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Young voters in Va. overwhelmingly support McAuliffe, but will they vote?

Virginia Tech students who support Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe attend an event in Blacksburg, Va., on Oct. 28. Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

With polls showing a clear gender gap in the Virginia governor’s race, they also reveal a divide among another part of the state’s electorate: young voters. According to a recent Quinnipiac survey, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe leads among that group by 12 percentage points.

That survey found that 53 percent of potential Virginia voters between the ages of 18 and 34 favored the former Democratic National Committee chairman, while 41 percent supported the state’s Republican attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli. Five percent expressed their support for Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis.

But will these young voters go to the polls on Election Day? USA Today’s Paul Singer noted that the state of Virginia has bolstered its effort to register young people on college campuses.

He reported, “Tom Kramer, the executive director of Virginia21, a non-partisan non-profit that encourages student engagement in public policy, said that on campuses and college communities around the state, ‘Voter registration is notably higher in 2013 than it was in 2009,’ which suggests that ‘youth turnout in 2013 will be higher than it was in 2009.'”

The final debate of the race took place Thursday on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The Washington Post’s Ben Pershing wrote that the night of the debate, “hordes of Virginia Tech students milled outside the building … holding signs and yelling competing slogans.”

That night about two dozen students crowded into a classroom on the campus of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg to watch the face-to-face meeting between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli. Following the debate, Political Science professor Stephen Farnsworth facilitated a wide-ranging discussion with the students.

“I think Terry McAuliffe is a poor, poor candidate for Virginia but at the same time I think Ken Cuccinelli is the same,” said Benjamin Harris, a senior at the university.

That comment from Harris reflects the disapproval of the campaign’s negativity and a lack of enthusiasm for either of the major party candidates. A Washington Post survey indicated that the majority of people suppoting McAuliffe clarified that their vote for the Democrat was better described as a vote against Cuccinelli.

The Mary Washington students also discussed the Virginia public education system, including standardized tests, as well as the Affordable Care Act. Ben Hermerding of UMW’s Young Democrats echoed his party’s argument that the president’s reelection affirmed the public’s support for the health care law.

“So it seems to me that Ken Cuccinelli is attacking McAuliffe on a point that really Virginians have voted for now at least 3 times,” said Hermerding, noting the Virginia elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 as well as Democrat Tim Kaine to the Senate in 2012.

While the students discussed a range of topics, one question drew immediate consensus. When Farnsworth asked the students how many of them thought Sarvis should have been allowed in the debate, every hand went up. Most of those in the class also said the debate did not change their feelings about which candidate they planned to vote for in the election.

The debate watch was hosted by UMW’s chapter of ‘No Labels,’ a national organization that promotes bipartisan solutions to our nation’s problems.

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