Youth May Be Trending Conservative, But Trump and the GOP Need to Act by Stewart Lawrence

One often hears that American college students are too radical and fickle to be counted on to vote Republican or to vote at all. Historically, their turnout levels are among the lowest of any demographic group. They love to protest, but they disdain electoral politics. You’re more likely to find a Millennial at an Occupy Wall Street sit-in or an Antifa rally than a voter registration booth.
But, young Americans do vote Republican when inspired to do so. Four decades ago, Ronald Reagan captured the under-30 vote by a whopping 20 points. His vision of America as a “Shining City on the Hill” and his call to national service captivated many first-time voters. In 2000, George W. Bush and Albert Gore split the youth vote right down the middle — about 47% each — helping Bush prevail.
Youth, by virtue of their age, perhaps, are the least partisan segment of the electorate. According to a recent Tufts University poll, roughly a third identify as “independent.” Youth are open to new ideas and new ways of framing issues, and they prefer to size up candidates regardless of their partisan affiliation. In fact, candidates’ style and attitude – especially their attitude toward youth — may be just as important as their policy stance.
In 2008 and 2012 younger voters flocked to Barack Obama by a better than 3-2 margin. He seemed bold and dynamic and made for a sharp contrast to John McCain. Few actually knew what he stood for other than opposition to the war in Iraq. His campaign team urged followers to focus on the man and his symbolism, not the issues. He was iconic, like a rock star.
In 2016, many Democrats assumed that the Obama’s aura and mantle would magically pass to Hillary Clinton. But youth, even more than voters generally, expressed an antipathy bordering on disgust for the former First Lady. Clinton reminded them of everything they hated about the adult world – its chicanery, white lies and half-truths, and it’s political skullduggery, too.
In the end, Clinton appeared to hold her own overall, but Trump beat her 48% to 43% among White Millennials. Even worse, she slipped badly in the key battleground states that really mattered. In Florida, the Democratic margin of victory for the youth vote from 2012 to 2016 dropped 16 points. In both Ohio and Pennsylvania, the drop was 19 points. In Wisconsin, it was 20 points. These dramatic declines helped tilt the Rust Belt to Trump, pushing him over the top in the Electoral College.
But Trump could well lose the youth vote in 2020. In 2018, an impressively high youth turnout (31% compared to 21% in 2014) helped 100 House Democratic candidates get elected. Rightly or wrongly, there’s a growing perception that Trump’s views on immigration and race are too xenophobic and bigoted. Millennial women especially – many of whom support the #MeToo movement — are put off by Trump’s boorish remarks and gaffes.

Paradoxically, perhaps, youth political attitudes are beginning to trend Republican, at least moderately so. For example, according to surveys conducted by Prof. Jeff Brauer at Keystone College, youth born between 1995 and 2010 – sometimes referred to as “Generation Z” — hold views on government regulation, taxation and spending and defense and national security that are more conservative than earlier generations.
Gen-Zers are concerned about climate change and support gay marriage. But they’re less supportive of open borders than earlier youth cohorts. They also want to see lower taxes and less social welfare spending, Brauer found. And males, in particular, are supportive of the military.
Jean Twenge, a liberal professor of psychology at San Diego State University, echoes Brauer’s findings. “High school seniors are more likely to identify as political conservatives now compared to ten years ago,” she wrote in a paper published last year. “Most surprising, more [youth] identify as conservatives now compared to the 1980s.”
These trends in and of themselves will not transform youth into consistent, let alone die-hard, Republicans. In fact, issues like student debt and the rising cost of education are pushing some youth to embrace the siren song of debt cancellation and “free” college tuition. Youth need to know that there are real alternatives to costly Big Government solutions, including a stronger partnership with business in the labor market. Otherwise, Democrats like Bernie Sanders are likely to carry the day.
Despite the 2014 election results, there are some promising signs moving forward. According to Gen Progress, which monitors youth philanthropy trends, conservative youth groups are outpacing their liberal counterparts in funding by a whopping 3-1 margin. In fact, in recent years, the top conservative youth group (Young Americans for Liberty) received as much funding as the top three progressive groups combined.
The upshot? Conservatives have substantially more boots on the ground to engage youth on issues like tax reform, deregulation, and repeal of Obamacare — and to win.
Republican should be extolling these new trends, and so should Trump. But so far, the president hasn’t made youth a priority. In 2017, he made one high-profile appearance at the Boy Scouts convention. But he hasn’t developed the kind of consistent issue messaging that might resonate with 18-to-25 year olds. Neither has the GOP. It’s a shame.
In 2020, youth might well comprise the nation’s largest voting cohort ever, surpassing the 51% turnout rate they achieved in 2016. Youth helped Trump win in 2016. With more aggressive GOP outreach, they could do so again.


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