The future of the Republican party depends on how well it can appeal to a growing and significant portion of the electorate. For the March issue of Townhall Magazine, Amanda Muñoz and Daniel Doherty look at what activists are doing to attract young voters.
Republicans have never had much luck with young voters. Only twice since Richard Nixon was elected in 1972 have Republican presidential candidates ever won Americans between the ages of 18 and 29: President Reagan in 1984 and President Bush in 1988. Every other Republican candidate since the 70s, including Reagan in 1980 and Bush Sr. in 1992, lost this important demographic, and none as bad as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) did in 2008, when a whopping 66 percent of young adults voted for President Obama.
By the time the 2012 presidential election rolled around, despite the lackluster economy, high unemployment, numerous political scandals, and an increasingly unpopular health care law, the president secured his re-election by some 5 million votes, again with heavy support from young voters. All told, 60 percent voted for Obama in 2012; whereas just 36 percent voted in favor of former-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. This was a slight improvement for Republicans, to be sure, but it was not good enough to send the incumbent president packing.
Recent trends reveal that voter participation among young voters is steadily increasing. They represented 18 percent of all votes cast in 2008 and 19 percent in 2012. Put in perspective, 46 million millennials were eligible to vote during the last presidential cycle compared to only 39 million senior citizens, and that figure is projected to skyrocket by 2020.
In fact, studies show that had voting excluded millennials in the last election, the 80 electoral votes from Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia would have gone to Romney instead of the president, securing the victory for a Republican administration. Therefore, young people will almost certainly determine, or at the very least meaningfully impact, who the next president of the United States will be. Ignoring this key demographic moving forward could prove catastrophic.
Nothing less than the very survival of the Republican Party is at stake.
A New Era
So what, then, is the GOP doing to bring young people into the fold? Raffi Williams, the deputy press secretary at the Republican National Committee, explained that the party establishment underwent two major changes after the 2012 election.
“I was hired in March to do conservative press, but I also do youth press,” he said. “And we also last summer hired Elliot Echols do be our National Youth Director. That’s the first time we’ve ever had a National Youth Director at the RNC. And it’s also the first time we’ve ever had a press secretary here who deals with youth-specific issues. And so from a national level, that gives us a focus.”
Furthermore, he explained, the RNC spent 2013 building a blueprint for members of Congress, and prospective congressional candidates alike, to help them earn millennials’ respect.
“We’re basically providing them the opportunity to go and be confident about how to reach out to young voters,” he said. “What issues matter to them, how you talk to them, where you should go, how you set up an event at a college, how you set up an event in a city or a place where there are young professionals: We’re really encouraging them to go seek that vote in a way that we haven’t done in the past.”
And since Romney did capture more than a third of millennials in 2012, a slight improvement from four years earlier, Williams expects Republicans to exceed these numbers in 2016; but by how much, he couldn’t say.
“We’re not putting a firm number on it,” he said. “What we’re focused on is: Have we moved the ball forward? Have we gotten more young voters, have we gotten more young people involved? Are our lists better, is our targeting done better? And that’s what we’re really focused on doing. We’re not really putting a hard, ‘we want to win X percent,’ because I think that’s not fair, because there are so many outside factors that go into that.”
Early tea leaves show that Republicans are indeed making inroads with young people. Last year, for example, although Virginia Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost his gubernatorial bid, he did win more young millennials under the age of 24 than his Democratic opponent. And of course, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went on to win 49 percent of young people when he ran for, and won, re-election.
“[So] recent elections show that there’s opportunity for Republicans to make a pick up,” he said. “Young voters are there for our taking.”
One way some Republicans have argued that the party could appeal to younger voters is by changing the national party platform. But millennials, Williams argued, care much more about economic opportunity, jobs, and college affordability, issues Republicans already champion. Therefore, changing the party platform isn’t an RNC priority.
“The Republican Party has a great opportunity with millennial voters who care about important conservative principles [to] get rid of government red-tape, create opportunity, [and] make it easier for college students to pay off student loans,” Williams said. “This isn’t about changing policies; this is about having a presence with young voters and talking about what the Republican Party believes in.”
In fact, he said, changing the party platform is unlikely to happen.
“I haven’t heard any discussion of changing our platform or weakening it,” he said. “I think our platform is strong, and we believe in it firmly. I think we need to do a better job of talking about these issues … as [RNC Chairman Reince] Priebus has said, in ‘love and respect.’ You might disagree with someone, but disagree respectfully. And don’t demonize the other side. That’s a lot of what we’re doing, and helping candidates do.”
At a time when jobs and economic issues are consistently polled as millennials’ top priority, the president’s health care law is also becoming increasingly disliked. The RNC hopes to use the Affordable Care Act as a cudgel to hammer Democrats in this year’s upcoming midterm elections and beyond, despite the fact that there are some provisions in the law which young people might support.
“There’s only one provision that really benefits young people,” Williams said, referring to the exemption in the law that allows young people to stay on their parents’ health care plans until they turn 26. “But [Obamacare] really doesn’t benefit young people, because it increases costs so much. [We] want to improve [our health care system], but we don’t want to do [so] on the backs of young people. And I think that’s something that will resonate, because it also plays into the idea of the debt and the deficit–and how that’s going to have to be paid off by young people in the future.”
The Intelligent Choice
Alex Smith, chairman of the College Republican National Committee, explained just how bad things are.
“Young voters have more personal, national, and educational debt than any generation in this country’s history,” she said. “They are seeing the economy in peril around them. They can’t find jobs. They’re moving back in with their parents. They want a candidate that’s not afraid to say, ‘There are problems, and I’m here to fix it.’”
The top-priority issues for a majority of younger voters go hand-in-hand with the Republican agenda. And in a survey study conducted for a report put together by the CRNC, young respondents overwhelmingly say that a winning candidate is someone who emulates the qualities they wish to see in themselves: intelligent, hardworking, responsible, and competent. For a generation so consumed with celebrity, it is interesting that when it comes to politics, younger Americans want to make an intelligent, rather than “cool,” choice.
“If those aren’t traits that [Republicans] can embody, then we’re done,” Smith said. “We’re going home.”
College Outreach Matters
Millennials consume political information in a way never before seen in our country’s political history. They can’t be won using traditional tactics, and are, in fact, discouraged by them. They are overwhelmingly intelligent and educated; and despite the dismal economic and political landscape, they gravitate toward an uplifting narrative.
“We need to have better control over our message, and we need to reveal a positive message about [Republicans],” Smith continued. “We’ve been the party of no for a long time, and it’s important to stand up and say no to things that are harmful to our country and that will be especially harmful to our generation for years to come. But that can’t be all that we’re about. We have to also offer a solution.”
It seems Republicans have finally learned from Democrats’ recent successes. Much of the party’s previous failure to capture a majority of the youth vote wasn’t simply that the Republican message didn’t resonate with a younger crowd; it was that the message wasn’t even accessible.
“If you’re buying ads on television, if you’re buying up radio time, you’re not talking to younger voters,” Smith noted. “It’s a basic tenant of human interaction. If someone doesn’t talk to you, you don’t think they care about you. We have to talk to young people directly. What we’re doing at the CRNC is trying to be leaders on that issue and instruct our party on how to best move forward.”
As one of the oldest and most active collegiate political institutions with more than 250,000 members in chapters nationwide, the CRNC provides leadership, resources, and a seat at the table for college-aged Republicans from their office in Washington, D.C. With increased awareness of the political impact of young voters, College Republicans have spearheaded a reinvigorated effort to gain the trust of this key electorate. In 2013, the CRNC in partnership with The Winston Group released the “Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation,” a report that outlines the recent missteps with young voters and prescribes a list of research-based best practices from which the party could greatly benefit.
“In the past, what we’ve focused on is building up our clubs and moving our [College Republicans] away from campus to go out and do different things,” Smith said. “What we want to do now, though, is keep those College Republicans on campus working with their peers, because what we found through our report was that young voters aren’t necessarily liberal. They agree with a smaller scope of government. They think government spends too much. They see that social security and Medicare are broken. So the problem isn’t that, substantively, they’re on the other side. The problem is that, as a party, our efforts didn’t reach younger voters.”
Meanwhile, the RNC is strengthening their ground game by training thousands of volunteers from all over the country to go back to their neighborhoods and communities as vocal advocates for Republican Party principles. Moreover, instead of holding rallies off and away from college campuses, as they’ve done in the past, the RNC, like the CRNC, is reversing this policy. Change is in the air.
“We are pushing our candidates to be engaged on campuses nationwide,” Echols, added in a written statement to Townhall. “To help facilitate this we are putting together templates that candidates can use to host events. We also are taking our young volunteers and encouraging them to be more engaged in their communities. For far too long, we took our millennial volunteers away from campuses and their communities, but those days are over. Our best messengers to millennials are other millennials, and we are going to make sure young people [hear them].”
Williams agreed. “Young people under 30 are the most diverse generation ever,” he said. “And so the youth efforts we’re putting in here play very much into the other engagement efforts we have with African American, Asians, with Latinos – because it is about showing them that we care and that we understand [their] problems and want to help solve them.”
And this, of course, might just be the key to winning future election cycles.
“[What the Democrats] realized in 2008 and 2012 is that they could target young voters, a demographic that traditionally hadn’t been that engaged in politics,” he continued. “And so Republicans were a little late to the table. But now we’re there. And now we’re fighting for every vote and now Democrats aren’t going to be allowed to go spread their demagoguery on college campuses, or in young professional communities anymore, because we’re going to be there right behind them, right next to them, telling them our opinions and what we’re pushing for.”
Building Tomorrow, Today
The good news is that the Republican Party is still in the game, and a generation thought lost to the Democrats is still in play. National leaders are making room for progress and cooperation by recognizing the importance of talking with young people, instead of simply talking about them. Since the aftermath of 2012, the efforts and dialogue stemming from both the RNC and the CRNC reflect a cohesive enthusiasm and top-down seriousness about revamping the Republican brand without compromising on the policies of the conservative platform.
“Once someone votes twice in a presidential election for a national party, they tend to vote that way for the rest of their lives,” Smith replied, when asked about the importance of dedicating resources, time, and energy into winning over young minds. “At this rate, most younger voters have seen the president on the ballot twice, meaning that they’ve had two opportunities to put a mark in the “D” column over the “R” one. I don’t think this generation is lost to the Democratic Party. Their branding isn’t particularly [popular] either. But we have a pretty finite window to capture these younger voters. If we want to sustain ourselves as a party, we have to reach them. The youth vote is only growing.”
After six years under the Obama administration, stakes are higher than ever before, and no one wants to see the state of the union improve more than those who will come to inherit it. Being one step behind Democrats in winning over such a vital body of voters can no longer be an excuse for losing elections; holding the winning ticket can quite literally mean the difference in success or ruin for our nation. Republicans understand the urgency of claiming victory in upcoming cycles, but they have to be able to win the hearts and minds of voters first.
And while winning elections is indeed the short-term goal, the deeper importance of connecting with young people lies within its implications for the future. Working to replace an unfavorable party image by focusing on the positive impacts of sound Republican policies will create an environment that fosters increased political engagement and develops a generation of new, capable leaders.
Lasting legacies do not come in the number of elections won, but in the difference Republicans are able to make through sustaining freedom and opportunity for all. Instilling that habit of voting Republican must start today.
Daniel Doherty and Amanda Muñoz both work for Townhall.com