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Heffner: Young voters came out for Barack Obama after all

President Barack Obama's teary-eyed thanks to his many youthful volunteers at their Chicago campaign headquarters last Thursday was the kind of honest moment of humanity and humility that had been missing from the predominantly negative 2012 presidential race.

"Your journey is just beginning, you're just starting, and whatever good we do over the next four years will pale in comparison to what you guys end up accomplishing for years and years to come. That's been my source of hope," an exhausted president humbly told his youth brigade.

But beyond the emotional high after a final grueling week of multiple daily campaign stops, Obama's words remind us of some crucial political realities that have crystallized since the nation voted.

First, millennials are a dominant force in present-day politics. In the month before the election, I reported that millennials appeared to be missing in action this campaign cycle. Yet despite the dampened political enthusiasm I found on most of the college campuses I visited while reporting for PBS, their engagement today simply cannot be denied. Young people, particularly Hispanics and single women, once again rose to the occasion last week, four years after the president decisively captured the imaginations of 18- to 29-year-olds, whose turnout and margin for the 2008 Obama-Biden ticket were historic.

This year's youth vote was equally significant. Exit polls showed that voters aged 18 to 29 represented 19 percent of all those who voted, up from 18 percent in 2008. While the president's margin of victory among millennials nationally shrunk from 66 percent in 2008 to 60 percent in 2012, the Democratic campaign won at least that 60 percent threshold in all but one battleground state (Iowa). In New York, 72 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds favored the president.

A second political reality is that these voters and their priorities -- including investments in education and infrastructure, as well as immigration reform -- continue to be largely neglected. Although their turnout has steadily improved over the last several presidential election cycles, young voters still haven't gotten the representation they want or need.

The third reality: Initiatives and referenda have immense potential to marshal the reform that younger Americans support -- be it in pursuit of immigration reform or marriage equality. For example, youth-led efforts helped pass a statewide Dream Act in Maryland and gay marriage in Washington last week.

In his victory speech, Obama told Americans that "our democracy does not end with your vote." He continued: "America's never been about what can be done for us; it's about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government."

Banding together on the heels of Obama's re-election, young people now have to lobby for their agenda at the same velocity as older age blocs, and vote with the same ferocity in midterm elections as they do every four years.

For the Republican Party establishment, an obvious reality should stem from last week's results: Wake up, and join the 21st century, or the GOP will be more old than grand on its way to extinction. The electorate is becoming more diverse at a rapid pace, and Republicans can't compete by merely retuning their failed 2012 campaign messages.

My reporting on campuses, coupled with surveys of young voters, suggests that Obama won this age group because he fought for equity for the greatest number of people. If Republicans want to win 18- to 29-year-olds, they'll have to genuinely stand up for the values of those voters.

In the meantime, young people will have to continue to mobilize -- not to win elections alone, but to build a bridge to the more inclusive politics and brighter future they seek.

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