College Republicans are giving better advice than their elders will be able to follow.
Ever since Mitt Romney’s defeat — the second consecutive presidential election that the Republicans have lost by large margins (4.9 million votes in 2012 and 9.6 million in 2008), and fifth loss of the popular vote in six elections (Bush lost the popular vote by half a million in 2000, but won in the Electoral College) — diagnosing the Republicans’ problems and prescribing a cure has become something of a cottage industry.
The demographic outline of the problem is clear and ought to scare anybody who dreams of painting the map red in 2016 or 2020 or ever again.
- Hispanics are the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in the country, and Republicans have been losing them badly: John McCain could muster only 31% of the Hispanic vote in 2008, and Romney couldn’t even hold that; he got 27%. If current trends hold, the Houston Chronicle says Texas will be a swing state by 2024. It’s hard to see how any Republican can win nationally without a base in Texas.
- Young people have voted overwhelming for Obama: 60% in 2012 and 66% in 2008, both times with higher-than-normal turnout. That should trouble the GOP for two reasons: A voter’s first few elections can establish a lifelong political identity or party brand loyalty. Plus, every year more new voters turn 18 and more old voters die. In short, large margins in the youth vote could presage Democratic electoral domination for decades to come.
So far, Hispanic outreach isn’t going well: Last month the RNC’s Director of Hispanic Outreach for Florida announced he was becoming a Democrat, citing “the culture of intolerance surrounding the Republican Party today”. Ouch.
As if they were trying to prove his point, Thursday House Republicans (with no Democratic support) voted to defund President Obama’s “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program. Since that’s the moratorium on deporting undocumented students pending passage of the DREAM Act, the upshot is that Republicans — including Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and VP-nominee Paul Ryan — voted to resume deporting the undocumented Hispanics who have the most public sympathy. Since the Senate and the President will never go along with this, it’s hard to interpret it as anything other than gratuitously giving the finger to the Hispanic community.
But what about the youth vote?
Monday, the College Republican National Committee put out its report on the party’s youth problem. The CRNC did something unusual in conservative circles: It talked to the people it was reporting on, gathered facts, and wrote them up clearly. That’s what has been conspicuously missing from the Hispanic effort. Lots of Republicans have decided that the party needs more brown-faced candidates or an immigration bill, but few have asked real live Hispanics what they’re looking for and then thought about how Republicans can provide it.
Social media. The report has three main pieces: media, policy, and branding. The media section says stuff that ought to be obvious to anyone with an ear to the ground, but apparently has not been obvious to Republican campaigns:
- Young people are more influenced by social media and less influenced by traditional media, particularly TV commercials. When your Facebook friends start sharing the 47% or legitimate rape videos and adding their own caustic comments, no amount of paid advertising is going to counter that.
- Social media isn’t just another way to broadcast your message to passive viewers, like TV and radio. CRNC says: “Success on Facebook and Twitter comes from getting people to share, not just consume, your message.” So why would they share your message? “When people share content online, they are making a statement about themselves. They will therefore be more likely to share things that make them appear entertaining or intelligent to their friends.”
You know who doesn’t get that? Mitch McConnell. Lately Mitch’s tweets have been showing up on my Twitter feed, because he’s paying Twitter to broadcast them. It’s like he broke into my living room while I’m trying to talk to my friends, shouted something unrelated to our conversation, and left. Similarly, Mitch bought himself a “viral” video on YouTube — apparently by paying a service to run up the numbers. But there’s nothing entertaining or intelligent about McConnell’s tweets or videos that would cause one of your friends — even a conservative friend — to want to share one with you.
But hey, Mitch is “with it”. He has a social media strategy — just like Bob Dole had a web site in 1996.
Policy. The big message here is that Republicans need a message. Hating Obama and blocking everything he tries to do is not a message.
CRNC did focus groups with young Obama voters that they considered “persuadable” for some reason, like “aspiring entrepreneurs” or people “having economic troubles”. They discovered that even voters who were not thrilled with Obama’s first-term performance nonetheless gave him credit for trying. By contrast
Young voters simply felt the GOP had nothing to offer, and therefore said they trusted the Democratic Party more than the Republican Party on every issue tested.
On healthcare, for example, the CRNC survey found considerable skepticism about Obamacare. But even if the implementation goes badly
it will be important for Republicans to outline a vision for how they would build a better system that does contain costs and improve quality. For the moment, the advantage that Obama has on the issue is largely due to the fact that he attempted a reform plan at all.
Same-sex marriage played an interesting role: Few young voters identified it as the most important issue facing the country, but nonetheless it was a deal-breaker for many. Conversely, the report noted that young voters were trending slightly more conservative on abortion. However, the most extreme Santorumish anti-abortion positions are still unpopular.
The young voters largely didn’t respond to traditional Republican buzzwords like “big government”. They are more interested in whether government is solving problems than how big it is.
the focus must be on the outcomes rather than on treating “big government” itself as the enemy.
Neither party appreciates the full importance of the student debt issue for young people, and Republicans frequently wind up on the wrong side of it.
This is one of many issues where young people view Republicans as the party of people who are already rich. To win young voters, it will need to be seen as the party that will help them get rich.
a message and narrative that focuses on economic growth and opportunity cannot exist without substance behind it. … Economic growth and opportunity policies cannot just be about tax cuts and spending cuts.
To win young voters, this agenda must include a range of policies, and they must also be about removing barriers to getting a good education, removing barriers to entrepreneurship, and addressing the challenges of our nation’s health care and immigration systems.
The report mentioned the difficulty the Party has had getting young people to connect their positive feelings about “small business” with keeping taxes low on people who make over $250K a year — many of whom are small businesspeople of some sort.
The vastly different polling numbers for taxes on small businesses versus taxes on “the wealthy” underscores the fact that the connection between the two is rarely made
This is a place where even the College Republicans are drinking the ideological Kool-Aid: The rosy glow that surrounds the phrase “small businessman” goes away when you say “wealthy small businessman”. The small businessman we root for is the one struggling to make a new shop or restaurant turn a profit at all, not the one in the top tax bracket.
One point in the report struck me as particularly insightful: Republicans tend to be people who have established themselves. For example, married homeowners with kids trend strongly towards the GOP, while single apartment-dwellers and 20-somethings living in their parents’ basements don’t. That means the GOP has a vested interest in helping young people get established. If high student debt and a lack of good entry-level jobs keeps responsible young adults from getting married, buying houses, and choosing to have children, how are they going to become Republicans?
Branding. This part of the report drew the most coverage, because it has the most eye-popping quote:
the young “winnable” Obama voters were asked to say what words came to mind when they heard “Republican Party.” The responses were brutal: closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.
The most interesting information in this section, though, is what words young adults want to identify with — which presumably are the words they most want their party identity to evoke: intelligent was the #1 answer, closely followed by caring and hard-working.
Here’s the problem: Ideology is a lazy way to look at the world. The public dislikes ideologues because they don’t react intelligently to new information, and they care more about ideology than about people — which is why they keep making those insensitive remarks about rape victims. So if you want to be seen as intelligent, caring, and hard-working, you can’t be an ideologue.
That’s why I don’t think the CRNC report is going to have much influence on the over-40 leadership of the GOP. The Party’s current base values its ideology above all. The codeword for this is principles. Any discussion of reform inside the GOP quickly comes around to: “We can’t abandon our principles.”
Intelligent, caring, and hard-working means being willing to make the effort to investigate the details of an issue, to recognize how the strict application of your principles is hurting innocent people, and to come up with clever compromises that achieve most of what you want while doing as little damage as possible.
That’s not the kind of people the GOP’s aging base want to be.
Does it matter? As a Democrat, I have a hard time getting too upset about the possibility that the Republican Party might drive itself into the ground. But my better angels remind me that the country needs two good parties. The sheer craziness of the deport-the-Dreamers Republicans makes the Democratic Party less responsive.
Look at this week’s other main issue: the surveillance state. I have a Democratic senator who faces re-election in 2014 (Jean Shaheen). I can write to her about my concerns, but can I seriously threaten to vote for her opponent if she doesn’t do what I want? Not really. Voting Republican means voting for global warming and back-alley abortions and creationism in the public schools and gays in the closet and new wars and more tax cuts for the rich — and they won’t rein in the surveillance state either. It’s not an option.
So even though my tribal desire to win pulls the other way, I’ll be rooting for the young Republicans to restore some sanity. Go work hard at being smart and caring, young Republicans. Your country needs you.