If only people age 30 and older could vote, Mitt Romney would be president today. In the last election, Romney beat Obama among voters age 30 and over by two points. But he still managed to lose the election because Obama dominated among younger voters, 60%-36%. Republicans have been decimated by young voters in the last three elections, even though young people basically voted the same way as their elders in every election from 1976 to 2000. To explain this divergence, we need to revisit a brief political phenomenon from a decade ago: the “South Park Republican.”
In 2001, political writer Andrew Sullivan coined the term “South Park Republican” to describe young conservatives like himself who loved Comedy Central’s iconic show about four foul-mouthed fourth graders, especially its skewering of liberal causes like multiculturalism, pacifism, and extreme environmentalism. According to Sullivan, “South Park” gave voice to young Republican-leaning voters (the average viewer’s age is 28) who “believe we need a hard-a** foreign policy and are extremely skeptical of political correctness,” but would describe themselves as moderate on social issues, especially abortion and gay marriage.
In 2005, Brian C. Anderson, editor of City Journal, ran with the “South Park” idea, publishing a whole book about it, titled South Park Conservatives. Columnist Michael Barone praised the book’s inside look at how “today’s young people are rebelling against the left-wing dominance of the established media” and predicted these kids would “build quite a different America from what we have been led to expect.”
Today, the South Park Republicans aren’t building a “different America.” They are extinct. Even though they were heralded as a rising political force just a few years ago, today they are the political equivalent of the dodo bird — gone and probably gone for good. So what happened to them? Basically, the South Park Republicans became liberals — starting with Sullivan himself, who as late as 2006 was publishing a book called The Conservative Soul, but today can be found bashing Republicans and praising Obama every chance he gets.
Sullivan is a perfect case study of why the South Park Republicans evolved from conservative to liberal. There were three key reasons they abandoned the GOP: Iraq, gay marriage, and then, finally, Obamamania.
Sullivan was once a vocal cheerleader for the Iraq War. But starting in 2004, he grew disillusioned with it. And it wasn’t just because the war turned out to be tougher and bloodier than the “cakewalk” the administration promised. It was because of a whole host of issues: perceptions that the administration misled the public about WMDs, torture, Abu Ghraib, Scooter Libby, and the total ostracizing of critics.
Sullivan voted for Bush in 2000, but four years later, he reluctantly voted for Kerry. Young people also abandoned Bush. Even though Bush’s share of the popular vote rose from 48% to 51% from 2000 to 2004, among those age 29 and under, it fell from 48% to 45%. And Iraq was the biggest reason.
The other big reason was gay marriage. Sullivan, who is openly gay, obviously knew that Bush opposed gay marriage when he voted for him in 2000. But four years later, Sullivan was turned off by what he perceived as the GOP’s deliberate efforts to vilify gay Americans in order to bolster turnout among “values voters.” Indeed, the GOP did want to make gay marriage a wedge issue during the campaign, and, for the most part, it succeeded. But not among young people. Even in 2004, a majority of young people favored gay marriage, even while the rest of the country opposed it. Today, 81% of young people favor it. And so does a majority of everyone else.
For the South Park Republicans, gay marriage wasn’t just about, well, gay marriage. It was about the principle that all Americans should be tolerated and respected. And by not showing that respect, the GOP played into the hands of all those university professors and TV actors and “concerned” journalists who had been warning young people for years that if you scratch a Republican, you find a bigot. And bigots are bad people. And if you vote for a bigot, you’re a bad person too.
2008 marked the end of the South Park Republicans. By then, young people weren’t just disillusioned with the GOP; they had fallen in love with a politician who embodied their highest hopes and aspirations: Barack Obama. No, they didn’t agree with Obama on things like big government, vilifying the wealthy, abortion on demand, amnesty for illegal immigrants, etc. But those things didn’t matter. Because Obama was “cool.” And his message — of “hope” and “change” and “yes, we can” — expressed their dreams in a way McCain and the Republicans never could. By 2012, Obamamania had worn off a bit, but for young Americans, a contest between Obama and Romney was no contest at all. And Obama once again swept young people overwhelmingly.
Looking ahead to 2016 and beyond, the GOP will no longer have to worry about having Obama on the ballot. But they will definitely need candidates who can appeal to (or at least not repel) young voters. They will also need candidates who can articulate the “language of America,” which is one of unity, not division. And they will need to develop a foreign policy that isn’t just Bush Redux, but reflects a more subdued public opinion in the wake of the Iraq War.
The rise and fall of the South Park Republicans is a powerful symbol of the catastrophe the GOP has suffered among young voters. But it may also be a roadmap to recovery. Today’s young people value freedom and opportunity. That is where the GOP is strong. But young people also value diversity and progress. That is where the GOP is weak. And yet there is no reason why Republicans — if they put their minds to it and learn the right lessons — can’t once again be the party of national unity, positive change, and victory.
Todd Winer is a political consultant who focuses on media and message development. He’s worked for many politicians, including most recently, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chairman of the House Republican Conference.