Nationwide, the student vote remains a formidable weapon for candidates stumping for public office.
Thousands of VCU students were part of that key-voting bloc, catapulting Barack Obama to a victory in Virginia during his 2008 and 2012 presidential bids. However, when it comes to odd-year gubernatorial elections, that same group barely flexes its muscles.
Aware of that pattern, VCU student political leaders say they want to reverse those trends in this year’s governor’s race, featuring Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Commonwealth Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. With the Nov. 5 election date looming, both campus Democratic and Republican groups continue to operate in overdrive, searching for any way to pique student interest.
“Although many people weren’t aware that there’s an election this year a month ago, support for the campaign will really be at fever-pitch around the middle of October,” said Matthew Rogers, president of VCU Young Democrats.
Outside of Cabell Library, Rogers clutches his brown clipboard and black pen, while asking random students about their voter registration status. He said his organization is building support for McAuliffe through voter education and registration, and remains confident students would maintain the level of engagement from the 2012 presidential election.
While VCU tends to lean liberal, Samuel Alam, second vice chairperson of VCU College Republicans, said there have been a great number of students showing interest for Cuccinelli. Still, he’s noticed some apathetic student voters, even some who wish to vote for a third party candidate. Alam said his organization’s goal is not to attack candidates, but inform students of Cuccinelli’s platform and why he’s the best choice.
“Many youths are more likely to vote for the Democratic ticket because of what they are told to believe. However, there are some who have the ability to think for themselves and they will vote using their best judgment,” he said.
Virginia’s swing state role shook up things significantly in the Electoral College during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. This has kept the state in the national spotlight, and pundits say the outcome of the hotly contested governor’s race could tip the scales favorably for either party.
VCU political science instructor John Aughenbaugh, who studies voting behaviors among key age groups, said 18 to 25-year-olds in Virginia and at precincts covering VCU have averaged a participation rate of less than 20 percent in the past four governor’s races.
“You’re talking about a pretty significant number of those legal to vote that just don’t turn out,” he said.
VCU’s 10 campus dormitories are situated in four polling precincts: 206, 213, 505 and 607, throughout downtown Richmond. Students who live in one of the 10 dormitories on Monroe Park and MCV campuses are designated a polling location in their respective precinct.
Approximately 45,127 Richmond residents cast votes on Election Day in 2009 for the governor’s race between then-attorney general Bob McDonnell and Democrat R. Creigh Deeds. Out of that total, only 1,566 voters from all four precincts on VCU’s Monroe Park and MCV campus voted on Election Day.
“There was some hope that after the 2008 Presidential election because so many young people voted for the first time, or just that age group overall voting at such a high percentage, you would see that in the 2009 gubernatorial election. It just didn’t continue,” Aughenbaugh said.
Some students say this year’s governor’s race lacks appeal and that both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli seem unsavory.
“I think it’s something that’s been on the backburner for a lot of students,” said Corrine Lowery, a junior social work major.
Lowery, 20, said she was a first-time voter during the 2012 presidential election. She said, to her, this year’s gubernatorial race is more about where McAuliffe and Cuccinelli stand on social issues, mainly women’s rights.
On the campaign trail, neither candidate has bit their tongues about the other’s personal record. McAuliffe’s camp has painted Cuccineli as a firebrand, Tea Party conservative with far-right stances on abortion, gay rights and the environment. Cuccinelli continues to attack McAuliffe on issues concerning his underperformance as founder of the controversial and defunct GreenTech Automotive.
Recent polls suggest McAuliffe has a slight edge over Cuccinelli, yet voters still believe both candidates lack substance and aren’t clear on platform specifics. Aughenbaugh said talking in broad platitudes wouldn’t bode well for both candidates when seeking students’ votes.
“They’re going to school and they’re being taught how to think critically. If you can’t pass the smell test on specifics, that’s where you’ll lose a lot of young people,” he said.