The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youth voter turnout in Virginia soared with Trump in office. Will it stay that way?

University of Mary Washington students Vivian Reinhardt, 19, third from left, Kate McDaid, 20, and Kaylah Lightfoot, 18, right, run a voter-registration drive at the college in Fredericksburg, Va. All three are part of a school-sponsored program, UMW Votes, meant to increase civic engagement on campus. (Teo Armus/The Washington Post)

As clusters of students trickled out of their midterm exams this week, Kate McDaid stood at the ready, armed with a table full of temporary tattoos, totes, and free-doughnut coupons.

“Are you registered to vote?” she asked her classmates at University of Mary Washington, standing between the stately brick buildings of this small public college in Fredericksburg. “Are you registered to vote on campus?”

Anyone who made even a split-second of eye contact with McDaid, 20, received the same upbeat litany of questions — and ready answers: Not sure if they were registered? They could scan a QR code to check. Needed more information on candidates? Here was a sample ballot to review. Oh, and they might as well grab a cookie or a pocket U.S. Constitution while they’re at it.

“There’s not really a choice to sit here and not do anything,” said McDaid, a philosophy major from Williamsburg. It seemed as though everything — abortion rights, school curriculums, climate change — is at stake in the Virginia governor’s race this November.

With most polls showing a tight race between Terry McAuliffe (D) and Glenn Youngkin (R), she and other nonpartisan “voting ambassadors” at UMW are undertaking what they say is a critical campaign to get as many of the school’s 4,400 students to register and turn out for any candidate.

And with the House of Delegates up for grabs, too — Democrats are fighting to defend their 55-45 majority, including in a battleground district that includes much of Fredericksburg — it means that they have a real chance to shape the policies made in Richmond.

Republicans gaining ground on Democrats in Virginia statewide elections, poll finds

Whether students like McDaid end up shaping any contest, however, is an open question. While young voters shattered turnout records in 2018 and 2020, pollsters across the country are watching to see whether Virginia’s oldest members of Generation Z will keep it up now that former president Donald Trump is out of office, particularly in an off-year contest.

“The youth vote can be extremely influential if it actually turns out,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

If the trend holds, it could be an essential boost for Democrats. In the 2017 governor’s race, 69 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 supported Gov. Ralph Northam (D), compared with 30 percent for his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, according to an analysis of exit polling by Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

Abby Kiesa, CIRCLE’s deputy director, said young people will turn out to the polls even in an off-year election — as long as they are engaged. Turnout among young voters doubled in Virginia’s governor’s race between 2009 and 2017. But it’s up to campaigns to decide if they are going to put in the necessary resources to drive that turnout, Kiesa said.

“Increasing engagement isn’t a magical thing,” she said. “If Virginia gubernatorial campaigns want young people to turn out for their campaigns, they actually have to talk to young people, they actually have to invest in youth leadership, they have to invest in doing that work.”

McAuliffe’s campaign efforts to reach college-age voters have included field organizers at some of Virginia’s major colleges, including George Mason University, the University of Virginia and Norfolk State University.

Similarly, the Republican camp has a coalition of “Students for Youngkin,” with about 13,000 members and eight youth coordinators working on campuses across the state. Both candidates have specific platform points to cater to young voters. For Youngkin, that includes issues such as creating economic opportunities and lowering the cost of living, and for McAuliffe, abortion, LGBTQ rights and the marijuana legalization rollout.

What to know about the 2021 Virginia governor’s race

Earlier this month, the McAuliffe campaign launched digital ads in part targeted to an unusually specific subset of the electorate, one that tends to skew young: Taylor Swift fans.

The ads aim to connect Youngkin, former co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, to a long-standing feud over the rights to Swift’s music. The Carlyle Group financially backed the 2019 sale of the masters of the mega-pop star’s first six albums to music producer Scooter Braun’s company. Swift has said the acquisition prevented her from having ownership of her work and publicly called on the Carlyle Group and other investors to intervene.

But Ainsley Rucker, the 20-year-old vice president of the UMW Young Democrats, said the entire effort from the McAuliffe campaign came off as “funny and weird and desperate.” (Swift — who in 2020 urged her fans to vote in a single, “Only the Young” — did not respond to a request for comment through her publicist. Earlier this week, the Virginia Democratic Party took down Swift-themed merchandise from its online store.)

Rucker, for her part, has been motivated to canvass for Democrats to protect many of the liberal policies the party secured in a newly blue Virginia — from an overhaul of policing to clean energy and LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections.

“Young people don’t see the trickle-down effects of how it affects their own life and it’s all over,” she said, recalling her own coming-to moment in high school: the sinking, 2 a.m. realization that Trump had won the 2016 presidential election.

The next day, she joined the Young Democrats chapter in Winchester, working on campaigns for the U.S. Senate and House. She became a “frequent flier” at school board meetings, demanding better health education, and organized the Winchester Women’s March.

Not yet able to vote at the time of the 2016 election, she and so many of her peers were left feeling powerless, she said: ″Turning 18, being able to register to vote was a way to be able to regain that power.”

When she got to UMW, Rucker explained, it was a no-brainer to register locally in Fredericksburg, given that her home House district was a safe Republican seat.

Democrats lean into vaccine mandates, coronavirus response in Virginia governor’s race

College voters are now almost entirely made up of those in Generation Z. Born after 1996, this generation’s coming-of-age directly coincided with Trump’s political career, and they are on track to be one of the most civically engaged generations. They tend to lean liberal, and are fueled by issues such as racial justice, gun control and climate change.

But young people are far from a voting monolith. Like any other voter bloc, political views for young people can range depending on region, exposure and education.

“Young people nationally have a reputation for being Democratic voters and for being more progressive, but that’s not the case in every single state. And it’s certainly not the case in every single corner of every single state,” said Kiesa, of CIRCLE.

Jessi Rapelje Blakely, chairman of the Virginia Young Republicans, said many of their members, ranging from ages 18 to 40, include young families and professionals who care about issues such as education and economic opportunity.

The organization and its national counterpart aim to recruit and train people younger than 40 to run as Republican candidates. Blakely was proud to have 19 Young Republicans running for delegate seats this year.

For the governor’s race, she said the organization has hosted weekends of action, with volunteers knocking on doors and phone banking for the top of the ticket. She said she’s seen a wave of enthusiasm from Republicans this year that she hasn’t seen before — a group of high-schoolers from New York even contacted the organization asking to help make calls for Youngkin.

“I really think that our top-of-ticket candidates especially are really connecting with younger voters, especially on the conservative side,” Blakely said. “I’ve seen more energy on the ground for Republicans this year than I’ve seen in any of the previous cycles that I’ve worked since 2015. And I think the tone is really different. We’re really setting up for 2022.”

As Virginia election draws near, GOP’s Youngkin continues campaigning on ‘election integrity’

On a slow Friday afternoon, students scattered on George Mason University’s Fairfax campus clutched fast-food bags as they headed back to their dorms or home for the weekend. Many students said though they didn’t know much about the race or candidates, they knew it was important to vote and planned to do so.

Shareen Shaik, a 20-year-old who says she’s an independent voter, voted for Joe Biden for president in 2020 and plans to vote for McAuliffe in the upcoming gubernatorial race. As a bioengineering student, Shaik said she is deterred by Youngkin’s stance on coronavirus vaccines.

“Someone that kind of promotes anti-vaccine behavior is not really who I want to see as governor one day,” Shaik said. “That’s kind of why I lean toward McAuliffe, but I’m not entirely supportive of him either. I feel like both candidates are not really up to date.”

Being Indian and Muslim, Shaik said she cares deeply about issues relating to race and religion. For the most part she considers herself more of a political spectator, but she knows it’s important to have a voice in the process.

“A lot of people complain that the people that are in charge of our laws right now are people that are not in our age group, like boomers and stuff,” she said. “So it’s important, especially in our age audience, to vote so that we can vote for people that engage with our age group and so that we can see what we want in laws.”