Why the GOP’s youth vote problem = President Obama

June 3, 2013

Deep in a lengthy report about where the GOP went wrong with young voters in 2012 and what it needs to do differently lies a point worth looking at in more detail: The Republican Party's struggles with young people haven't come because the Democratic Party has a glowing image in the eyes of young voters. Indeed, it doesn't.

So how to explain recent GOP struggles? Two words: Barack Obama.


(Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

"It is not that young voters are enamored of the Democratic Party. They simply dislike the Republican Party more," reads the report, which was produced by the College Republican National Committee.

It's hard to argue against that premise. In an April Washington Post-ABC News poll, 65 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 said the Republican Party is out of touch with concerns of most people today, while just 24 percent said the party is “in touch." Democrats were viewed better – 46 percent “in touch” vs. 47 percent “out of touch” — but far from glowingly.

But when it comes to President Obama, younger Americans gave higher marks. Fifty-eight percent of young Americans said Obama is “in touch” with concerns of most people in the U.S.

We saw a similar story in the May Post-ABC News poll. Just 32 percent of 18-29 year-olds said that Republicans in Congress were concentrating on issues that are important to them personally, compared with 47 percent for Democrats and 51 percent for Obama.

A review of exit poll data from 2008 and 2012 shows Obama dominated the youth vote in a way that no other presidential candidate had in more than 20 years. Obama took 60 percent of voters ages 18-29 in 2012. He claimed 66 percent in 2008. You'd have to go all the way back to Ronald Reagan in 1984 for a  number that comes close.

As we've written, it wasn't that Obama got young voters to turn out at a much higher rate when compared to recent elections. It was simply that he dominated among the ones who did.

Of course, it's more than just Obama which has been driving the GOP's struggles — the Democratic presidential nominee has won young voters in the last six presidential elections, after all.

The CRNC report zeroes in on important possible GOP image remedies, like focusing on economic issues that affect the young and relaxing the party's crusade against "big government," among other things.

But make no mistake, young voters have been drawn to this president in a way we have not seen in a generation.

It remains to be seen whether the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee can coalesce the support of young people the way Obama did in his two elections. But suffice it to say that this president has set a high bar, and it will not be easy for the next nominee — whomever it is — to repeat. And for Republicans hoping to write a new chapter with young voters, that's a reason for optimism.

Clement is a pollster for Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. 

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Chris Cillizza · June 3, 2013