As the remaining GOP presidential candidates continue a contentious battle for the party’s nomination, a larger struggle lies ahead for the potential nominee — the ability to connect with young voters.
An emerging pattern from the past three presidential election cycles chart a trend in which young voters, aged 18-29, are increasingly casting their ballots for the Democratic candidate at the polls. The majority of young voters supported Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and an overwhelming 66 percent powered Barack Obama to a landslide victory in 2008.
President Obama’s fiery message of hope and change and an unprecendented social networking approach appealed to young voters who considered Obama a forward-thinking candidate representative of a new era and fresh ideas congruous with their values.
Cathy Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and expert on youth voting, says two mechanisms led to Obama’s win – a high turnout in 2008 from young black and latino voters and a higher percentage of more young white voters opting for the Democratic Party.
“I think Obama’s ability to have a kind of culture relevance resonated with young voters versus McCain who looked very establishment,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party is faced with the difficult challenge of winning over these voters by articulating a message and vision that speaks to the Millennial Generation.
In a 2010 Pew Research poll, 56% of voters under the age of 30 surveyed that they identified or leaned toward the Democratic Party, compared to just 36% for the Republican Party.
Given a widely-held perception by young voters that the Grand Ole Party is just that – a faction of old men with antiquated views and ideas – intensifies the challenge to attract Millennials as the party has to evaluate its standing and perhaps re-brand itself in order to contend with Obama in November.
As social issues such as abortion rights, same-sex marriage, contraception and immigration dominate the political narrative, it creates a culture clash that divides the young and old. Young voters tend to have a more liberal view on these issues of tolerance and diversity.
Dick Simpson, professor and head of the political science department at the University of Illinois-Chicago, says Republicans are tone deaf in terms of the social attitudes held by Millennials which in turn creates a cultural divide.
“People over 60 have one view of the world and people under 30 have another and it’s because of the time in which they grew up,” said the former Chicago alderman. “Most youth don’t get bent out of shape about a woman choosing to have an abortion or whether same-sex couples can get married. They see it as a private matter.”
Cohen says the struggle for the GOP to connect with young voters is due to its position on cultural issues that were defined 10-20 years ago.
“I think most young people have grown up knowing someone who is gay. They’ve seen gay characters on television so it’s a part of how they understand the world and relationships as opposed to older people who are only now adjusting to that time of visibility,” she said.
The only GOP presidential candidate who has been able to create enthusiasm among young voters – substantially capturing the youth vote in many of the primary state competitions – is Congressman Ron Paul, whose crowd make-up on the campaign trail largely consists of voters under the age of 30.
Paul’s astounding popularity with this group is mostly motivated by his social liberty views. The 76-year-old supports legalizing marijuana, opposes most foreign wars and believes the government shouldn’t play a role in making decisions regarding gay marriage – all social attitudes shared by many Millennials.
However, it is less likely Paul will win the party’s nomination meaning one of his opponents will have to find a way to connect with and secure the backing of Paul’s supporters without adopting his policies.
Simpson says the prospective nominee will need to choose a running mate that’s not 65-years-old.
“There aren’t many Ron Paul’s who can appeal to youth, but there are many Ron Paul’s in the Republican Party as best as I can tell,” he said.
While Democrats may be benefiting from the culture divide that stems from social issues, a focus on the economy maybe a way for the Republicans to close the cultural gap.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among Millennials is nearly twice as high as the national average of 8.3 percent. Meanwhile, student loan debt now totals $865 billion according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Alex Schriver, National Chairman of the College Republican National Committee, says these dueling challenges for young voters gives the GOP the advantage of selling themselves as the best solution to solving the country’s fiscal problems.
“Young people are graduating into a poor job market and finding work that doesn’t at all equal to what they paid four years of tuition to do and so they’re moving back in with their parents,” Schriver said. “The Republicans’ message is to find a solution so that these folks aren’t living on the dole of somebody else, which in the case of Democrats is more often than not, the government.”
The GOP’s next option is to play to the discontent of young voters who are disappointed with the job President Obama has done and feeling wilted by his message of hope and change.
In a recent survey conducted by Democracy Corps, an independent non-profit organization, fewer than 40% of people under the age of 30 approve of Obama’s performance, with 54% disapproving.
Schriver, whose organization consists of a quarter million members with chapters in all 50 states and on 1800 campuses, says they are doing everything on a grassroots level to shift the youth vote to the right side of the aisle by making inroads with first-time voters and voters who now feel disenchanted with Obama three years later.
Still, Cohen says it will be a tough sell for the GOP and hard to brand themselves in a way that will mobilize young voters, especially against President Obama who has embraced a language of inequality and the idea that millionaires should pay their fair share.
“I think that language resonates with young people for both the recovery and the rhetoric and when you add his position on cultural issues, I think it’s without question that most young people will move towards Obama.”
What’s certain is that as the nation progresses, the trends in the opinions of the country’s youngest voters is strongly becoming a measure of shifting political tides. The GOP must convince young voters that their party is evolving with the rest of the country.
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