Does Rick Santorum have a youth problem?

Peter Levine | Director, Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement

As Rick Santorum surges in polls of registered Republicans, skeptics are asking whether he can draw broad support against President Barack Obama. They are particularly focused on his last campaign, the 2006 Pennsylvania Senate race, which he lost by 18 points to Bob Casey Jr.

The age gap in that election has received relatively little attention. It was actually more of a chasm than a gap. Bob Casey won the under-30 vote in a 36-point landslide, 68%-32%. In contrast, the Democrat won just 56% of the 60-and-older vote. In an article last week, Geoff Garin, a leading Democratic pollster and one of Bob Casey’s pollsters in that race, commented, “Young people thought he was kind of weirdly out of sync with modern times.”

Any election can be an anomaly, but Santorum’s loss preceded the 2008 presidential campaign, in which Obama beat Sen. John McCain among young people by a similarly lopsided margin of 66%-32%. Those young votes mattered: 22 million voters under 30 turned out in 2008, and they provided a substantial portion of the Democrats’ winning coalition. Theirs is a big generation — already, more people under the age of 30 are eligible to vote than those over 64 — and they will dominate the electorate in decades to come.

The 2008 result was unprecedented, since traditionally, young people have not diverged much from older adults in presidential elections. Only in the last few years have young voters begun to behave like a Democratic constituency. It is by no means guaranteed that the “Millennial Generation” will stay in the Democrats’ column. The Republican presidential nominee, whoever he is, will have an opportunity to make substantial inroads with this cohort. Republicans should be highly motivated to reach Millennials if they want to win a close election and if they care about the future of their party.

But Rick Santorum has performed poorly among young voters so far in this year’s nomination race. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, of which I’m the director, has been able to estimate youth turnout in the five states where exit polls have been conducted, and in those states combined, Santorum has drawn about 31,000 voters under 30. That puts him in fourth place for the young vote, with less than half as much support as Rep. Ron Paul. In 2008, about 30,000 young voters turned out for Barack Obama in the Iowa caucuses alone.

Youth turnout has generally been unimpressive in this election’s Republican primaries and caucuses, and Nevada set a dubious record with a youth turnout rate of just one percent. It’s too early to tell whether the low turnout foretells weak youth participation in the November general election; perhaps young people simply aren’t responding favorably to the Republican candidates.

Paul has obtained a youth following, but even his total number of young votes so far (around 65,000) pales in comparison to Obama’s primary support in 2008. (Obama received as many young votes in the 2008 Florida primary as Paul has drawn in the whole campaign so far.) And Santorum has performed much worse.

To be sure, young people are ideologically diverse. Almost every recent major national poll shows them leaning liberal on many of the social issues of the day. However, there remains a sizeable number of youth — particularly in a Republican primary — who hold conservative views on issues like abortion, birth control and gay rights. In 2006, Santorum drew 71% of young voters who attended religious services weekly, a group that also believed that abortion should be illegal in almost all cases. In this year’s primary campaign, especially if turnout remains low, Santorum may be able to draw significant support from conservative religious youth.

Overall, however, today’s younger generation is not defined by religious conservatism. Faith in God remains strong, but most religious youth do not feel barred from voting for Democratic candidates. In fact, one-third of young evangelical Christian voters opted for Obama in 2008.

Last month, a college audience booed Santorum in New Hampshire for his remarks against gay marriage, and he recently said that contraception is “not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that [are] counter to how things are supposed to be.” These positions are not likely to endear him to young voters.

Santorum is running ads in Michigan that open with the words, “Who has the best chance to beat Obama? Rick Santorum.” Republicans should take a close look at his youth appeal unless they are willing to write off a whole generation.

Peter Levine is director of research and director of CIRCLE (Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

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