Unless you want to be in a minority party for the rest of time, you need to start being competitive with voters in the 18-35 age range. Sure, we haven’t been the most prolific voters historically. But things are about to get serious, and if you think we’ll continue to stay at home on Election Day you’re wrong. The good news is that we’re open-minded enough to listen, if you talk the right way. Here’s how:
1. Understand that we’re open-minded, industrious and aspirational.
Republicans have struggled with the 18-35 age block (famously so in 2008) since time immemorial. Why? The answer is easy. Fairly or not, it’s viewed as the party of old white men. Think McCain, Dole, Kemp, Cheney, Reagan, Bush the Elder and to a lesser extent the Younger. Contrast that with Obama and a saxophone-playing Clinton.
In the summer of ’08, I heard from many of my contemporaries (I was 32 at the time) that they would vote for Obama because he’s “cool” and that McCain looked, sounded and carried himself like a Wal-Mart greeter. I had to cede the point, even though I was a public supporter of McCain (reluctantly so—I still think Romney would have had a decent, or at least much better, shot at besting Obama).
What we “get”, generally speaking, is ambition and opportunity. The rumors are true—we have a rugged sense of individualism with a side of narcissism. Thus, libertarianism runs in our blood—isn’t that what the internet (that vast something to which we’re addicted) is about, anyway? Wherever it flourishes, freedom often follows. Why else would Iran and China have it censored?
Don’t forget that this generation has produced its fair share of extraordinary wealth already. Google, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, along with a host of brick-and-mortar-type companies, have created some of the richest 20- and 30-somethings in the world. A recent Wall Street Journal article profiled the 20-ish founder of Facebook, and concluded that he was delaying the company’s IPO because it would mean he’d lose some creative control. Mind you, he’s rich already, but an IPO would make him ungodly rich. Like bailing out Medicare-rich.
2. The opening: sell Republican “reforms” as directly protecting our wealth and ambition, and engage in some generational warfare.
We all know intuitively that we won’t see a dime of Social Security, or that if we do it will come at such a steep price that the returns will be in double-digit negative territory. Spending is the problem, and examples abound. Already mentioned: Social Security. Health care is another example. TARP yet another. ARRA another. All of these have something in common—borrowed money spent largely for the benefit of those over 50, or at least that’s how we see it when we see bailed-out bank officers in the newspaper.
We know that, long-term, the only way out of trillion-dollar deficits is inflation, higher taxes and reduced benefits. Notice I said “and”, not “or”. The common denominator is that we’ll have less to show for our hard work—perhaps for the first time in the history of this country. Those retirees, right now? They’re still getting yearly increases in their Social Security payments, and extra little bonuses from Santa Obama to keep their votes securely intact. We notice that.
Tell us you understand, and tell us, Scott Brown-style, that you’ll fix it if elected.
And it’s not just the Democrats. Campaign against the Republicans who have done this to us—including George Bush (thank you very much for that trillion dollar-plus Medicare D fiasco), Tom DeLay (the enabler) and John “Hell no to the tanning tax!” Boehner. We know they’re part of the problem, so don’t be a goof and pretend that they are some kind of Saint of the Republic simply because they’re in your political party. Times are a little too serious to be pulling the line simply for the sake of pulling the line.
Oh sure, politicians say it all the time, as in “we’re leaving our children and grandchildren with all of our bills!”, as they leave the House floor and pad back to the Hyatt for another fundraiser with Merck. Republican candidates of a more aggressive variety (I’m thinking of you, Ed Martin in MO-3) need to make it personal.
3. Get mean.
Show up and tell us the truth—that we will live a life with stratospheric tax rates, a lower standard of living, less recreational time, a hideously inferior health care system and retirement? Oh right, we can forget about that.
We’ll have to work the rest of your life to pay for the indulgences of the Baby Boomers. Why will we get taxed at least 50% on everything we earn? Because former free-lovers defaulted on their second home in Del Boca Vista Florida, Arizona or California, or because they bought a $250,000 house in suburban Chicago and took out four mortgages on it because they drank the Kool-Aid and thought that it was natural that the house tripled in value over six years. So why not take out another equity loan and take that two-month European tour we’ve been dreamin’ about, Maude? After all, we just got that little bonus from Santa, and Santa just mandated that the banks write down the loss to bail us out.
Or because they lived an unhealthy lifestyle eating chips and drinking cola, and now we have to pay for their kidney disease.
T. Boone Pickens was famous for saying that buying oil from other countries is a “transfer of wealth”. No it’s not. It’s giving a bargained-for price for a good in return. Just like buying a shirt at the mall. That’s commerce. Giving up large percentages of your income to support the excesses of previous generations, without any hope of ever seeing a return on that “investment” (aren’t politicians fond of that word) is a transfer of wealth. But even that term softens the real meaning. When you’re mugged, you’re subjected to a “transfer of wealth”. But what really happened is you got ROBBED.
Paint these politicians as thieves. Stealing directly from you to support a more politically important constituency. Tell us the truth: “They think you’re too enthralled by updating your status to see what they are doing to you”.
We have reason to be outraged. We just need a little prompting. It would help greatly if you’d relate to us. In fact, we even might like you.
On that topic…
4. Don’t assume you impress us, because you probably don’t.
Re-think your wardrobe, particularly if you are a male under 50. Don’t wear a Brooks Brother suit when you talk to us. It makes you look suspicious in a Mitch McConnell kind of way, or it makes you look like a poser. (If you aren’t familiar with that term, consider dropping out of the race immediately). If your sartorial sensibilities prevent you from dressing casual, then at least wear your Nantucket Reds and a navy blazer. At least then you’ll remind us of the cool frat guy in college with two middle names and a suffix who carted us to keggers in his Land Rover. (In fact, chances are you were that guy.)
5. Focus on our pocketbook and keep it relevant.
While we’re at it, let’s drop the talk about social issues. All that does is offend the basic libertarian nature of this crowd. If they aren’t gay, they have gay friends and roommates. They may not agree with it, but they also don’t think they’re friends should be “outlawed”. They also know people who smoke pot, and are ok with it. So be intellectually honest and say those are state issues, just like health care regulation oughta be, and leave it at that.
You won’t win many votes dwelling on those issues, but you will if you drive home the point that they are forking over money to support consumerist excess (other than their own, of course). Running a campaign based on outlawing gay rights or abortion at this time in history is a little like showing up to your grandmother’s funeral in shorts and flip flops: it’s amateurish and doesn’t rise to the moment.
When speaking to us, do not, whatever you do, begin talking about committees on which you’ve served, procedural votes you’ve taken, or anything that isn’t easily understood in 140 characters or less. Because if it isn’t understood in Twitterform, eyes will glaze. It’s not evidence of our stupidity, its evidence that we’re busy building a life and can quickly determine what’s important and tune the rest out.
Will those over 45 or 50 be offended? Likely not. After all, all you’re doing is repeating what they’ve been saying about “leaving the bill to our grandchildren”. Well, that’s us, and those of us who aren’t livid should be.
Kevin Dillard is an attorney and a government relations professional for a national health care organization based in St. Louis.