And in turn, Obama's monopoly on the 18-29 year-old vote was resounding. Obama beat McCain by thirty-five points amongst Millennial voters who accounted for eight million of the ten million-vote margin dividing the candidates.

And while that new president smell from four years ago might have worn off, Obama's Millennial popularity has not waned. According to Tuft University, voters aged 18-29 prefer Obama by twelve points over Mitt Romney.

Despite dampened Democratic enthusiasm and high youth unemployment, Obama's profile amongst Millennials has remained intact because his record on their passion issues is strong. He has become this progressive generation's common denominator.

Millennials appreciate that the president managed to reform the credit card industry in 2009, extended family healthcare coverage for dependents until they turn twenty-six years old, passed financial reform, increased Pell Grant funding, and championed the recent student loan interest freeze compromise. By dint of his progressive reputation, Obama has cornered this burgeoning voter bloc.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, faces an uphill battle in wooing this generation. As the G.O.P. wrestles with its ideological poles, the Republicans have become rebels without a Millennial cause. In fact, only twenty-seven percent of Millennials polled believed Romney understood youth issues.

While young voters could support tenants of neo-Republicanism--like deficit reduction--the prevailing rightwing dogma of political obstinacy and social orthodoxy continues to repel them. Republicans consistently find themselves opposing the Millennials in the austerity and budget debates, social equality issues, and the quest for political civility.

What successful politicians are realizing today is that a new America is evolving out of the ranks of this newly matured generation. Old platforms are falling by the wayside. As Millennials continue to grow and vote, it's time for both parties to adapt or become political afterthoughts.