GOP: Losing the Youth?
There’s cause for worry, but a new report points to some signs of hope.

Young supporters at the Republican Convention in Tampa.


Katrina Trinko

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.”