Growing Enthusiasm Gap Amongst Young Adult Voters

They said we were going to be the foundation of a new Democratic movement. They labeled us as a generation upon which Democrats could build a political dynasty. They thought we bled blue.  They were wrong.

A little more than a year after Barack Obama won 18-29 year olds by a 2-to-1 margin, young adults are changing course. We were wooed by the promise of “change”, only to find a year later that things have changed for the worse. Washington is different, but only because it is bigger. Government’s spending has transformed, but only in the sense that they are more profligate. The reach of government into our lives has been altered, but only because their arm is longer. This is not the change we voted for and we’re taking note.

A new poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics is the latest evidence of the growing shift of young adults towards the Republican Party. The reason? The poll suggests there is a growing lack of trust in governmental institutions to do the right thing and a concomitant desire to reduce its scope.

As President Obama and Democratic leaders continue to try and expand the role of government, young adults are beginning to push back. This is becoming most palpable in the growing enthusiasm gap found among Millennials. As Harvard’s Institute of Politics explains,

“A warning sign for Democrats in Congress – young Republicans under 30 are statistically more likely than young Democrats to say that they will ‘definitely be voting in November”

Other key takeaways showing the Republican momentum among young adults:

  • Among Millennials, more than 2-in-5 (41%) Republicans will definitely be voting, compared to 35% of Democrats
  • Of voters 18-29, those who voted for McCain are more likely to say they will definitely vote than those who voted for Obama (53%-to-44%)
  • Young adults who disapprove of President Obama’s job performance are more likely to vote than those who approve by a 35%-to-30% margin

This represents the perfect time for Republicans to become the brand of change that young adults are looking for. Our lifetimes have been filled with examples of government failure. Whether it be an education system that has seen no statistical improvement despite ever-increasing federal funds, or a entitlement system that looks more financially untenable by the day, we have been given little reason to trust that the government is the answer to our problems. As the party of limited government, Republicans can capture the hearts and minds of young conservatives.

But we must be active in our approach. As the voice of young conservatives, College Republicans stand are in the perfect position to educate and activate a new generation of Republicans. We can succeed where Obama and Democrats failed.  The Harvard poll asked,

The question at this moment is: Will our political leadership in Washington and around the country heed this new call – a call for Millennials to make government work and follow through on the bright promise that a generation dedicated to public service has come to passionately believe in?

It is clear that Millennials are looking for answers somewhere. Democrats in Washington have given all the wrong responses. Republicans now stand in the wings, waiting for their chance to heed the call in November 2010. But they cannot win without the support of young adults. College Republicans stand prepared to fill the void – to channel the energies of a generation who is ready for real change and looking for a party willing to give it to them. The enthusiasm is on our side and College Republicans will be there to capture it.

by Brandon Greife, Political Director of the College Republican National Committee

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Millennial's Trust Deficit

 Trust is the oil that greases the wheels of a working Democracy. Hubert Humphrey, a liberal Democrat, realized as much, saying:

“Surely anyone who has ever been elected to public office understand that one commodity above all others, namely the trust and confidence of the people, is fundamental in maintaining a free and open political system.”

But as with everything in Washington these days, the federal government is operating under a deficit – a trust deficit. President Obama and Democratic leaders have given young adults very little reason to believe them. The result is that only 29% of 18-29 year olds trust the federal government to do the right thing. Worse, only 25% of young adults have faith in Congress to do what’s right.

Our generation has been provided with very little evidence that we should believe in what the government is doing. This point has been underscored most recently in the federal government’s tone deafness to the needs of young adults. A new Harvard Institute of Politics study shows that among Millennials the economy is the overwhelming concern.

The reasons for Millennials anxiety over the economy are deep and alarming. For instance the Harvard poll finds,

  • 84% of four-year college students said it would be difficult to find a job after graduation
  • 60% of Millennials are concerned with meeting their current bills and debts
  • 59% are worried about affording a place to live
  • 46% of those who were lucky enough to find work remain concerned about losing their job

The lack of trust is partially due to young American’s belief that the government is spending too much time and money on the wrong issues. In the State of the Union Obama proclaimed that “[c]reating jobs has to be our number one priority in 2010.”  Two months later, as job losses continue to mount, health care still dominates the headlines.

Millennials are taking notice of Democrat’s failure to address the economy while simultaneously spending away our chance at future prosperity. The result is a gradual shift of enthusiasm toward conservative candidates. As the Harvard poll explains,

When Millennials were disappointed by the outcome of the 2004 election, they organized in 2006 and rallied in 2008 for Barack Obama

Our generation again finds itself disappointed. This time, by the President’s unwillingness to address our generation’s dire fiscal future. Now it is time for us to organize and rally for change once again.

by Brandon Greife, Political Director of the College Republican National Committee

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Narrowing the Millennial Gap

Young Conservatives need a better publicist, or should I say a better blogger? For far too long the political parties have taken us for granted. Most assume we won’t vote, and even if we did, we’re sure to be Democrats. Republicans seemed content to win older demographics and hope that we would see the red-tinged light as we aged.

After years of being the red-headed step child of politics 2008 was our coming out party. Unfortunately, Republicans had very little to celebrate. The first to truly capture the importance of Twitter, Facebook, and iPhones, the Obama campaign created an excitement amongst Millennials. Again, the Republican Party seemed willing to play the waiting game, confident they would win young adults’ hearts and minds as they grew older.

After a weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference it was clear Republicans have seen the light on the importance of young adults. As one regular CPAC attendee said,

“I’ve been coming to these for years. This used to be a convention of blue hairs; now it has youthful energy.”

But CPAC is merely the latest symptom of a viral growth in youth support for the conservative movement. Just two years ago, at the height of Obama’s popularity, the Democratic advantage in party affiliation among young voters reached 62% to 30%. This 32% margin was reflective of Obama margin of victory in the 2008 presidential election in which he defeated John McCain amongst young adults by a whopping 68% to 30% margin.

But the tides are turning. A recent Pew Research study found that,

“The “Millennial Generation” of young voters played a big role in the resurgence of the Democratic Party in the 2006 and 2008 elections, but their attachment to the Democratic Party weakened markedly over the course of 2009.”

Beyond the short term benefit of picking up votes in the crucial 2010 midterm elections, the shift represents the ability for Republicans to grow the next generation of conservatives. Contrary to the “wait till their older” approach, studies show that a person’s party identification, once formed, remains remarkably stable. As the influential study “The American Voter” found,

“Persons who identify with one of the parties typically have held the same partisan tie for all or most of their adults lives.”

This surprising truth bears out in the course of history. For instance as political scientist Norman Orstein writes,

“All the research done on the dramatic Democratic realignment of the 1930s shows that the key was young voters, coming of age as the Depression hit, influenced deeply by the contrast between Hoover and Roosevelt . . . those voters became lifelong Democrats.”

A similar trend happened in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan captured the hearts of young adults with a patriotic excitement that extolled American exceptionalism. Those same voters played an enormous part in the Republican Revolution of 1994 and remain the Republican party’s strongest age cohort.

The stability of young voter’s ideology combined with Obama’s landslide victory should have spelled long term trouble for the Republican brand. But we’ve bounced back. As the Pew Research study shows,

29 percent of Millennials describe themselves as liberals, 28 percent say they are conservatives and 40 percent identify themselves as moderates.

This snapshot ignores the momentum that is definitely on the side of conservatives. By focusing on issues that resonate with younger adults – small government and lower spending – Republicans have a chance to create a base of support for years to come. The enthusiasm is there. Spending a day walking the halls of CPAC would tell you that. More importantly, walking the halls of a college campus would tell you that. College Republicans have seen an enormous uptick and support. As a College Republican leader told me this past week, “Barack Obama has been the best thing for recruitment we’ve seen.” Beyond being a divisive figure, Obama has engaged young people in a way other presidents haven’t. But political engagement is only half the equation and College Republicans have cultivated that newfound interest into conservative momentum. We are not only the voice of young conservatives…we are future of the party.

- Brandon Greife, Political Director of the College Republican National Committee

The GOP's Youth Problem - Insight from a Millennial

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 issues

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.

In Conclusion

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.

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