Ken Cuccinelli's surprise success with young voters

Ken Cuccinelli's big win with young voters proves that the youth vote may be back in play for the GOP. Photo: AP Photo/Steve Helber

WASHINGTON, November 12, 2013 — Ken Cuccinelli’s narrow loss in Virginia’s gubernatorial race last week had one small silver lining: the Republican candidate won the youth vote by a surprisingly large margin. For years, millennials have been written off as Democratic disciples out of the reach of Republican messaging. But Cuccinelli’s strong showing among the 18-24 set — and Chris Christie’s similar performance further up the coast — proves that the GOP may yet have a chance to woo the next generation.

Terry McAuliffe may have edged Cuccinelli out by less than three points on election night, but the former state attorney general bested the governor-elect 45-39 among the youngest voters. After millennials turned out in droves for the Democrats in nearly all of the past major elections, few expected them to show even marginal support for a candidate like Cuccinelli. Ads by McAuliffe’s team hit the Republican on his hard-nosed abortion stance and traditional marriage activism — but young voters apparently didn’t bite.

SEE RELATED: Ken Cuccinelli for United States Senate

Social issues inevitably dictate the voting decisions that most young people make. Increasingly, millennials are finding themselves at odds with the conservative social agenda and drawn to the other side’s warm and fuzzy rhetoric.

President Obama enchanted the college set and brought a formidable new chunk of the electorate into play for his party. The kids who were electrified by Obama’s mythic political presence in 2008 have sprouted into young adults staring down a bleak future, and yet they’re still pulling the lever for Democratic candidates.

Voters aged 25-29 favored McAuliffe by 15 percent despite the inflated unemployment rate and impending healthcare hike they face. This set’s experience of a Republican White House is limited to the weak politics of George W. Bush, and their first-ever vote was cast for one of the most captivating candidates ever to top the Democratic ticket.

The newest crop of voters have an entirely different outlook on politics. Obama reigned supreme during their formative years; for many, Bush’s blunders are just a distant memory from middle school. Their perception of both parties has formed around the lackluster presidency of a Democratic star — and unlike their slightly older counterparts, they are ripe for the GOP picking.

SEE RELATED: Republican establishment sabotages Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia

Young people are poised to take up a third of the electorate by 2015, just in time for the next presidential election. Common Republican wisdom holds that young voters will simply outgrow their liberal leanings once they get a few years of real-world living under their belts, but scientific evidence is squishy on that hypothesis. The GOP continues to justify their ignorance of the young with that flawed logic despite census numbers that prove millennials will soon become crucial to every political contest.

Exit polls in New Jersey couldn’t show which way the 18-24 vote swung thanks to a tiny sample size, but Republican Governor Chris Christie did gain a 10-point bump over his 2009 numbers with voters aged 18-29. His easy victory over Barbara Buono and his statistically significant swell of youth support indicate that he may very well have won the youngest voters’ support.

Tuesday’s elections have revealed a possible path to GOP salvation. Given the political realties they’ve witnessed, the college contingent could be more likely to rethink Republicanism than the group that came before.

With the unemployment rate hitting 16.7 percent for young people, criticisms of the Democrats’ ability to navigate the jobs crisis may be sticking. The question of whether the young can truly tune out melodramatic social justice messages and focus on the negative impacts of Democratic policies like Obamacare will play out in the 2014 and 2016 elections, but the GOP must prepare to take advantage of that opportunity now.

Team Obama was ahead of the curve in terms of social media outreach and youth mobilization, energizing a population long ignored by the old guard. His own leadership failures may have cracked the door for Republicans to enter into the realm of youth success, but they have to be ready with a candidate, a strategy, and a technical team that are prepared to translate the tried-and-true wisdom of the GOP into a seductive message for the next generation.

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