February 21, 2013
If there is one thing that the 2012 presidential election made clear, it is that Republicans are going to have to figure out how to attract more minority and youth voters to their ranks if they ever want to win a presidential election again. It’s simple math.
I can’t speak for Latino voters, but I can speak for the under-30 set when I say that President Barack Obama’s easy win of the youth vote was not inevitable.
As I discussed the election with friends and watched my high school and college friends’ Facebook feeds, I saw plenty of partisanship but I also saw a lot of hand-wringing from unaffiliated Millennial voters who weren’t really sure which way they wanted to vote. During that time a friend wrote that she wished she could be a Republican, and judging from the comments below there were plenty of people who knew exactly what she meant.
There are a lot of twentysomethings who are conservatives on paper but ended up voting like Democrats in the election. They want less government, fewer regulations and decreased spending — but they also want leaders who are smart, competent and compassionate, and that is not how young voters see the current GOP leadership.
That was bad news during the 2012 election, but it is good news for the party going forward as it tries to figure out how to be successful in 2016. Changing the party’s image should be easier (and more palatable to the rank-and-file) than changing the party’s core values.
The first thing the GOP needs to do if it wants to attract young voters is convince them that the candidates it is putting forward are intelligent enough to run a country. College students who grew up in the Information Age felt scornfully superior to candidates who made statements decried by experts as having no validity (think of Michele Bachmann saying the HPV vaccine caused a girl to “suffer mental retardation thereafter”).
There is a reason that Jon Huntsman gained 5,500 more Twitter followers and doubled the traffic to his website on the day he tweeted, “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” There is also a reason the gaffe-prone Rick Perry got zero percent of the youth vote in primaries like New Hampshire.
Becoming less forcefully anti-science and putting forth more intelligent-sounding candidates will go a long way in helping the Republicans win more elections.
The GOP also needs to come across as less cold-hearted if it wants to attract young voters.
The party, with its socially conservative stances, used to be the obvious choice for religious young adults. But while attending a private religious college I realized there were many, many students who were no longer sure that Jesus would be a Republican. Anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage, pro-religious freedom stances by GOP candidates echoed the doctrine religious Millennials had heard in church growing up, but those same candidates were also spouting compassionless statements about the poor that didn’t line up with New Testament teachings about true disciples feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.
Young idealists who came of age during a recession care more about helping the poor than keeping their gay friends from marriage. Even if they believe in entitlement reform they are still turned off by Herman Cain telling the unemployed to “blame yourself” and Mitt Romney saying that 47 percent of Americans will never be convinced to take personal responsibility for their lives.
There are many Millennials who disagree with parts of the GOP platform — they had to choose in the last election between their liberal social views and conservative fiscal views. But even those with more conservative social views were repulsed by the GOP in some cases — for example, those who believe abortion is morally wrong but were disgusted by Todd Akin’s comment that women can’t get pregnant during a “legitimate rape.”
Millennials see Republicans as racist, sexist, ignorant and heartless. Republican leaders and pundits could go a long way in improving the party’s image if they were swift to condemn thoughtless, offensive comments like Akin’s and slow to promote candidates who often come across as hard-hearted, dumb or out of touch with reality. Take away the embarassment young adults would feel at being associated with such people, and they will be more enticed by the GOP's strengths.
The 2012 election was Republicans’ to lose, and they did. Those Millennials who “wish they could be Republican” hope that by 2016 they can be.