COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Marco Rubio — he of the unlined cheeks and recently paid-off student loans and strongly felt preference for Tupac over Biggie Smalls — might be just the thing to get young people to come out and vote Republican in 2016.
So say old people.
“I hope that the young people won’t keep being bumfuzzled by Democrats,” said Larry Trickle, a 77-year-old who came to see the senator speak at a Holiday Inn in Council Bluffs this week. “Here’s a guy that can speak their language, and maybe teach them a thing about work ethic.”
Sure, there were only a handful of folks younger than 35 at this ballroom rally packed with a couple of hundred Iowa voters. But to Larry’s wife, Sue, 70, it was a youthful crowd compared with other GOP events she had been to recently.
“You should see them,” she said. “The average age of most is like 70s or 80s. Here, it’s got to be all the way down to the 50s!”
Rubio, 44, paints himself as the “generational candidate,” one with fresh ideas who can shake up his party and, ultimately, an election. It’s a savvy tactic for turning one of his potential negatives — his inexperience — into a positive. A similar approach worked for Barack Obama in 2008, when he was also a freshman legislator who hated the Senate; he mobilized massive numbers of young people to cast their ballots for him.
But the Florida Republican’s message of youthfulness has not resulted in many youthful supporters so far. In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, Rubio received 16 percent support from Republicans 65 and older, compared with 12 percent among those ages 50 to 64 and 7 percent among those younger than 50. He might be, as Michael Kinsley famously said about then-Sen. Al Gore, “an old person’s idea of a young person.”
Indeed, much of what Rubio promotes is traditional conservatism wrapped in a “New American Century” slogan. He has argued for robust military spending, disagreed with the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage and said he does not believe there should be exceptions for rape or incest for abortions. The term New American Century is actually not new: It comes from a neoconservative think tank founded by Bill Kristol in 1997.
If there is a generational appeal for Rubio, it has to do more with how he presents himself than what he presents.
“There’s always the potential that an individual with the right combination of biography, message and behavior can change the behavior of traditional voting groups,” Rubio told students in the political science class he teaches at Florida International University this year. With his youthful smile, American Dream back story and use of millennial jargon, Rubio hopes he can be that potential individual.
He gave a speech last month lauding the innovations of Uber, Airbnb and the “sharing economy,” even though their regulatory issues are less on the presidential level than a matter for state and local governments. He presents himself as an energetic guy, taking time on the campaign trail to toss footballs (famously beaning one kid in the face accidentally).
In speeches, he regularly bemoans the leaders of “yesterday” and reminds everyone that it’s the 21st century.
During a five-day swing across Iowa, Rubio talked up the need to invest in college students as if they were “start-ups.” And he said that if he were to retire at age 68 — more than 20 years away — he’d still be “one of the youngest members of the Senate.”
“We need new people, especially people that understand what life is like today,” he said at a town hall in Carroll, Iowa, before a backdrop of taxidermied animals and cowboy boots hanging from the ceiling.
Afterward, he made chitchat with reporters about Chris Rock’s declaration that he doesn’t want to perform stand-up at colleges anymore out of fear of the political-correctness police.
“He’s a great representation of someone I would hope would appeal to the younger generation,” said Karine Mclaughlin, 63. “It would be very good for young people to see someone so knowledgeable, with such refreshing ideas.”
The youth vote might not matter so much for Rubio, at least not at first. Older voters are the ones who tend to vote in caucuses, and older voters tend to vote Republican. But his youthfulness is leaving some of these most-reliable voters smitten.
“Physically, he’s a very nice, appealing man,” said Wayne Seaman, who described himself as between 70 and 80. “And he’s very articulate, with a good vocabulary.”
“He explains things really well,” said Wayne’s wife, Saundra, also between the ages of 70 and 80. “He actually has some energy.”
Saundra said it’s about time that someone young came along to galvanize the younger set. She is dismayed by low voter turnout.
“We just had a municipal election here, and the turnout of young voters was not good,” she said. “Somebody younger might just put some good energy out there.”
For now, much of the energy is elsewhere.
Donald Trump, 69, and Bernie Sanders, 74, are filling stadiums with old and young people alike. And even though Sen. Rand Paul’s campaign is on life support, the 52-year-old Kentucky Republican is still drawing substantial percentages of young people to his town halls.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Brandon Reynolds, 24, one of the few youngsters at the Council Bluffs town hall. “I know a lot of young people aren’t here right now because they don’t find it necessary to get involved, or to come out to an event at noon on a Monday. But I hope that can change. I hope that whoever the nominee is can tap into the social media and the excitement that Obama did for young people in 2008.”