Let's face it: we've become obsessed with the youth vote. During the last election, the media couldn't help but notice the difference between Obama rallies, with all their youthful exuberance, and McCain rallies, filled with wrinkled white faces. Advertisers prefer young audiences, and so do political activists, who see the energy and malliable political beliefs of the 18 to 25 set and think about a gold mine that could cement a bloc voters for 50 years. Conservatives saw Obama's success with social networking, saw an opportunity and glommed on to the next Internet trend to come down the pike: Twitter.
Nine and a half months later, we are witnessing one of the biggest outbursts of conservative sentiment in years, and it's coming mostly from people old enough to remember when people didn't have the internet on their cell phones, or cell phones at all for that matter. I have expressed alarm over the methods and misinformation on display at these town halls, but at least they're out there, being activists.
The youth focus could pay off in the future, but survey after survey shows that political allegiances that last a lifetime are linked to who the President was when the voter turned 18.
Here's an idea that runs against the conventional wisdom: instead of trying to make a new generation of Republicans/conservatives from whole cloth using Twitter, blogs or whatever else, we should focus on winning the next two election cycles. A Republican President, no matter how often he is trounced by members of his own party for bowing to reality and making comprimises, is a go-to leader that people can identify and follow. Right now, we have Rush, Beck, a series of preening congressmen and a bunch of shouty seniors all vying for attention. Get a Republican president using the most reliable highest-turnout voters and the next generation will come to you.
This isn't to say that youth outreach isn't needed, just that other demographics need some outreach as well. What would that look like?
1) Seniors do use the internet, but differently. I have plenty of all-caps emails from elderly relatives to prove it. While Facebook's fastest-growing demographic is older users, social networking lacks the intrinsic appeal it has to youth and probably won't play as big of a role. Any outreach to the senior demographic has to rely on email and traditional web, not iPhone apps, Twitter and the other new tech goodies we all love. The downside of this is that, let's face it, the vast majority of crazy email forwards from right and left, come from older emailers. The successful campaign has to stay aware of the memes floating around in email and has to have a strategy to respond and keep supporters on message.
2) Taylor the playbook. Defense and pork and all the rest are well and good, but the operative phrases for older outreach should be nostalgia and fear of change. Fear of change is a good thing for people of all ages if the change is bad. Targeted outreach should focus on what would be different, not how the same old Washington interests are running things. However, as more than a few Tea Party signs and ill-tempered email forwards can attest, some of those fears regard racial issues. Racial insensitivity doesn't just turn off minorities, it turns off white voters who don't want to be associated with racists. More Mayberry, less Little Rock Central High School.
3) Treat seniors like the assets they are. What do you call a person with tons of time on their hands, practical knowledge and a lifetime of discipline from the working world? The ultimate activist organizing machine. Today's sophisticated demographic targeting models require huge amounts of data to work. Who will be a more reliable phone banker, the college student in yesterday's clothes nursing a hangover or the senior who has a predictable schedule?
4) Transition on boomer strategy. The Baby Boom generation is coming out of their peak earning years and heading into early retirement. That means that tax arguments will become less effective and trimming government to pay for Social Security and Medicare will be top priorities. Sadly, Social Security and Medicare are third rails, but concerns over those program's solvency can be used to argue for shrinking other programs.
What do you think?