The GOP’s problem with younger voters is relatively new. Richard Nixon won 52 percent of voters under 30 in 1972. Ronald Reagan won 59 percent of the youth vote in 1984. In 2000, George W. Bush lost under-30 voters by only 2 percentage points. By 2004, however, a study showed that those under 30 were “the only age group to prefer the Democratic ticket over the Republican, albeit by a fairly narrow margin of 54 percent to 45 percent.”
The trend is generally explained in terms of personal identification: The GOP is the old, white, intolerant party. Voting for Barack Obama was an expression of youth, coolness and racial tolerance. Now, however, Obama is hemorrhaging support from young voters; he is down 17 points in this week’s CNN poll.
This doesn’t mean that young voters will automatically fall into the laps of Republicans. GOP politicians need to stop turning off younger voters by living up to their stereotype of intolerance, and they need to explain why their agenda is better for young people.
My colleague Michael Gerson, writing about the Republican challenge with all voters, argued: “The GOP will need to welcome new Americans and champion their economic and social mobility. It will need to remain true to the stable, pro-life convictions of its strongest supporters, while recognizing broad shifts taking place on gay rights among younger Americans, even within the Republican base.”
To reach young voters, the GOP will need not only more youthful and media-savvy leaders but also a willingness to be tolerant of – without necessarily endorsing – gay marriage. (Just as religious voters are on divorce.)
But the agenda is where Republicans have to seal the deal. Young voters face college debt and a rotten job market. An agenda built on optimism, growth, opportunity and self-determination would appeal. Educational aid that offers choices (two-year, four-year and certification programs – online or in person); health care you can afford and buy, if you want; and relieving tax and regulatory burdens on business so they can hire more workers are some basic elements of a conservative, youth-friendly vote.
This doesn’t require rejection of pro-life beliefs (many young people, influenced by science and technology, understand the humanity of the unborn child), but it does require telling women that no one is out to take away their contraceptives.
The Democratic Party’s lock on young voters is loosening. GOP candidates with a message that offers tangible economic benefits to younger voters can succeed. Reagan won the youth vote as the oldest elected president because he was offering something fresh, a vision larger than self-interest and a demeanor of openness. That, not crabbiness and perpetual anger at foes (imagined and otherwise), is an outlook worth emulating.