Politics & Policy

The Birth of the Cool Republican

(Drew Angerer/Getty)

In 2008, young Obama supporters were the epitome of cool: They drank Starbucks. They wore skinny jeans and TOMS. They blogged and tweeted furiously on their MacBooks decorated with those iconic “Hope” stickers. These twentysomethings were effortlessly hip, and they were everywhere.

Supporting John McCain? That was social suicide. To be a conservative was to associate oneself with a dying political party ruled by old white men. Being a Republican was definitely not cool.

It’s no surprise, then, that Millennials turned out overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008. And in 2012, Obama, still the King of Cool, once again won big with young voters.

These last two elections were great examples of a disheartening but potentially unavoidable fact of modern presidential politics: When it comes to wooing twentysomethings, it helps to be cool.

Coolness in a campaign is largely the result of intelligent branding. When voters support a candidate, they’re also embracing that candidate’s brand, and it’s no secret that Millennials would rather be associated with hip brands than ones that are outdated, boring, or untrendy. But on a deeper level, there’s no better time for the GOP to shed its reputation of being old and out of touch: The age of Obama has passed. Many of the Millennials who enthusiastically supported Obama during his campaigns have grown disillusioned by Washington. A Harvard poll of young voters last year, for instance, found trust in major government institutions dropping dramatically. A large portion are out of work and tired of paying taxes for a ballooning entitlement state — an entitlement state from which they expect no benefits.

Luckily for Republicans, their likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, is about as un-hip as a candidate can get.

So, luckily for Republicans, their likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, is about as un-hip as a candidate can get. The pantsuit-wearing, 67-year-old grandmother comes off as stuffy and unapproachable. She hardly has the suave people skills of President Obama — or any president of the past few decades. A couple of weeks ago, for example, the former secretary of state seemed to brush off an eager autograph seeker coldly, telling her to “go to the back of the line.” Combine that with her contemptuous attitude toward the press and we don’t exactly have the kind of breezy, relaxed attitude of a candidate young voters could picture themselves hanging out with. Even her campaign branding so far — her logo, her website — have been a far cry from Obama’s widely praised style.

Still, Clinton will have the powerful mainstream media on her side. So for the GOP to dominate in the arena of cool, Republicans must proactively show they can identify with and relate to young voters. The trick is to do this without seeming like they’re trying too hard — remember Al Gore? They have to appear effortlessly hip. 

But creating a cool brand doesn’t have to be too hard.

#related#Pop culture is critical: Republicans can make themselves relatable by showing they understand music, TV shows, and sports that young people like (assuming the interest is genuine!). 

Some GOPers, like Marco Rubio, have already figured this out. The Florida senator has been outspoken about his love of hip-hop. Recently on Fox News’s Outnumbered, he had quite a riff on Nineties rap:

I don’t know, maybe I’m getting old. I still love it. Especially the stuff that came out of the West Coast and California in the Nineties, when Dre and, you know, then Tupac went West Coast and abandoned the East Coast. That was a good time.

Rubio’s comments on Nicki Minaj a while back even got the approving attention of TMZ.

A good sense of humor will also help conservative candidates draw a bolder contrast between themselves and uptight Clinton, and Republicans have been showing some promise there, too.

When street artist Sabo plastered Los Angeles with edgy posters of Senator Ted Cruz with two full sleeves of tattoos and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, the senator didn’t ignore or criticize the artwork — he joked about it. He tweeted the following:

An easygoing attitude and ability to poke fun at himself give Cruz — and other young GOPers — an element of coolness.

The importance of cool campaign merchandise shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Rand Paul’s campaign store is offering dog tags, koozies, a “Hindsight Eyechart,” and “NSA Spy Cam Blockers” that snap onto laptops (in theory, to prevent webcam hackings).

He’s even selling “Hillary’s Hard Drive”:

Most Millennials are fed up with the status quo on Capitol Hill, and Clinton reeks of entitlement and entrenchment. Republicans can do a whole lot better with the youth vote if they can figure out how to become the party of cool. These days, that means much more than grabbing a saxophone and honking out a few notes of an Elvis song on MTV — and this year’s crop of Republicans seems to get that.


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