Young adults are an increasingly important force in American politics, having cast roughly 25 million votes in the 2012 election. This is great news for our generation, yet it has also meant bad news for Republicans. Winning elections tomorrow means changing how our generation votes today.
The fact is that the Republican Party has not done very well with the youth vote recently. In 2008, Barack Obama won young voters by a two-to-one margin, marking the largest Democratic advantage among young voters since the voting age was lowered to 18. Last year wasn’t much better as Obama won the youth vote, 60 percent to 37 percent. While Mitt Romney won roughly 2 million more votes than Obama among the 30-and-older set, he lost young voters by about 5 million votes, returning the president to the White House for another term.
But this is not a eulogy for the GOP; rather, this is a wake-up call for change. To write off young voters as unimportant or unwinnable is a mistake Republicans can’t afford to continue to make. Being young has not always meant leaning leftward politically; Reagan won the youth vote by 19 points in his re-election campaign, and George W. Bush did roughly as well among seniors as he did among young people in 2000.
Republicans have earned large shares of the youth vote in the past, and they can win them again.
This year, we embarked on a research project to understand just how our party might connect with our generation. We asked young voters across the country what they hope for, what they fear and what they expect from their government. Our generation faces mounting debt — personal and government — and the fear that we won’t be better off than our parents. We want to see solutions to big problems and we don’t know from where they’ll come.
What Republicans need is a compelling story that captures what is important to young adults. Republicans have successfully articulated what’s wrong with big-government liberalism and explained what’s wrong with Obama’s spending habits. Yet for many young people, it is unclear how these things concretely address the problems that they face day-to-day. As a result, we’ve been mislabeled the “party of no,” or have reinforced the perception that we’re all green eyeshade-wearing number crunchers with little understanding of their lives.
The truth is that we aren’t just the “party of no.” There is a lot that we’re for that speaks to the aspirations of young voters. Republicans are for the economic growth that happens when Americans get to keep more money in their pockets. Republicans are pro-opportunity and see growing national debt as a burden being placed on the future generations who will be required to pay it back. Republicans want to promote a free market, to unleash a new generation of entrepreneurs to build their own companies.
This isn’t about being obstructionist or anti-Obama. Young people have seen great things come from the ground up, from people with great ideas who make things happen, who solve problems on their own, who believe in organic, bottom-up growth, not stimulus-driven, top-down solutions. They worry that the big deficits and big debts — the inevitable byproducts of government doing too many things — are negatively impacting the economy. And they wholeheartedly believe that the answer to the problem lies in their own hard work, not in the decision-making of Washington bureaucrats.
This is the opportunity Republicans have, but only if they take it.
The great news for Republicans is that while our research found young voters are frustrated with Republicans, they aren’t enamored of Democrats either. They’re increasingly turned off by a political discourse that rarely addresses the actual concerns in their lives. They may have voted for Obama in the last two elections, but the opportunity is there for Republicans to re-shape their message to reach a generation that is hungry for solutions.
Republicans have a chance to talk about how our ideas do more than stand on principle; they create the opportunity and economic growth that is going to let our generation prosper and have a future that’s bright. As Republicans, let’s tell our story of growth, renewal and opportunity based on inherently conservative ideas that appeal across generations.
In short, let’s be for something great. Of course, that’s easier said than done. That’s why the College Republican National Committee is committing time and resources to reintroducing the Grand Old Party to a brand new generation. As part of that process we commissioned a variety of studies on young voters to improve how we communicate, reposition the policies we promote and craft a winning narrative based on our long-held values. We believe these are vital first steps toward harnessing the growing political power of young adults. Not just to win elections, but to help reclaim America’s tradition as a bastion of freedom and opportunity.
Alex Smith is the chairman of the College Republican National Committee. Kristen Soltis is the vice president of The Winston Group, a Washington, D.C.-based opinion research and political communications firm.