The GOP’s problem with younger voters is relatively new. Richard Nixon won 52 percent of voters under 30 in 1972. Ronald Reagan won 59 percent of the youth vote in 1984. In 2000 George W. Bush lost under-30 voters by only 2 points. By 2004, however, a study of young voters showed they were “the only age group to prefer the Democratic ticket over the Republican, albeit by a fairly narrow margin of 54 percent to 45 percent for those under 30.”
The trend is generally explained in terms of personal identification — the GOP is the old, white, intolerant party say its critics. Especially in the Obama era, voting for him was an expression of youth, coolness and racial tolerance. But these somewhat ephemeral factors (what is “cool” can change) are now being rocked by a series of events.
Obama is now hemorrhaging support from young voters, losing 17 points in the CNN poll. There are lots of explanations. The National Security Agency revelations have shaken younger liberal and libertarian voters who have heretofore considered themselves to have absolute privacy in accessing social media, cellphones, etc. The other Obama-era scandals (IRS, DOJ, State Department, HHS) have revived their skepticism about government. Obamacare, they are learning, will require them to buy gold-plated insurance they don’t want and can’t afford. The job market is lousy for young workers.
None of this means that young voters will automatically fall into the laps of Republicans. They need to stop turning off younger voters by living up to their stereotype of intolerance, and they need to explain why their own agenda is better for young people.
My colleague Michael Gerson, in writing about GOP challenge with all voters, argues, “The GOP will need to welcome new Americans and champion their economic and social mobility. It will need to remain true to the stable, pro-life convictions of its strongest supporters, while recognizing broad shifts taking place on gay rights among younger Americans, even within the Republican base.” That is especially true in its appeal to young voters.
There are more non-white young voters than ever before. They are as colorblind when it comes to race and ethnicity as any Americans. And they are increasingly baffled by the arguments against gay marriage.
This is, to put it mildly, not the conservative talk show audience, which is older, more conservative, richer and more male than the mix of young voters the GOP can hope to attract. In other words, what is good for drawing a 50-year old, male listener to a conservative radio show denouncing Obama as a socialist probably isn’t the formula for getting these voters.
To reach young voters the GOP will need not only more youthful and media savvy leaders but also a willingness to be tolerant of, without necessarily endorsing, gay marriage. (Just as religious voters are with regard to divorce.)
But the agenda is where Republicans will have to seal the deal with young voters. These voters face or are already burdened by college debt, face a rotten job market, want their purchases (even health care and college) to be made to order and not one-size fits all. To the extent they think about national debt, they might not grasp a figure like $17 trillion, but they may react to $50,000 or more in their own share of the debt that will eventually need to be made up in taxes or cuts in benefits they use.
An agenda built on optimism, growth, opportunity and self-determination would be appealing. Educational aid that offers choices ( 2-year, 4-year and certification programs — online or in person); health care you can afford and buy, if you want; and relieving tax and regulatory burdens on business so they can hire more workers are some basic elements of a conservative, youth-friendly vote.
It doesn’t require the rejection of the party’s pro-life belief (there are many young people, influenced by science and technology, who understand the humanity of the unborn child), but it does require telling women no one is out to take away their contraception.
None of these are cure-alls for the GOP’s problem with young voters. However, the Democratic Party’s lock on young voters is loosening. GOP candidates with a message that is appealing and offers tangible economic benefits to younger voters can succeed. Moreover, Reagan won the youth vote as the oldest president we’ve had because he was offering something fresh, a vision larger than self-interest and a demeanor of openness. That, not crabbiness and perpetual anger at foes (imagined and otherwise), is an outlook worth emulating.