GOP Problems With Young Voters: A Messaging Problem, And A Policy Problem
Republicans have problems with the younger generation that they will need to fix if they're going to succeed in the future.
A report to be released later today by the national College Republicans organization offers a rather scathing critique of the Republican Party, its reputation among younger voters, and its efforts to repair that reputation:
A new postmortem on the November elections from the nation’s leading voice for college Republicans offers a searing indictment of the GOP “brand” and the major challenges the party faces in wooing young voters, according to a copy given exclusively to POLITICO.
The College Republican National Committee on Monday will make public a detailed report — the result of extensive polling and focus groups — dissecting what went wrong for Republicans with young voters in the 2012 elections and how the party can improve its showing with that key demographic in the future.
It’s not a pretty picture. In fact, it’s a “dismal present situation,” the report says.
The 95-page study, which looked at the party’s views on social and economic issues, as well as its messaging and outreach, echoes a March report on the election debacle issued by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, which presented a devastating assessment of the party’s current state of affairs.
But in some ways the new report from inside the GOP tent is even more scathing and ominous — since it comes from the party’s next generation.
Titled the “Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation,” the report is sharply critical of the GOP on several fronts. The study slams some Republicans’ almost singular focus on downsizing Big Government and cutting taxes; candidates’ use of offensive, polarizing rhetoric; and the party’s belly-flop efforts at messaging and outreach, even as the report presents a way forward and, at times, strikes an optimistic tone.
There have been plenty of postmortem critiques of the current state of the Republican Party, the reasons that the 2012 campaign was far less successful than hoped for, and what needs to be done going forward. They’ve focused on everything from the party’s failure to compete adequately with the Obama campaign when it comes to a ground campaign in battleground states in both 2008 and 2012, to a haphazard used of technology, to the whole candidate selection process. Underlying it all, though, has been the entire issue of the GOP’s long-term demographic problems. Most prominently, of course, has been the fact that Republicans have lost considerable ground over the past eight years among Latino voters, which happens to be the fastest growing ethnic group in the country. Another prominent demographic group that has been causing the GOP problems, though, are younger voters (typically defined as 18-29 or in some cases 18-35), which went heavily in favor for President Obama 2008 and 2012.
Quite often, you’ll hear partisan spokespeople dismissing the GOP’s problems among young voters. First, they’ll argue that young voters, especially those in the 18-29 year old cohort, tend to vote in much smaller proportions than other segments of the electorate. This is absolutely true, and its’ something that we’ve been able to document ever since the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age for Federal Elections to 18 nationwide, was ratified. As soon as the 18-21 year old cohort was included in voter participation measures, the percentage of eligible/registered voters actually voting in Presidential elections fell precipitously, and the numbers were even more start for off-year and mid-term elections. What this analysis misses, I think, is the fact that there’s a lot of social science research that shows that voting preferences established in young adulthood tend to continue into later adulthood. Yes, there are examples of large numbers of people who have voted in the past for one party end up switching there point to another, the most famous recent example being the “Reagan Democrats,” but that is a phenomenon that seems to becoming less and less apparent in our increasingly hyperpartisan world. So, in our current climates, if younger voters start voting Democratic in their early years, it’s arguably going to be difficult for the GOP to change their mind as they get older.
The College Republican’s reports notes that there are several policy positions that are causing the party problems with younger voters:
In the report, the young Republican activists acknowledge their party has suffered significant damage in recent years. A sampling of the critique on:
Gay marriage: ”On the ‘open-minded’ issue … [w]e will face serious difficulty so long as the issue of gay marriage remains on the table.”
Hispanics: ”Latino voters … tend to think the GOP couldn’t care less about them.”
Perception of the party’s economic stance: “We’ve become the party that will pat you on your back when you make it, but won’t offer you a hand to help you get there.”
Big reason for the image problem: The “outrageous statements made by errant Republican voices.”
Words that up-for-grabs voters associate with the GOP: ”The responses were brutal: closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.”
“[The] Republican Party has won the youth vote before and can absolutely win it again,” the report says, pointing to presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush who were competitive with that demographic. “But this will not occur without significant work to repair the damage done to the Republican brand among this age group over the last decade.”
Quite obviously, even this brief summary indicates that the report is really saying that the GOP’s problems are far deeper than not having the right “messaging” or not using social media enough. There are serious policy issues here that are turning younger voters away from the GOP. Same-sex marriage is certainly a huge part of it, and indeed the polls have indicated for several years now that the strongest support for same-sex marriage comes from the youngest demographic cohorts. However, it would seem apparent that the GOP’s disconnect with younger voters goes far beyond the idea of whether same-sex couples should be able to marry. These same younger voters have also grown up in a world where race and ethnicity has become an ever increasing blur, which seems to mean that the idea of opposing policies that grant equality to people of other races seem like self-evident reality to them, just as the idea of equality for gays and lesbians seems self-evident to them. Both of these are areas where the GOP is far behind the curve, and that’s a huge reason why they aren’t being taken seriously by younger voters.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the report is the critique it offers toward the GOP’s economic message:
Turning to a key talking point during the election, the report found that while Republicans during the 2012 cycle invoked jobs and the economy at every turn, the younger age group was put off by the way the GOP presented those issues.
“Policies that lower taxes and regulations on small businesses are quite popular. Yet our focus on taxation and business issues has left many young voters thinking they will only reap the benefits of Republican policies if they become wealthy or rise to the top of a big business,” the report says. “We’ve become the party that will pat you on your back when you make it but won’t offer you a hand to help you get there.”
Younger voters — especially those in the Hispanic focus groups the CRNC conducted — are deeply familiar with the challenges posed by a less-than-robust economy, the report said, citing struggles with student loans and people who are delaying marriage because of financial issues. But the study said the party must explain how its policies translate into chances for economic advancement and should seek to do so in a more “caring” tone.
“If we don’t believe that Republicans are the ‘fend for yourself’ party, then it’s time for us to explain why — and to show our work,” the report said. “This will go a long way overall, but particularly with Latino voters, who tend to think the GOP couldn’t care less about them.”
The college Republicans warned that the party’s primary message of cutting taxes and reducing the size of government failed to resonate. In fact, one of the CRNC’s polls found that 54 percent of young voters said “taxes should go up on the wealthy” while only 3 percent said “taxes should be cut for the wealthy.” Bashing Big Government also didn’t play well and was even damaging, according to some of the focus groups, the study found.
“We found that there were misconceptions and common ways of thinking among people who didn’t view the Republican Party favorably that were simply not in accord with where the party actually stands,” Smith told POLITICO.
That was especially the case with certain economic issues. The report said that on many questions tied to that subject, young people and the GOP are, in fact, on the same page: support for entrepreneurship and small businesses and slashing spending in many instances, for example. But that common ground often got lost for young voters.
And there we have the messaging side of the GOP’s issues/messaging problem. Republican economic arguments aren’t failing so much because they’re wrong but because they aren’t speaking to the voters that they need to attract if they’re going to win elections. Those of you reading this who oppose those ideas are likely to conclude that there’s no argument that the right can make that will convince voters, but Id submit that’s just another example of partisan blindness. As the quoted portions of the report indicate, there’s a not insignificant amount of support for the general principles of the GOP’s economic message, the problem seems to be in the way that it’s delivered. It’s not hard to understand, really. Leaving aside the specifics of President Obama’s economic ideas, which haven’t exactly done a great job of creating a booming economy over the past four years, one cannot deny that he delivers it in a manner that makes it very appealing, especially to younger voters who are just starting out in their careers and finding roadblocks in front of them unlike any faced by previous generations of college graduates since World War II ended. Republicans, on the other hand, have directed their economic message toward people who are already in the business world. Perhaps that makes sense on some political level in the short term, but in the long term it sends the message to a generation facing perhaps the most difficult start to their futures since the one that came of age at the dawn of the Great Depression that the Republican Party doesn’t really care about them.
The report also indicates that the GOP’s strong emphasis on defense may well be a turn-off for younger voters:
The generation that grew up with a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan appears less interested in defense spending and less concerned about terrorism than older leaders of the GOP, with only 17 percent of respondents from one survey calling keeping citizens safe from terrorism one of their top priorities for elected officials, and many opposing an expanded military.
“Focus group participants consistently characterized Republicans as the party that was strong on defense, but did not always mean that as a positive; the key for the party is to merge that attribute with fiscal responsibility, rather than allowing the two to stand in conflict,” the report said.
So there you have another issue on which the GOP is out of step with the rising young generation. Admittedly, one can find much in this particular part of the poll results that would be as much an indictment of the policies of the Obama Administration over the past four years as it is an indictment of the GOP. However, for better or for worse, President Obama sealed the deal with younger voters for two elections in a row now, so the real question is if, and how, Republicans can find away to win the hearts and minds of younger voters, both those who are aging into their 20s and those who will be voting for the first time in 2016 (which means people who were born no later that 1998.)
Clearly, messaging is part of the problem. If the GOP doesn’t find a way to make itself relevant to younger voters on economic and other related issues, then it’s going to have a huge problem. But, messaging is only part of the problem. As long as the Republican Party is associated with the positions of Social Conservatives and remains steadfastly out of step with the general public on issues like immigration, it is going to find itself increasingly alienated from a voting cohort that is only going to become more important.