College Republicans on Winning Back Young Voters

CRNCReportThe newest addition to the Republican party’s post-2012 festival of post-mortem-handwringing-and-charting-the-way-forward is one worth spending some time with: a College Republican National Committee report focusing on what it labels the GOP’s “generational challenge.” As the report notes, Barack Obama waxed Mitt Romney among voters under age 30 last November by 5 million votes, a more than 20 percentage point advantage.

Rejecting “conventional wisdom..that young people naturally favor Democrats” and noting that Presidents Reagan and W. Bush did much better with young voters, the CRNC report’s authors declare that “the Republican Party has won the youth vote before and absolutely can win it again.” Incidentally, this thing wasn’t actually written by actual college Republicans; it was penned principally by a political consultant-slash-cable-news-mouthpiece for hire in her late twenties.

The report has promise as meaningful analysis because it draws significantly on data, including a new CRNC-commissioned survey of young voters, a 2012 Harvard Institute of Politics study of young Americans’ attitudes, other polls and some focus groups. But it runs to more than 90 pages, and the CRNC requires your email address to receive a copy (unless, like me, you know someone willing to give her email address and then forward it on). So as a public service, I read the report so you don’t have to.

There are three threads to the report’s analysis of where Republicans go wrong with young voters: technology, policy and branding. Let’s hit some highlights in each area.

The discussion of technology is erected on a perceived GOP deficit compared to Democrats in “understanding the media consumption habits of a new generation.” This part of the report should alarm Republicans, not because it is inaccurate, but because it suggests a party still struggling to keep up with the times. Consider these passages:

Programs like The Daily Show and the emergence of a variety of popular online news sites offer new ways to reach Millennial voters.

New in 2004 maybe. Really, you are only now figuring this out?

The data strongly suggest Facebook as an absolutely critical source of information…Young voters are not just consuming information from Facebook, they are often participating in the
conversation there.

You need to hire a consultant to surface this insight?

[Facebook/Twitter] posts that inspire strong emotions are more likely to be shared than those that fail to generate much emotional reaction.


Text messaging is enormously common … with 62% saying they text multiple times per day (with “multiple times per day” in italics for astonished emphasis).

You think? And by the way what does it mean to engage in texting that is not multiple times per day? Who sends one single text per day?

A good Pandora ad is one that reaches the listener with a message that matters personally.

People respond more to ads that matter to them than ads that don’t matter to them? So that’s why we lost the election!

The technology section does arrive at the legitimate conclusion that mastering social media as a political tool requires “getting people to share, not just consume, your message” to improve reach with young voters. The problem, though, is that this is social media 101, and since it was also social media 101 four years ago, the analysis feels creaky and dated.

Moving on…

The report’s treatment of policy works from an assumption that “there are subjects where the Millennial generation and Republican Party are not in perfect agreement.” The GOP challenge is “persuading young people to agree with their policy positions on enough items to win their votes.”

Some of the survey and focus group data informing this section are interesting. On the economy, we learn that young people aren’t all that enthusiastic about Obama’s performance, but they do give him credit for at least trying to improve the situation, and they have no sense that Republicans would do better. This judgment that something beats nothing extends to other issues: “Young voters simply felt the GOP had nothing to offer, and therefore said they trusted the Democratic Party more than the Republican Party on every issue tested.

You see this something-beats-nothing dynamic especially clearly on health care. Although the writers of the report do a lousy job concealing their fervent wish that young voters would hate Obamacare as much as they do, they are forced to concede that the data show young voters regard basic health insurance as a right by a two-to-one margin, and “the general sentiment seemed to be that at least Obama had attempted to change things.” It is refreshing to see actual Republicans openly admit that they have offered essentially nothing of substance on health care: “The advantage that Obama has on the issue is largely due to the fact that he attempted a reform plan at all.” Baby steps.

Things run a bit off the rails when it comes to student loan debt. The data are clear: young voters think Democrats are addressing the student loan crisis and Republicans aren’t. But instead of making the obvious point that Republicans need to change their approach, the report urges Repubs to embrace fringe remedies like Rick Perry’s $10K B.A. and more lending in the for-profit educational market.

There are some other interesting issue-oriented findings. While we all assume that young people are more environmentally engaged than older voters, the data show that young’ns are no more inclined to prioritize the environment over economic growth, nor to use instruments of public policy to do something about climate change. Nor do young voters prioritize immigration policy more than older voters, although they are more apt to support paths to legal status for the children of immigrants.

On social issues, young voters are just about as likely to be pro-life vs. pro-choice as the general population — an interesting factoid. But the report then loses all touch with reality by completely misrepresenting both GOP and Democratic positions on abortion: “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).” I assume that by “unhelpful voices” they mean their own national party’s platform! With equal suspension of disbelief, they sum up the Democratic party’s position as “pushing for abortion to be legal in all cases and at all times.” Earth to GOP: You are not going to win back young voters on this or any other issue by denying the black-letter reality of your own position and twisting the opposition’s into something outlandish and unrecognizable.

On LGBT issues the report comes clean: “Young people are unlikely to view homosexuality as morally wrong, and they lean toward legal recognition of same-sex relationships.” Its authors concede that “gay marriage was a reason that many of these young voters disliked the GOP.” But rather than offer up the obvious remedy — change the party’s fundamental orientation on an issue whose ultimate outcome is clear and inevitable — the report calls on the GOP to “promote the diversity of opinion on the issue within its ranks.” I’d call this the “we’re not all bigots” strategy. Yeah, that’ll work.

And to the last of our three threads…

The branding challenge is summed up this way: “Is it any wonder…that young people reject the GOP when its message is being carried in such a negative and out-of-touch way?” In the CRNC’s focus groups, young voters describe the Republican Party as closed minded, rigid, and old-fashioned. The Democratic Party evokes adjectives like tolerant, diverse, and open-minded. Okay, that’s unsurprising.

It gets more interesting when discussing how young survey respondents define themselves aspirationally — identifying attributes that they hope others see in them. According to the report, young people want to be thought of as smart and competent more than what conventional wisdom would have us believe — that young people wish to be regarded as cool, creative, unique and tolerant. I suspect the report’s authors are over-interpreting their data, but that’s okay because it does drive them toward a conclusion that is important both for their party and, frankly, for the good of the republic: that smart is good and stupid is bad. Being thought of as closed-minded is not a good thing, they observe, adding that “if the GOP is thought of as the ‘stupid party,’ it may well be the kiss of death.

This is good stuff because it is high time that the Republican Party begin to move away from the anti-intellectual impulses of its conservative wing, and the CRNC report appropriately calls this out as a generational concern. (Just the other day influential right-wing blogger Erick Erickson bloviated that conservatism “does not win when it is academic or technocratic.”) Neither party has cornered the market on intelligence, the report declares, and while that may at times seem open to debate when the volume is turned up on some of the GOP’s fringe voices, it is ultimately to everyone’s benefit if the Republican Party works to re-engage its rational self.

To sum up, the CRNC report is worth a look, but there is an overarching problem with many aspects of the way forward envisioned by the document: its framing of the GOP’s need for fine tuning to appeal to young voters simply doesn’t square with how actual Republicans are actually behaving. In a Daily Caller piece marking the report’s release, the principal author along with the chair of the CRNC write that “we’ve been mislabeled the ‘party of no’ … the truth is that we aren’t just the ‘party of no’ … this isn’t about being obstructionist or anti-Obama.” This doesn’t even pass the smell test. The home page of the same CRNC that makes this claim prominently features a video called “The Great Pretender” depicting Obama as a cartoonish imperialist star-fucker with “no shame” who is “laughing while we’re going down” and flushing the country down the toilet (complete with toilet imagery). Right. Not reflexively anti-Obama. Got it.

Democrats certainly have no automatic lock on young voters and shouldn’t take them for granted, and the CRNC report is justified by the obvious concern that a party that doesn’t connect across generations is a party without a future. Even so, Republicans are going to have to do a lot better than technological amateurism and vapid self-delusion if they want to turn the generational tide.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


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