By Krissah Williams Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
David All glanced around Top of the Hill bar and saw the future of the Republican Party. It looked dim. A who's who of young conservatives had gathered, but they were few, and they were frustrated.
Here were the executive director of the Young Republicans, and the 20-something who helped steer Fred Thompson's Internet operation, and the young woman who put Mitt Romney's Web site on the map, and the 24-year-old staffer for Newt Gingrich's American Solutions for Winning the Future, who had brought them all together to cry in their free Blue Moon beer. The crowd was mostly white and mostly male, dressed in slacks and starched shirts. For most of them, Ronald Reagan and the good times he personified for conservatives were not even vague memories.
"When Reagan was president, I was 9 years old, doing cannonballs and watching 'Rambo,' " says All, 29, who prominently displays the requisite grip-and-grin photos of himself with President Bush in the office of his own L Street consulting firm. He recalled that first Republican presidential debate of the 2008 campaign, held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California; it was a veritable Reagan love-fest, with each contender claiming to be more like the conservative icon than his opponents. They sounded like old fogies and intoned the icon's name at least a dozen times.
"For me, I don't even know what that means," All says. "The Republicans are sort of talking down to Gen-Nexters, not bringing them in."
"You don't hear Barack Obama going around saying, 'I'm John F. Kennedy.' He's saying, 'I'm Barack Obama,' " All says. "There's a reason for that. He's inspiring an entire generation, and it's a generation that's trying to change the world in 160 characters or less through text messages."
And John McCain? His campaign has never sent All a text message, he complains. It's the little things like that, along with poor communication on the big issues such as Iraq and the economy, that have caused the GOP brand to slip with younger Americans, even as they have grown more political.
Voters under 30 are more than twice as likely to identify themselves as Democrats, according to the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
All and his friends bravely offer bromides to fight off despair:
"I think the Republican Party is staring down a very long, dark, quiet night," All says.
"It's always darkest before the dawn," says Mindy Finn, 27, who ran Romney's site.
"It's a challenging time right now, and I think there's a lot of people searching for a new identity, new leaders," says Robert Bluey, 28, a blogger who is editor in chief of the Heritage Foundation's Web site and director of its Center for Media and Public Policy. "Sometimes it will take some cleansing before it gets better."
Republicans haven't always been so disconnected. A quarter-century ago, Reagan charmed young voters and won 59 percent of their vote in 1984. In 1992, on the heels of the Reagan Revolution, voters under 30 split their allegiance about evenly between the two major parties. But every presidential cycle since then, Democrats have gained ground. This year, according to the Post-ABC poll, 44 percent of those under 30 call themselves Democrats, and only 18 percent identify as Republicans.
Both parties had a tendency to shrug off the youth and young adult vote, because as a group they have been the least reliable to turn out on Election Day. But this year, record numbers have registered to vote and shown up at the polls. In the swing state of Virginia alone, 90,000 people under age 34 recently joined the voter rolls.
"Conservatives haven't been in the right place to get the message to young voters," Austin Walne, 22, says, sipping his beer. "Young people who just got into the workforce don't care about the tax rate, but they have to fill up their gas tank and turn on the AC in their studio apartment. Energy is a big winner for us if we can communicate it well."
Walne, just one year out of the University of Tennessee, helped staff former Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson's Web site and now works for a small PR firm in town. He has taken some teasing from Democratic friends, who predict this year will see a tidal wave for their party. He nudges back at them. "Congress's approval rates are [approaching] 19 percent, so nobody's thrilled," he says. "People that didn't grow up under Jimmy Carter don't remember the stagflation of the '70s or the Iran standoff. Our job is to educate them on the failed policies of the past."
Like their elders, the young Republicans have mixed feelings about their party's presidential candidate. Some worry that McCain is not conservative enough on core issues such as immigration reform and lowering taxes, on which he has departed from the party line. Others admire his lifelong service to the country and heroism while imprisoned during the Vietnam War. If McCain can convey his straight-shooting independence and show his authentic sense of humor through compelling YouTube videos and smart interaction via the blogosphere, he can pull in Gen-Next and millennial voters, says All.
The campaign intends to do just that, stepping up its presence on Facebook and MySpace and other social networking sites. McCain will continue to make the rounds of shows like "Saturday Night Live" and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
"Over the next couple of months, you will see John McCain talking to young voters across this country about the major issues confronting our country. We view the youth vote as very competitive, and we will campaign aggressively," says McCain spokesman Joe Pounder. "The vision [McCain] has outlined for this country addresses such challenges as global warming, energy independence and ensuring peace for future generations. Those issues appeal to young people."
Still, many of the party's newbies are preparing for the worst. Matt Lewis, 33, is hoping a trouncing in November will force the old guard aside and give his generation a shot. He was one of the committed young conservatives who came to Washington during the Bush administration, eager to push the politics of limited government and compassionate conservatism. He worked for the Leadership Institute, which teaches youngsters about the principles of classic conservatives such as Edmund Burke and Frederic Bastiat, as well as William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater. He now blogs full time at the conservative Web site Townhall.com.
He's happy with Bush's Supreme Court picks but disappointed by the administration's failure to curb the ballooning deficit and bloated government.
"When everything is working well there is no hunger for new ideas," Lewis says. "Maybe there is room for some new up-and-coming thinkers to get a shot now. There is a bright side to seeing the Republican Party go through travail."
And there is a depressing side, too. Tim Cameron, 24, the Gingrich staffer who sent out the mass e-mail bringing everyone to the bar to mingle, is now saying, "We don't care what the electoral map looks like." He cut his teeth on local races in South Carolina and worked on online strategy for conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), but being out of power forces a different tactic.
"I'm focused more on solutions than partisanship," Cameron says. He began working for Gingrich's nonpartisan group last month, pushing the former House leader's "Drill Here. Drill Now. Pay Less" campaign to advocate for drilling off the coast of Florida and in other domestic oil fields. Cameron sent out a ton of e-mail promoting a "Drill Now" online petition and promoted a YouTube video of Gingrich discussing his plan. The petition now has more than 43,000 signatures. That got a few nods of approval at the Top of the Hill bar.
David All points to a page on McCain's Web site as more old-fogy branding: The candidate is extolling his regulatory policies as friendly to small business, and the accompanying photo shows an old-time Main Street barbershop in the background. The young Republican techie, who raises money online for McCain, would have used the image of a young high-tech entrepreneur instead, someone to whom teenagers could relate. Seventy percent of high school students say they want to be entrepreneurs, according to a recent Gallup poll.
"But," says All, "they're not talking about opening a barbershop."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.