As Nation's Youth Trend Left, Republicans Re-evaluate Their Message

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By:  Kelly Brooks  
News21 UMD Staff
Posted: July 14, 2009; video added July 17, 2009; links to audio added Aug. 7, 2009

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – How different are America’s youngest voters from the Gen X,  Boomer and War generations?

Plenty, according to an analysis of American National Election Studies, which shows that the enthusiasm that propelled many 18- to 29-year-olds to campaign and vote so vigorously for Barack Obama may partly be explained by some core beliefs that differed from their elders -- on topics ranging from health care to the role that government should play in their lives.

Sixty-six percent of the nation’s youngest voters supported the Illinois senator in November’s presidential election, compared to 50 percent of all other voters, according to the Pew Research Center.

Compiled by News21's Kelly Brooks
Data from 2004 and earlier is based on the American National Election Studies Cumulative Data File. Data from 2008 is based on the 2008 ANES post-election study. (Compiled by News21's Kelly Brooks)

Republican strategists are left to puzzle over how the GOP  can win over the group that broke almost 2:1 for Obama last year—and which has been voting more strongly Democratic than the older generations since the 1996 presidential elections, according to ANES data.

Among the generational differences turned up in the 2008 ANES survey:

Health care. While older and younger eligible voters overwhelmingly agree health care is important to them, they differ on how it should be handled. Sixty percent of 18- to 29-year-olds support universal health care, compared to 48 percent of all other eligible voters.

Pride in the Democratic nominee: Fifty-one percent of the youngest eligible voters in 2008 said Obama made them proud, compared to 45 percent of all others.

The government’s role. Two-thirds of the youngest eligible voters said the government should be doing more, compared to 57 percent of all other eligible voters. Interestingly, the starkest difference turned up on the GOP side: Young McCain supporters were about 15 percentage points more likely than their older counterparts to support more government.

Gay marriage. Nearly two-thirds of the youngest eligible voters said they support gay marriage, compared to one-third of those over 29. The generational difference was most stark with the Democratic supporters: 77 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old Obama supporters said gay marriage should be allowed, compared to 45 percent of the older supporters.  [During the presidential campaign, Obama did not support gay marriage, but his message was more liberal than McCain's. Obama said he supports civil unions for gay couples. McCain said the issue of civil unions should be up to the states to decide.]

While favorable ratings of the Democratic Party have slightly but consistently dropped in recent decades among older voters, people ages 18-29 have maintained comparatively stable favorable ratings for the party. From 2000 to 2008, the favorability ratings dipped by only two points, from 61 to 59 on a 100-point scale,  the ANES data shows.

Meanwhile, from 2000 to 2008, young eligible voters' average favorability score of the Republican Party dropped 6 points, from 52 to 46.

GOP Strategies

Zach Howell, chairman of the College Republican National Committee, said he does not believe the GOP needs to shift ideologically to attract younger support. He said the party needs to focus on the economy, which concerns young and old voters alike.

Republican policies are objectively better for young people, said the 23-year-old Howell. “If we look at the deficits that are being piled up right now,” the May 2009 University of Utah graduate said, “it’s going to be us doing the paying.”

Kristen Soltis

Kristen Soltis talks about the GOP's positions on social issues. (News21 photo by Michael Frost)

Kristen Soltis, a 25-year-old Republican and director of policy research at the Republican-affiliated Winston Group, agreed the GOP has to do a better job of selling its message.

“We've really got to work on laying more of a foundation as to why the principles of limited government, low taxes, [and] low spending really do create positive outcomes," she said.

But a mere focus on stronger talking points may not be enough for Republicans, said Hailey Snow, 21, political and communications director for Young Democrats of America. "They would have to create legislation or participate in campaigns that only affect youth,” Snow said. (Hear what other young voters have to say.)

Soltis said GOP messages don’t resonate as clearly with young voters. Today’s youngest voters grew up with centrist Bill Clinton in the White House, not Jimmy Carter or Lyndon B. Johnson, she said.

"They don't recall, you know, soaring taxes or an enormous, sprawling government," she said.

The idea that government is wasteful and inefficient isn't ingrained with young voters, Soltis said.

Issue Focused

Youth are less focused on party labels than on ideas, issues and candidates, said David D. Burstein, executive director of 18 in '08, a youth voting organization.

“Young people are not saying, 'I am a Democrat or Republican' in the way that used to be said, in the idea of card-carrying members of the party,” said 20-year-old Burstein, a junior at New York University studying the intersection of politics, media and advocacy.

Young people are particularly concerned about health care, the environment and economic issues such as job availability and college affordability, said Chrissy Faessen, Rock the Vote president of communications and marketing.

And youth respond when people talk to them about those issues, she added.

But many weren’t reached in 2008: Only about a quarter of young eligible voters were contacted by political parties, compared with nearly half of older eligible voters, the ANES survey data revealed. Among youth who were contacted, more than two-thirds were contacted only by Democrats.

"Obama did a lot to generate ... engagement and mobilization around young people," Faessen said.

Burstein agreed: The Obama campaign “made a huge effort in almost every single state” to capture the imagination of young voters, he said. But McCain’s efforts “were basically nonexistent.”

Recruiting Young Voters

Howell said the 2008 effort by College Republicans to get youths to vote was possibly the strongest in recent years. But, he said, the party as a whole could have done better.

“A lot of it is coming up with creative ways to spread out our message,” Howell said.

Hans Riemer, Obama’s youth vote director during the primaries, says reaching out to youth is an intricate, ambitious process. (See video.)

While experts such as Pew researcher Scott Keeter said it’s unlikely the youth vote swung more than two states into Obama’s win column – Indiana and North Carolina – their support for the candidate in the months preceding his election was critical.

Riemer agrees. "They (youth) were his earliest believers, they were the ones that fueled the campaign offices, that turned up day after day to help support the campaign, and they turned out in the Iowa caucus and the subsequent primaries," Riemer said.

Young and Old Agree

Although the ANES survey highlighted numerous generational differences, it also revealed that in at least one facet of American life, little separates the young and the old.

In the four elections prior to 2008, young Americans were more optimistic about the economy than older Americans.

But in the recent election, younger and older Americans were about equally pessimistic: In both groups, nearly one-third thought the economy would get worse rather than better in the next year.

Related Audio Link: Hear Young Voters Discuss the Issues That Matter to Them




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