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Can the GOP Win Over Millennials in 2014?

Can the GOP Win Over Millennials in 2014?

By Adam O'Neal - October 18, 2013

Some 50 million voting-age millennials live in the United States, and a Colorado state legislator named Owen Hill wants to be the first one elected to the U.S. Senate.

That would be a personal milestone for the 31-year-old Air Force Academy grad, who will have to win a crowded primary first, but it would also be a significant and symbolic step for his political party: Owen Hill (pictured) is a Republican, and the GOP has been hemorrhaging young voters for the past decade.

For even longer than that, Democrats have expected young Americans to break for them in large numbers. It started with Bill Clinton in 1992, slipped back in 2000, and began anew in 2004. That’s when John Kerry beat George W. Bush among under-30 voters by nine points. The gap widened in 2008, when Barack Obama received a record 66 percent of the youth vote to John McCain’s 32 percent. In 2012, Obama held a 28-point advantage over Mitt Romney.

Top Republicans, understanding that voters tend to form lifelong voting habits in their youth, saw the loss of young voters as an almost existential threat to the party. And so the Republican National Committee and the College Republican National Committee each commissioned studies to analyze why the GOP had failed to broaden its appeal and what could be done to fix the problem.

The RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project,” released in March, examined the causes of Mitt Romney’s loss and outlined ways the party could expand its appeal not just to young voters but to minorities as well -- two increasingly important demographics in American politics.

The report included 14 recommendations intended to attract young voters, including forming a “celebrity task force,” empowering younger voices in digital issues, having Republicans appear more frequently on previously ignored media outlets, and making the party more welcoming.

The CRNC’s report, released in June, focused exclusively on young voters and was scathing in its assessment of how negatively young voters saw the Republican Party. Most salient among its findings were the feedback from focus groups composed of potential Republican voters. In addition to noting that they didn’t expect the GOP to reach out to them, participants described the party as “closed-minded, racist, rigid” and “old-fashioned.”

The report determined that the GOP had to undertake “significant work to repair the damage done to the Republican brand among this age group over the last decade.”

“We’ve become the party that will pat you on your back when you make it, but won’t offer you a hand to help you get there,” the report concluded.

At the time of its release, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus praised the report and said the RNC would follow its recommendations closely.

A Rebranding Problem, or a Policy Problem?

While Republicans have taken steps to expand their outreach to young voters in the months since then, they have yet to make tangible progress, a number of observers say.

In April, shortly after the release of its report, the RNC announced the hiring of 24-year-old Raffi Williams as deputy press secretary. Williams, who is tasked with GOP messaging to youth and African-American voters, told Real Clear Politics that the RNC is taking the long view with its outreach. “You can’t just snap your fingers and wish to a genie that it’s going to come true,” he said.

Alex Smith, chairman of the CRNC, asserted that her organization is making inroads with groups it hadn’t previously reached. She pointed to a recent CRNC ad comparing Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe to a “catfish,” a term popularized by an MTV show about people who assume a false identities online, usually to pursue an Internet romance.

“We didn’t go to broadcast television or traditional radio,” Smith said. Instead, the CRNC purchased over 1.5 million ad impressions on Hulu, Pandora, Spotify and YouTube.

John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics, said the GOP didn’t seriously compete for youth votes in last two election cycles, adding that the party hadn’t thought about “campaigning in a way which connects the candidates to young people.”

Williams acknowledged that serious efforts at engaging different groups are just starting. He cited Sen. Rand Paul’s speech at Howard University, a historically black college, as one.

“What we’re doing now is engaging in the conversation, and that’s the first step of getting [young people] to become Republicans,” Williams said.

Democrats, however, claim that just speaking to previously ignored groups won’t solve the Republican Party’s demographic problems.

Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin said Republicans’ acknowledgement of “their massive shortcomings” with young voters is “a good start” but asserted that “they haven’t done anything to moderate their message at all.”

College Democrats spokesman Matthew Metz said he took “a hard look” at the CRNC report but hasn’t detected any progress in the GOP’s rebranding efforts.

“It’s the same rhetoric, but I really don’t think it’s a rebranding problem they have,” he said. “It’s a policy problem.”

Some Republicans, of course, strongly disagree. Hill, in an interview with RCP, repeatedly said that Republicans’ greatest weakness was their inability to sell pre-existing policy solutions.

“I believe we got too focused on policy,” Hill said. “We’ve got to be talking about opportunity; we have to be talking about it in broader terms.”

The Libertarian Rub

As for implementing the RNC report’s 14 recommendations -- which go beyond just messaging and outreach -- Republicans have had mixed results.

GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, who co-authored the CRNC report, said that Republicans “have not done much” to win back young voters since the release of the reports.

A smiling Williams said that organizing a Republican celebrity group is “a work in progress.” He also acknowledged that while a youth advisory committee, meant “to help define the rebranding efforts of the Party,” met regularly and produced lists of recommendations for senior RNC staff, he could not yet publicly discuss any results.

Himself an avid tweeter, Williams pointed to the GOP’s improved online presence and said that youth have had a large impact on the party’s digital footprint. He pointed to using college media lists in New Jersey and Virginia to strategically place op-eds ahead of off-year gubernatorial races in both states.

He also stressed that the party is striving to be more open to those who don’t completely agree with the Republican platform, such as supporters of gay marriage or libertarians.

As for the latter, the party has long had a loose association with them, notably through the Paul clan. But Republicans have failed to fully capitalize on the relationship, with libertarian movement leaders such as Nick Gillespie often at odds with the party over significant and myriad policy issues such as marijuana legalization and foreign intervention.

What’s more, establishment figures unhappy with Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash, who has espoused strong libertarian views, have begun efforts to drive him from office via a primary challenge. And earlier this year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie decried his party’s “very dangerous” libertarian streak on national security.

Washington Examiner columnist Timothy P. Carney has long advocated that the GOP embrace a more economically focused populist brand of libertarianism that rejects corporatism. Carney said that while a “handful” of Republican members of Congress have embraced this populism, it’s difficult to make the party more widely accepting of libertarian ideas.

“Maybe it’s like a bad relationship, where your friend just won’t leave the horrible guy,” Carney said. “The friend is the GOP, and the guy is K Street. Maybe we need K Street to dump the GOP.”

A Mixed Outlook

The GOP could very well see another poor showing with young voters in the midterms. A Pew Research poll released earlier in the week showed that among voters age 18-29, Democrats maintained a 21-point advantage over Republicans on a generic congressional ballot.

“I don’t see anything that makes me think we will improve greatly over how we did with young voters in the 2010 midterms,” Anderson lamented.

Williams wouldn’t say whether he expects Republicans to win the youth vote in 2014, acknowledging only that he wanted the midterms to be “better for us.”

Democrats are more confident. “They’re at a worse position with young voters than they probably were in the 2012 election,” boasted Czin.

Still, Republicans will likely survive the midterms relatively unscathed even without youth support. Several polling analyses show they are not in danger of losing the House over their handling of the shutdown, and Democrats face an uphill battle to maintain their majority in the Senate, where several incumbents are defending seats in red states such as Louisiana, Alaska, and Arkansas.

Some Republicans privately acknowledge that because midterm voters are typically older and whiter than those in presidential elections, the party won’t face any severe consequences for failing to rally young and minority voters to its side.

But young voters will be critical to a Republican victory in 2016, when they will compose about 20 percent of the electorate.

“It’s not a viable long-term electoral strategy to hope people decide not to vote,” noted Michelle Diggles, an expert in generational politics at the centrist think tank Third Way.

The CRNC’s Smith agreed, explaining, “If we can move 5 percent of the youth vote, that’s a 1 percent swing overall.”

Although Democrats will likely perform well among young voters next year, their advantage may not be as ironclad as some expect. Liberal Democrats are at odds with many young voters over issues of efficient government, and millennials show less brand loyalty than previous generations of Americans, Diggles explained.

“Why would we expect a different approach to politics than to consumer purchases?” she asked.

Harvard's Della Volpe said that both parties have gradually lost support from young voters since 2009: “A solid majority disapproves of both of the parties, and they have a growing dissatisfaction with public institutions” like the federal government, Congress, and the White House.

If anything, the fiscal impasse only increased this erosion of party loyalty. The growing dislike for each party, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that a third party would gain strength. No one interviewed for this article expected such an alternative to become electorally viable by the midterms.

Instead, it seems that Republicans and Democrats will continue to vie for the youth vote, and Republicans will keep trying to chip away at the Democratic coalition.

Should Owen Hill prevail in the Colorado Republican primary, he’ll face an uphill climb in challenging 63-year-old Sen. Mark Udall. Udall is well-funded and maintains a net positive approval rating, and it’s unclear whether the National Republican Senatorial Committee will be willing to spend serious money on the race.

Nonetheless, Hill remains as publicly upbeat about his quest as most national Republicans are about their effort to regain the youth vote. Whether Hill’s optimism -- and the GOP’s new youth outreach -- can be channeled into a broader, younger Republican coalition remains to be seen. 

Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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