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Heather Smith Headshot

What Clinton, Christie, Biden, Cruz & Co. Can Learn From 2013

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Tuesday night's election results were a lot to take in -- especially if you're one of the Beltway creatures still clinging to low expectations for the political participation of Millennials.

Spoiler alert: Young voter turnout in Virginia went up, a lot.

We've grown accustomed to today's generation of young people voting in presidential elections, but in an off-odd-year gubernatorial race? The answer after Tuesday: a resounding yes. In fact, according to exit poll data, the youth vote's share of the overall electorate in Virginia on Tuesday increased by 3 percent points when compared to the last gubernatorial election in 2009, and youth turnout was an impressive 26 percent in 2013 -- up from 17 percent in 2009 -- that's an increase of nine points.

As an avid follower and believer in the power of young people to drive our country forward, I was really excited by this news. And also relieved, as so many worked hard to reach and engage these voters around the elections. It didn't happen by accident -- these efforts worked.

I'm most aware of what the young staff and volunteers with my organization, Rock the Vote, did over the last few months in the state: registering tens of thousands of young voters, calling more than 15,000 of their peers to ask them to vote, emails, text messages, information guides, and parties at the polls on a dozen campuses. Virginia New Majority and the League of Young Voters were registering young black voters at Norfolk State University and knocking on their doors to turn them out. And, thankfully, the candidates got in the game too.

For those paying attention, Tuesday was no surprise. In many respects, young voters are just like any others. When politicians court them, they are much more likely to show up to the polls. And court them the Virginia gubernatorial candidates did: Terry McAuliffe visited 23 community colleges in Virginia and toured five college towns with former President Bill Clinton in the final week of the election, while Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli made a public appearance with Kentucky Senator Ran Paul at Virginia's fastest growing campus, Liberty University.

Tuesday night was another example of the inevitability of how our country will be changed as a result of the Millennial generation's size, diversity, passion, and political engagement. In fact, McAuliffe likely won the hotly contested race because his electorate in 2013 looked so much like Obama's electorate in 2012 -- in other words, he won because young, women, Hispanic, and black voters turned out in big numbers and favored him by wide margins.

Millennials will continue to shape our electorate and country for decades to come as more than 12,000 of them turn 18 each day. That means that between today and Election Day 2016, about 13 million new young voters will become eligible to vote. At that rate, the Millennial generation (those who are roughly 34 years of age and younger in 2016) will make up nearly one third (30 percent) of the entire voting population when we choose our next president.

Not only will these young voters make up a staggering portion of the eligible electorate (again, almost 1 in 3!) in 2016, they are also turning out in much higher percentages than previous generations of young voters. In 1996, youth turnout was 36 percent for the presidential contest; in 2004, as Millennials began to enter the electorate, youth turnout rose to 49 percent. Turnout continued to hover around 50 percent in 2008 and 2012, and is expected to remain consistent. Of course, 50 percent turnout of an increasingly larger group means more voters overall and an even greater share of all votes cast.

Ready for more numbers? Because if we know young voters are going to play a decisive role in future elections just as they have in our most recent contests, the inevitable question is how will they vote?

So far, Millenials have been heavily favoring Democrats -- this isn't set in stone, but the trend is nonetheless something worth watching. Even a small group of voters can have a major impact when they vote disproportionately for one side over the other, not to mention a quarter of the electorate. As recently as 2000, the youth vote was split 50/50, but it has swung steadily towards the Democrats since then - they supported President Obama by 23 points in 2012 (60 percent -37 percent), and support has surged to as high as 98 percent amongst certain groups of young people, such as black women under 30. Among voters 18-29 years of age in Virginia on Tuesday, Terry McAuliffe beat Ken Cuccinelli 45 percent to 40 percent. In 2013, the Democratic share of the youth vote increased by one point and the Republican share decreased by 14 points.

When candidates campaign on issues that young voters care about, they stand a good chance of winning a sizable share of the youth vote. How else do you explain Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Robert Sarvis' 15 percent share of the vote in Virginia this week? The young candidate with a mixed-race family campaigned on a platform including marriage equality for LGBT Virginians, reforming our drug laws (i.e. legalization of marijuana), and a moratorium on legislation that would limit reproductive healthcare options for women.

Young voters are listening if our politicians are ready for the conversation.

With access to this sort of information, candidates would have to be crazy to ignore young people and the issues that motivate them to turnout and vote.

So, Hillary Clinton, Chris Christie, Joe Biden, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Martin O'Malley, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Andrew Cuomo, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Kirsten Gillibrand, Mike Huckabee, Amy Klobuchar, John Kasich, Rick Santorum, Elizabeth Warren, Rick Perry, and anyone else (how many egos have I bruised?) considering a run for president in 2016 -- ignore the youth vote and the issues about which they are most passionate at your peril.

Our next president -- like our current one -- will have young people to thank for their desk in the Oval Office.