Millennials: The demographic group Republicans should really be targeting

Ever since Barack Obama managed to easily win re-election despite running up nearly $6 trillion in debt in four years and presiding over the worst economic recovery since World War II, Republicans have been panicking. Some seem to have given up on politics entirely, convinced that their party is destined to lose election after election while the country drowns in a sea of debt, taxes, and regulation. Others are more optimistic, but warn that in order for the GOP to remain competitive at the national level without abandoning its conservative principles, it will need to make major inroads with minority voters — particularly Hispanics, but also Asians and African-Americans.

I think the optimists are right — it’s not too late for the Republican Party to turn things around with minorities. But neither Hispanics, nor Asians, nor African-Americans are natural GOP constituencies. All three groups are far more likely than whites to trust the federal government and far less likely to want to shrink it. That’s why I suspect they’ll remain heavily Democratic for the foreseeable future.

Fortunately, there’s a large, Democratic-leaning voting bloc that’s receptive to the Republican Party’s core message about liberty and limited government: millennials.

Ninety-five million Americans were born between 1982 and 2000. This generation — the millennial generation — is surprisingly skeptical of government and critical of the welfare state. According to a recent Harvard study, only 44% of 18-to-29-year-olds agree that health care is right that the government should provide for those who can’t afford it, only 20% agree government spending is an effective way to stimulate the economy, and only 37% think the government should spend more on anti-poverty measures. With 53% of recent college graduates unemployed or underemployed, it’s no wonder millennials are losing faith in liberalism.

But you wouldn’t know it from looking at this month’s exit polls. Romney won just 37% of under-30 voters. By comparison, George W. Bush won 45% of under-30 voters in 2004.

Romney’s poor performance with young voters can partly be explained by the fact that he’s not very cool. (Cool people don’t say things like “gosh darn” and “good heavens.”) It’s also partly a reflection of Romney’s poor performance with minorities, since two-fifths of millennials are non-white (Romney actually won white millennials, 51-44). But neither Romney’s failure to appeal to young voters nor his failure to appeal to minorities explains why he lost millennials by a 23-point margin in a down economy.

No, Romney was rejected by young voters because of the “R” next to name. Over the past decade, the GOP brand has become decidedly uncool with millennials, to the point that many Republican-leaning twentysomethings are embarrassed to be associated with the party.

But that’s a problem that Republicans can fix without abandoning small-government conservatism.

One of the conservative movement’s strengths is its intellectual diversity. There are several distinct strands of conservative thought, and the relative influence of those strands within the Republican Party is constantly changing. In the early 2000s, the GOP drew heavily from the movement’s socially conservative tradition. Then, after the party was crushed in the 2006 and 2008 elections, it began to draw more heavily on a populist strand of libertarian thought. To win over millennials, the party needs to apply some of those libertarian-conservative principles to non-economic issues. A Republican Party that took a softer stance on gay marriage and marijuana prohibition, that made safeguarding civil liberties a priority, that embraced copyright reform (which it is already starting to do), and that distanced itself from some of the foreign policy mistakes of the past decade would be a Republican Party that millennials could support.