If there was a single issue that the diverse audience at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) agreed on, it was that if the GOP intends to remain a major party in American politics, the idea of re-branding shouldn’t be taken as a polite suggestion—it’s a demand. But acknowledging the very real need for a message that can broaden the party’s base simply doesn’t go far enough. The GOP has specific challenges that require specific solutions; and the chief among these is the need to reconnect with young voters. If the plan to do this, they better actually mean it this time.
This diagnosis seems obvious enough, so why might the GOP have not taken it seriously in the past? More than likely, it’s because too many leaders in the party and campaigners on the ground still believe the widely held myth that engaging young people on the campaign trail just doesn’t carry enough electoral bang for their buck. However, if you actually look at the numbers, what you see will blow that misguided notion out of the water.
Too many politicos falsely considered Barack Obama’s 2008 popularity and high turn-out with the 18-29 crowd to be some sort of “novelty vote” where a unique and inspiring candidate captured the hearts and minds of America’s youth and that by the next election the novelty would had worn off and they wouldn’t be as active. Those political geniuses may want to reconsider their day jobs.
Rather than going back to their apolitical lives where they are more concerned with socializing and other things youngsters tend to care about, they, as a share of the electorate, actually reached 19 percent—a percentage that’s actually larger than they have been in the last two decades. Obama’s five million vote lead over Romney with this age group was one of the keys to Romney’s sad defeat. And let’s not forget that regardless of overly-sensationalized candidates being in the race as we saw in 2008, the 18-29’s have actually never comprised a portion of the voting pool smaller than 17 percent any time in the last 40 years. If this doesn’t soundly refute any lingering idea that mobilizing youth isn’t worth the time, I’m not sure what will.
But what about the “any youth that isn’t a liberal doesn’t have a heart, and any elder that isn’t a conservative doesn’t have a brain” view on the transformation of voting habits over time? Can’t the GOP just wait for reality to slap the liberal leanings out of voters, bringing them around to voting for Republicans? According to studies, that’s just not a winning strategy. The first two or three election cycles a young person votes in almost invariably plants their ballot flag permanently in whatever partisan camp they visit in those early years. If their first votes are for Democrats, they are likely to keep voting for Democrats. If the GOP doesn’t capture the 18-29 block now, they will probably never get them back. Those youths who are voting for Democrats will go on to raise children who, when they come of age, will be likely to vote the same as their democratic parents, and so on and so on. It’s like a snowball that just keeps getting bigger and bigger until eventually the entire country looks like California (or worse).
So what do you do to reverse that trend? First admit that the youth vote matters, and then do what should have been done yesteryear: re-brand and start catching voters early—maybe the GOP will even get lucky and reclaim some of those in the tail-end of their electorally malleable years.