When young voters helped lift Barack Obama to the presidency in November 2008, pundits pointed to the “wave” of Millennials that showed up to the polls as proof of a permanent sea change in politics. It was the dawn of Generation O and, for Republicans, the beginning of a potentially long, unpleasant period of wandering in the woods.
Yet a major study released by the Pew Research Center this week tells a story a year later that will have Republicans breathing a sigh of relief, thankful that young voters have “snapped out of it.” These voters, the Pew report says, are less enthused than in 2008 and have seen a major decline in job approval for President Obama. There are surely some old-school campaign veterans on the right declaring that they knew it all along: the Obama wave was a one-hit wonder.
But don’t break out the champagne just yet.
What Republicans should take from the change in political attitudes among young voters isn’t a sign of victory but rather one of opportunity, a precious second chance to bring young voters into the fold. Young voters once smitten with Obama and his party are now up for grabs, but it will take real effort to change some critical beliefs that can convert Generation O into Generation GOP.
It would prove an impossible task to preserve the incredibly high levels of popularity and engagement that President Obama enjoyed during his campaign. He benefitted from being a blank slate, a sort of choose-your-own-adventure candidate onto which new voters could project their hopes and dreams. When he fell short of the lofty expectations, young voters became less attached to the Democratic Party.
But younger voters aren’t going away forever. While clips of frustrated senior citizens at town halls fill the airwaves these days, young voters haven’t given up on politics for good. Exit polls consistently show lower turnout in midterm and off-year elections than for presidential years. Furthermore, once a voter votes for the first time, academic studies have shown that they are far more likely to vote again in a comparable election. They may not come out in droves in 2010, but it is very likely they’ll be back in force in 2012.
So what’s the problem? A group of voters, almost one out of five in the 2008 election, is falling out of love with the Democratic Party. Where’s the bad news for Republicans?
Well first of all, there’s an ideological issue: the Pew average for 2009 showed 29% of young voters identifying as liberal while only 28% identify as conservative. This is in sharp contrast with the rest of the electorate that is far less liberal and more conservative.
But there are also the underlying reasons for that ideological split: young voters are more likely to be accepting of things that create serious hot-button divides in the GOP, like immigration and same-sex marriage. Young voters are also more likely than their older counterparts to say, “government should do more to solve problems (53 percent)” rather than “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals (42 percent).”
The most critical thing that the Republican Party can do is make a compelling, positive case for its values—limited government as a means to personal freedom, low taxes as a means to individual economic opportunity—and present innovative solutions to earn back the trust of a generation that completely abandoned the party in 2008.
The Boomers had Vietnam and Watergate and therefore leaned more leftward, while the Gen Xers had Reagan and the Gingrich Revolution to correspond with their slightly more rightward tendencies. The Millennials can point to the election of Barack Obama as a critical formative event in their political lives that will echo in their voting behavior for decades to come. The risk is that another generation remains voting heavily Democratic in subsequent elections for the rest of their political lives. These voters will be back, rest assured, and Democrats will likely do all they can to stop the exodus of Generation O. The opportunity is ripe to engage young voters if only Republicans would make the effort. But the work has to begin now, and is has to start with a successfully communicated case that the Republican Party offers a brighter, freer vision for the future.
Kristen Soltis is the Director of Policy Research at The Winston Group, a Washington, D.C.-based strategic consulting and opinion research firm. Soltis is a contributor at The Huffington Post, Pollster.com and The Next Right and has also provided political commentary for The American Spectator, BBC Radio and Ireland’s RTE.