It begins with what we know to be true by now.
It is not that young voters are enamored of the Democratic Party. They simply dislike the Republican Party more. In the focus group research conducted in January 2013, the young “winnable” Obama voters were asked to say what words came to mind when they heard “Republican Party.” The responses were brutal: closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.
The descriptions of the Democratic Party were more charitable. While some respondents viewed Democrats as “soft” or as supporting big spending, most noted that they were “tolerant,” “diverse,” and “open-minded.”Economic, national defense and social issues are all discussed in the report, as well as suggested corrections that the Republican party can make to attract young voters. This report focuses on the 21-30 year old voter. You may remember that in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney won more voters over 30 years of age than Barack Obama did, it was not enough to counter the very successful ground game of the Obama campaign on election day.
President Barack Obama won 5 million more votes than Gov. Mitt Romney among voters under the age of 30 in the 2012 election. Despite Romney holding a 2 million-vote advantage over the President among voters aged 30 and older, Obama’s significant lead with the youth vote was enough to ensure his reelection. While Obama’s advantage among young people shrank from 34 points in the 2008 election to 23 points in 2012, the election reinforced the generational challenge faced by the GOP.Starting with economic issues, the important lesson is that the GOP has to be able to talk about policy and explain how the policy relates to everyday life. We have to be able to speak in terms that young voters relate to in their lives today.
Financing education plays strongly into a discussion on economics with young voters and Republicans can lead on this issue by pointing to some very innovative thinking from Republican governors:
Student loans are enormously important to many young voters, and it may seem that Democrats have the easier path forward by promising ever-greater amounts of federal subsidies for tuition. This is likely a major reason why Republicans hesitate to engage on the issue. Yet Republicans should offer a way forward that doesn’t just propose to subsidize the problem of sky-high tuition; they should offer solutions that would help make an education more affordable in the first place. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has issued a challenge to institutions to create the “$10,000 bachelor’s degree,”17 and in Indiana, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels helped establish Western Governor’s University Indiana, a non-profit, competency based university developed by a bipartisan group of governors and education innovators 18. Additionally, Republicans have an opportunity to point out how the government’s complete removal of private competition from the educational lending market – snuck into the Affordable Care Act – is bad for young borrowers.The opportunities are great for Republicans to talk about the factors that have made college tuition spiral upward ever faster, and to point out Republican solutions, especially at the state level, that have started to tackle the challenge of providing affordable, quality college education.
On the social issues, the poll drilled down a bit and found the following on the two biggest ones, abortion and gay marriage. The first up is abortion:
Where the Republican Party runs into trouble with young voters on the abortion issue is not necessarily in being pro-life. On the contrary, the Democratic Party’s position of pushing for abortion to be legal in all cases and at all times, including some recent laws around how to handle medical care for babies born alive during abortion procedures, is what is outside the norm of where young voters stand. Unfortunately for the GOP, the Republican Party has been painted – both by Democrats and by unhelpful voices in our own ranks – as holding the most extreme anti-abortion position (that it should be prohibited in all cases). Furthermore, the issue of protecting life has been conflated with issues around the definition of rape, funding for Planned Parenthood, and even contraception. In the words of one female participant in our Hispanic voter focus group in Orlando, “I think Romney wanted to cut Planned Parenthood. And he supports policies where it would make it harder for a woman to get an abortion should she choose, even if it were medically necessary. That goes head in hand with redefining rape.” In the Columbus female voter focus group, even respondents who said they were strongly pro-life were uncomfortable hearing Republicans talk about wanting to defund Planned Parenthood. In the words of one pro-life respondent, “The Planned Parenthood thing for me is not so much about abortion; it’s about counseling before you can get to that point, and I feel that 62 that’s a big part of what they do, is contraception counseling and about being safe.”It is true that there are some young men and women who are strongly pro-choice and say they would have a very hard time voting for a Republican candidate who took the pro-life position. Yet it may not be the case that remaining silent on the issue is the best course of action for Republicans, nor is shifting away from being pro-life. The challenge is to be mindful of ways that the issue of abortion branches (or can be distorted by opponents) into other policy areas where the GOP does not enjoy the same level of support.On the topic of gay marriage - a flavor of the month here in Harris County Republican politics - here is what the younger voters said:
Taking the sample as a whole, about a quarter (26%) of young people say they’d probably or definitely not vote for a candidate who opposes gay marriage even if they were in agreement on many other issues. That opposition to gay marriage is a “deal breaker” to one out of four young voters represents neither a hopeless situation for the GOP nor a great one. It instead raises the challenge: how can the GOP expand its appeal on the issue, or win on issues of greater issue salience so that gay marriage is not a “deal breaker” for a large number of young voters?It is important for Republicans to bear in mind that young voters warmed to President Obama long before his position on gay marriage “evolved,” and that there is no consensus in either party on the issue. Additionally, there is a “middle ground” approach of letting states decide the issue, a position that has been espoused by some prominent Republicans like Marco Rubio. Nonetheless, there is hardly an appetite from this generation to see the GOP crusade against same-sex marriage. In the short run, as we wait for the Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, the best course of action for the party may be to promote the diversity of opinion on the issue within its ranks (after all, for quite some time, former vice president Dick Cheney was to the left of President Obama on same-sex marriage) and to focus on acceptance and support for gay people as separate from the definition of marriage. Where the Republican Party will run into the most trouble over this 66 issue is when it is not winning on any of the more prominent issues, either – the economy and spending. If a candidate is compelling enough on economic opportunity and spending, they may well be able to overcome a difference of opinion with young voters on same-sex marriage.So, what is the way forward in GOP messaging?
Therein lies the opportunity for the GOP. Yes, the Democratic Party is currently winning on the attributes of being caring and open-minded. This was heard in the focus groups, and it was echoed in the survey. But the great news for Republicans is that while those items matter, they are not the only things that matter: intelligence, competence, hard work, and responsibility matter a lot too, and neither party has cornered that market. These are brand attributes that, if the party makes real efforts to emphasize them over and over, can begin to turn the tide on the GOP’s negative brand image.However, while winning on the values of intelligence and hard work will go a long way to rebuilding the GOP’s brand, they do not necessarily address the diversity concerns that emerged time and again in the focus groups. The Republican Party cannot survive in elections winning white voters by twenty points overall yet losing non-white voters by such margins as to swing the whole election to the Democrats. In fact, Mitt Romney won young white voters by a 7-point margin but still lost the race. It could be said that the GOP’s young 74 voter problem is as much about failing to gain support from the African American and Latino communities as anything else. With non-white voters making up 42% of voters under the age of 30, the issue of party diversity and the party’s success with the youth vote are absolutely inseparable.Coalition building is the only way forward, if the Republican party is to continue on as a viable political party. This is just common sense. A party has to continue to reach out and grow its membership in order to win elections. No single issue is going to prove to be the magic potion.
The road to building a diverse Republican coalition among young voters goes through more than just immigration. It goes through every issue tied to economic opportunity and social mobility.
Republicans are natural messagers of strong economic policy. The message, however, has to get more consumer-friendly by moving away from standard talking points of cutting taxes and move to real life speeches - how Republican policies benefit young voters and enable them to pay for college or start a small business or get married and buy a home and start a family.
Tone matters. Messages matter. Articulate messengers are essential.
A bright note is surfacing, verifying my own personal opinion, that our GOP up and coming bench of candidates is deep, while the Democrats? Not so much.
Yet across all six groups, when the topic turned to future leaders of the parties, the GOP was clearly in a stronger position. Asked to name up-and coming Republican stars, these young Obama voters could point to a number of examples. Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, and Rand Paul were all mentioned.
On the Democratic side? Few groups could list even one up-and-coming Democratic leader. The young men’s focus group in Columbus named Cory Booker, while another participant said, “I can’t think of any young people.” The young women said the same: “We don’t have any.” “I can’t think of any.” The young entrepreneurs in Orlando could not name any rising Democratic leaders at all. Despite the focus groups describing Democrats as the “young” party, no one could actually describe who their young leaders might be.At the end of this report is a summary of five steps to take for future Republican victory. It is doable. It is necessary. It is past time to get started.