March 18, 2013

In response to its poor performance in last year’s elections, the Republican National Committee commissioned a massive effort to uncover failings and identify problems. Called the “Growth & Opportunity Project,” it released its final report this morning, a one hundred page tome drawn from thousands of contacts with voters, officials, and consultants.

A good chunk of the report is devoted to reconfiguring the GOP message to meet the concerns of various “demographic partners,” including young people. To wit, in its look at what went wrong with young voters in the last two election cycles, the Growth & Opportunity Project focused most on perceptions:

Young voters need to be attracted to the Republican Party by both the message and the candidate. Obama was seen as “cool” in 2008, and his popularity spread like wildfire among young voters. Obama and his “Change we can believe in” slogan was a trend in 2008 to which many young Americans were attracted. In 2008 and again in 2012, the Obama campaign used young supporters as precinct captains and boots on the ground. They were enthusiastic voices bringing their friends and neighbors into the campaign. The RNC and Republican candidates need to establish the same network of committed young voters who will help spread our message.
This is not a unique take—the general view of Republicans is that Obama’s success with young voters is a product of some intrinsic “cool” he possesses. If the GOP can mimic that cool, the argument goes, then they’ll make inroads with young people.

But this is the wrong way to look at the problem, not the least because it precludes the possibility that young people had a substantive reason to support Obama’s original bid for the White House. While young people were enthusiastic about Obama’s relevance to pop culture — he listened to Jay-Z and liked The Wire — they weren’t driven by it.

Indeed, Obama’s wide appeal to young voters can be summed up in a single word — Iraq. On the eve of the 2008 election, according to a survey from Gallup, 29 percent of young voters listed Iraq as the most important issue in determining their vote, second only to the economy. And according to a Pew Research survey released after the election, young voters were more opposed to the war than any other group in the country — 77 percent disapproved of Operation Iraqi Freedom, making them at least 15 points more negative in their views than older age groups.

Obama’s vocal opposition to the Iraq War distinguished him from the entire presidential field — including, notably, Senator Hillary Clinton — and marked him as a clear break from the Bush administration, a strong draw for young voters who loathed Bush and his policies.

Four years later, and there’s little sign the GOP has changed course on foreign policy. With the exception of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, most Republicans support a more aggressive stance toward the rest of the world. During the presidential election, Mitt Romney denounced Obama for harming American “leadership” in his refusal to intervene in Iran and Syria, and up-and-coming Republicans like Marco Rubio have continued in that vein, positioning themselves on the right-side of the Republican foreign policy divide.

In other words, it’s not enough for the RNC to build a “cool” persona — if that’s even possible. If Republicans want youth support, they should begin by repudiating the Iraq War, which remains unpopular with a broad swath of the public; in a recent poll from ABC News and The Washington Post, 58 percent said the war was not “worth fighting.” A GOP that showed real contrition for the war — and an unwillingness to pursue further interventions — might gain support from a generation of Americans who grew up in a decade defined by foreign conflict.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.