GOP: Losing the Youth?

by Katrina Trinko
There’s cause for worry, but a new report points to some signs of hope.

Talk different.

That’s the essential message of the College Republican National Committee’s new report on how young adults view the GOP, a document that offers a serious look at how Republicans talk about policy and why they’ve been so unsuccessful in reaching Millennial voters.

“What the GOP needs to understand is that young adults are open to voting for them, but want to know concretely how Republicans plan to solve the problems that they’re facing in their day-to-day lives,” says Kristen Soltis Anderson, a GOP pollster who conducted focus groups for the report and was its principal writer.

Take the issue of jobs. Mitt Romney may have talked job creation ad nauseam on the trail, but he failed to convince young adults: In a year in which unemployment was sky-high for 18-to-29-year-olds, President Obama beat Romney by 24 points among young adults, despite Obama’s dismal jobs record. “Only one in four young people thought Mitt Romney would put into place policies that would make it easier for young people to get jobs,” according to an August 2012 XG survey. That number is remarkable, considering that two-thirds of young adults believed that “keeping taxes low on small businesses” would boost job creation that could help their age group, and that one-half of young adults believed that “reducing regulations on small businesses” would accomplish that goal. (To put that into perspective, consider this: Anyone who made “small business” a drinking phrase for Romney campaign events would have needed to have his stomach pumped.) It’s true that another plank in the Romney platform — reducing corporate taxes — didn’t fare as well among young adults, with only 34 percent believing that it would lead to job creation. But why was the overall Romney message — much of which relied on principles young adults said they agreed with — received so skeptically?

One reason might be the distrust of the GOP policies that led up to the recession. Fifty-one percent of young adults saw “Republican economic policies” as having played the “biggest role” or a “major role” when it came to the recession. Obama frequently blamed Republicans for the recession, an argument Romney never really refuted or even attempted to refute. Ultimately, these numbers should be sobering: Even on jobs and the economy — which was almost all Republicans campaigned on — the party failed to win over Millennials. It wasn’t that Millennials decided to vote on issues other than the economy, but that their disapproval of the GOP extends to what they perceive the party’s economic policy to be.

Another factor could simply be rhetoric: Yes, young adults generally oppose “big government.” But more young adults are concerned about spending levels than are concerned about the size of government per se: Eighty-two percent agree that “we need to make tough choices about cutting government spending, even on some programs some people really like, because the national debt is simply out of control,” while 72 percent think that “we need to reduce the size of government, because it is simply too big.”

“Instead of focusing on a very nebulous big term like ‘big government,’ which resonates kind of confusingly to a lot of young people and negatively in some instances, what we can do instead is focus on, what do we mean when we say ‘big government,’” says Alex Smith, chairwoman of the College Republican National Committee — referring to slashing spending and reducing bureaucracy and ineffective programs. “By focusing on and zeroing in specifically on these issues, we will be able to talk to younger voters in a much smarter, targeted way.”

What about the social issues, widely perceived as the ones that most hinder the GOP from attracting young adults? Forty-four percent of young adults favor gay marriage, and about half of these “said that they would probably or definitely not vote for a candidate with whom they disagreed on same-sex marriage, even if they were in agreement on taxes, defense, immigration, and spending” (emphasis in report). “I don’t think that it is an absolute deal breaker for Republicans with the majority of young people if we are making sure we have real, compelling policy solutions on other issues,” Anderson comments, “and as long as we are absolutely not supportive of anti-gay rhetoric in our mix.”

But while the media are quick to lump young adults’ views on same-sex marriage with their views on abortion, the report finds a more complicated picture: “Thirty-seven percent felt abortion should be illegal with exceptions, and 14 percent thought abortion should always be illegal, making a combined 51 percent who lean toward prohibiting abortion,” compared with the 48 percent who favor abortion in some or all circumstances being legal.

Anderson thinks the GOP needs to talk about abortion differently: “Where Republicans can get into trouble is when it becomes more about religion than about life. There’s absolutely a secular pro-life case.” Young adults, she explains, don’t want to see the government enforcing religious views. Another factor that could have played a role was Republicans’ lack of outreach to Millennials on the social issues. “Republicans weren’t talking to them at all,” Anderson remarks. “So we get defined entirely by the other side. When there is a vacuum, the opposition has filled it and said this is all Republicans want to do.”

One policy that could also be playing a role in the perception of the GOP is the drive to strip Planned Parenthood of government funding. “We did a focus group of single women age 25 to 29 in Columbus. In the group, a number of them said hey, I’m pro-life, but then when the conversation came to Planned Parenthood funding, even some of the women who said, ‘Look, I’m pro-life,’ [also said,] ‘I know friends who have gone to Planned Parenthood for women’s health issues that had nothing to do with abortion and it was really good that it was there for them when they needed it.’” The focus group’s findings are in line with an April poll commissioned by the National Right to Life Committee that found 55 percent of Americans were unaware that Planned Parenthood performed abortions.

The report doesn’t rule out policy changes, but it doesn’t aggressively push them either. “I think it’s much more about policy innovation than flip-flopping on an issue,” Anderson says. Take the issue of student loans: It’s not in line with the GOP’s principles to encourage increased forgiveness of student loans. But what the GOP can do is highlight Republican efforts to slash college costs, such as Texas governor Rick Perry’s push for offering college degrees for $10,000 total. Admittedly, however, there are some real policy gaps between Millennials and the GOP: For instance, 54 percent of young adults surveyed agreed that “taxes should go up on the wealthy,” while a mere 31 percent believed that “taxes should be cut for everyone.” But considering that young adults are willing to vote for Democrats who don’t agree with them on certain issues (such as abortion), it doesn’t appear to be a deal-breaker that the GOP and Millennials don’t see eye-to-eye on all tax issues.

Republicans also need to step up their game in talking more like Oprah guests than think-tank panelists: The report finds that the Romney campaign may have suffered because of its reluctance to be personal. Take the Obama campaign e-mails, which struck a very casual, friendly note — and also ignored personal boundaries. (The best example is when the campaign suggested that people urge their wedding attendees to donate to the Obama campaign.) As distasteful and as patronizing as many (including me) found them, these e-mails really did appeal to some voters. One respondent in a focus group conducted for the report said, “Oh my gosh, I thought Michelle [Obama] was my best friend. . . . She e-mailed me every day at 12 a.m., ‘Dear friend, sorry it is so late.’” In addition, “one study showed that in the 2012 election, the posts that got the most attention and engagement on Facebook coming out of the Obama campaign were posts about the Obamas’ family life.” The Obama tweet of “four more years” featuring a photo of Barack hugging Michelle is currently the tweet most retweeted (i.e., users shared it with their own Twitter followers) ever.

Ultimately, Anderson thinks that while Republicans do have a Millenial problem, there is more reason for hope of doing better in the next election than is commonly thought.

“There is so much conventional wisdom out there that is wrong about young voters,” she remarks. “There’s the conventional wisdom that young people don’t vote or that they’re always more liberal and become more conservative with age. And those two things are wrong.”

The point of the report, Anderson continues, was to be “clear about the real challenges Republicans face, the real damage that has been done to the GOP brand among this generation,” but also “to be offering some hope and a path forward, instead of just being doom and gloom.”

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.