As everyone has heard repeatedly by now, the youth vote went big for Obama. While not as monolithic as the African-American and unmarried women blocs, the 18-29 bracket gave Obama a 2-1 lead. This is not a mere anomaly, it’s indicative of a significant shift, building upon Kerry’s 9-point advantage. And if the GOP doesn’t take note of this, it could be in for a long and weary exile. It’s important to note that despite the worst times for Republicans, 1 out of 3 youth still voted for them. Considering that even I, a rather staunch conservative, was tempted to vote for the savvy young guy, that’s still a significant number. The children of die-hard Republicans are still voting their party, and the problem is the middle, the independent or casual youth voters.
As a 21-year-old so-called "Millenial", I’d like to give some much-needed insight to whoever is willing to listen.
I have yet to see any hardcore in-depth analysis from the right about the psychology of the young voter, and this only makes me more fearful the party is painfully out of touch. The warning signals have been going off since 04, but seems to be ringing on deaf ears.
To be clear about this election, McCain had absolutely no chance of winning the youth. Period. Leaving issues aside, a 72-year-old pasty computer-illiterate man with a semi-creepy smile was never, ever going to beat a sharp, articulate, young, bi-racial man speaking of hope and change. And therein lies the first GOP problem – image. The problem is two-fold, both style and substance, but (as unfortunate as it is) style is something that takes precedence. So I will address it first.
Inclusive, not divisive, rhetoric
It’s not so much the physical makeup of the candidate that’s the problem, but the rhetoric and style of communication that has alienated the youth in the center. They are tired of divisive bantering, and have very little patience for partisan talk. They respond extremely negatively to “us versus them” speak. For a clear example of what youth do NOT want to hear, Sarah Palin referred to “real” Virginia and “pro-American” states. I shook my head when I heard that. This is absolutely toxic to the moderate youth. More than ever they want to hear inclusive dialogue, and Obama knows this and exploited it masterfully.
What the youth want to hear is someone who makes a clear effort to understand everyone’s views. Bush’s “with us or against” attitude has been a big factor in creating this backlash.
Project a sense of community
Another aspect Obama tapped into was a new sense of community that my generation responds highly to. Currently there is a deep longing to be part of a movement, to “change the world” so to speak. Group socialization is being driven by online networks, and gives youth a way to share their identities and identify common goals. Obama’s web efforts were absolutely genius in this regard, and I believe changed campaigning permanently. The GOP needs to catch up in this aspect, and fast. With Obama’s network in place, they have a massive advantage. But it’s not enough to copycat, the GOP needs a unique system, something creative and unique. Imitation is easily spotted and reinforces the perception the party is lacking original thought.
The one exception to this was the grassroots effort of Ron Paul, with his record-setting online donations and web campaigning. I remember distinctly at one point he had the highest political YouTube views, second only to Obama.
Use comedy, not fear, to attack the opponents
The vast majority of the online ads against Obama fell flat on the youth audience. Check out the YouTube comments and ratings for proof. Ominous music and low voices come off as contrived and phony. Right now there is huge skepticism of any negative message that could be construed as “fear-mongering”. Again, this is a backlash against the rhetoric of the last 8 years, which was defined by repeated threats of potential terrorist acts. They want to hear – brace yourselves – “hope”. They don’t find Democrats threatening at all, but rather Republicans. The one ad that I think had some potential was the popular “The One” which sarcastically mocked Obama. Now I doubt that it swayed any youth voters, but it might have made them laugh, which is better than making them roll their eyes. Palin was absolutely disqualified in the eyes of the youth, and largely because of the effective SNL skits and other mockeries. They came to honestly believe she literally wanted to ban books and teach creationism in school, because comedy became reality to them.
The GOP needs to find comedy and use it effectively if they want to frame the candidates and issues in their favor. The perception that liberals are creative and conservatives are not has some truth to it, because I see opportunities to slam and mock Democrats go unused, while no gaffe of Republicans goes unpunished. I can easily see some talent such as Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park and Team America, being hired to produce something damning of liberals. Matt Stone has been quoted as saying “I hate conservatives, but I really f------ hate liberals” – there are sympathetic voices somewhere in the media, exploit them!
The next candidate must be detached from the Iraq War
While I believe that campaign style is what really elevated Obama, the issues are still significant, which is why Kerry, with a mediocre campaign, also beat Bush handily. The most glaring issue is the Iraq War. This really is the deal-breaker among the youth. Any future Republican candidate has to be completely disconnected from the decision to invade Iraq, and even then the party identification is still tainted. A future Republican candidate does not have to completely condemn the war, but he/she has to make a compelling case that he/she can be completely trusted to use military force only in the most threatening situation. Unless he/she can do this, expect the Democrat to be favored.
Distance him/herself from religious fundamentalism
One of the best ways to alienate the middle youth is to pander to the religious right. Yet again, the blame can be put on Bush, who referenced God in his decision to invade Iraq, among other things. As a second example, look to Elizabeth’s Dole “godless money” ad. A completely loser. In a sense this is connected to style and rhetoric – Obama’s church was hardly mainstream, but he was able to get a free pass because of his inclusive speeches and conscious efforts to downplay religion as a wedge. It’s when politicians start giving the impression that they want to mix religion into politics that the youth get turned off. And now that Obama’s pastor has been made an issue, expect any Republican politician’s pastor to be thoroughly inspected for inflammatory comments.
Downplay gay marriage – or lose the youth
While middle America still isn’t fond of gay marriage – see the bans in Florida, Arizona, and California, the younger generation is. Polling estimates about 75% of millennials think gay marriage should be legal. It is truly only a matter of time until gay marriage is a losing issue for Republicans to exploit. And some of the biggest opponents of gay marriage are African-Americans, a group that is clearly out of reach for the GOP. If Republicans think in 2012 they can nominate a candidate that aggressively wants an amendment to ban gay marriage, and win, they are mistaken. This can cause a big rift between the religious right and moderates, and it’s an issue that will need to be addressed. I personally believe the most painless solution is an end to the government use of “marriage” – and replaced with a universal “civil union/contract” that is completely detached from the traditional definition. Marriage can be defined by faith communities, and churches should be protected to practice their tradition. I see no other easy resolution to this issue in the future.
Downplay abortion as well
The generational attitudes about abortion haven’t changed much, from what I’ve read. So I don’t necessarily think a shift in policy is required, but the way it’s phrased needs to be changed. A presidential candidate should emphasize that – regardless of how they think it should be treated legally – they won’t use their power as president to criminalize it. I believe even a completely anti-abortion candidate can win the moderates if they assure Americans they won’t push the issue on a federal level.
Say nice things about the environment
Right now there is a (in my opinion, silly and contrived) green movement among the youth. It’s ubiquitous, even Miley Cyrus – an environmental policy expert I’m sure – is singing and imploring kids to go green. Whether this translates into actual action, who knows. But it’s catchy at the moment, and Republicans can’t ignore it and go on endlessly about offshore drilling. “Drill, baby, drill!” is hardly an attractive response to “Go Green!” A concern for the environment needs to be sincerely expressed. If a cap-and-trade system is bad for the country, it needs to be made clear that the costs outweigh the benefits. The moderate’s knee-jerk reaction to global warming, etc, is to “save the planet”, any action otherwise needs to be defended clearly and emphatically.
Explain why Big Government sucks
…and do it well. While Democrats are going to inevitably interpret their wins as a mandate for big programs, that’s not necessarily the case. Most youth don’t quite draw a connection between Obama and expansive, wasteful government, at least no more than to Bush. It’s possible that after 4 or 8 years they’ll listen up. Free markets are still fairly popular among moderate youth, financial crisis notwithstanding. There are plenty of government programs that could be attacked – such as social security. When the youth start to realize that they might not have any retirement because of the nature of social security, they might be receptive to arguments that government programs aren’t the best idea. Emphasize the beauty of individualism, attack the idea of centralized power dictating their lives, and there will be an audience. And that whole mandated volunteer service plan of Obama’s might not be so popular after 4 years.
It’s important for the older generations to see the current political scene from the perspective of generation Y – imagine your entire political opinions being informed by a few years of Clinton and eight years of Bush. Imagine you know little to nothing about Carter or Reagan.
Based on what I’ve outlined, the GOP needs a candidate that speaks inclusively, expresses moderation on social issues, is disconnected from Bush and the Iraq war, expresses concern for the environment, and runs a campaign that is web and community-based, relies less on fear/negativity, and refuses to pander to fundamentalism. Coincidentally I essentially summarized Obama’s campaign. While reading these items, it seems all too obvious, but based on the performance of McCain and the GOP, it apparently isn’t. Looking at the lineup of Romney, Huckabee, Giuliani, and Sarah Palin, I’d say the Republicans are doomed to lose the youth vote for some time.