Republicans Can’t Decide Whether to Woo or Condemn Young Voters

For months before the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats fretted that younger voters might fall into old habits and stay home. The analysis is still a little hazy, but as more data comes in, it looks as if enough young people showed up in many key states to play a decisive role.

And now, some Republicans are warning that their party’s poor standing with millennial and Gen-Z voters could become an existential threat. But there’s no consensus about how much, if at all, Republicans’ message needs to change.

“We’re going to lose a heck of a lot of elections if we wait until these people become Republicans,” said John Brabender, a G.O.P. consultant who has been sounding the alarm about the party’s deficit with younger voters.

By 2024, those two generations combined could make up as much as 40 percent of the voting public, according to some estimates. So far, millennials — some of whom are entering their 40s — are betraying little sign of growing more conservative as they age. If those trends hold, it could make for some daunting electoral math for the right.

“This is a multigenerational problem for Republicans,” said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, who studies the youth vote.

Republicans are failing to engage younger voters early enough and on the right platforms, Brabender argued — and when they do, they’re not addressing the issues on their minds. “We need to be much more effective about presenting an alternative side,” he said. “Right now we are just silent.”

In private, Republicans can be scathing about the party’s looming demographic challenges; one bluntly said the G.O.P. was relying on a base of older white voters who are dying off, while failing to replace them from among the more racially and ethnically diverse generations coming up behind them. But while some counsel that the party needs to adapt its message accordingly, others argue that it’s more a matter of delivering the same message in new ways.

“Republicans have to understand that the issues of that next generation of voters are different,” Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire told me last month.

“There are young Republicans out there who really care about the environment,” he added. “It doesn’t mean they want the Green New Deal, but they want to know that leaders are taking good, sensible, responsible, economically smart ways to address transitioning off fossil fuels or clean water and clean air.”

Karoline Leavitt, a 20-something former Trump administration aide who lost her bid for a House seat in New Hampshire last year, wrote in a recent Fox News op-ed article that “the most colossal challenge facing the G.O.P. is the inability to resonate with the most influential voting bloc in our electorate — my generation, Generation Z.”

But in a reflection of the same ambivalence that leads Republican politicians like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas to mock the use of gender pronouns, Leavitt also argued that members of Generation Z had been “indoctrinated to be faithless, anti-American, self-proclaimed socialists who care about changing their gender more than paying their bills.”

Millennials and Gen-Z voters came of age during tumultuous times — the Great Recession and the rise of movements like Occupy Wall Street, then the Trump presidency and the coronavirus pandemic — and share a skepticism of capitalism and a belief in the value of government to solve problems, Della Volpe noted.

And on social issues, younger voters are much more in tune with Democrats. They value racial and ethnic diversity and L.G.B.T.Q. rights at higher rates than older voters. Among those aged 18 to 29, three-quarters say that abortion should be legal in most cases. Younger voters may not love the Democratic Party, but they like the Republican Party even less.

“You’re not going to be able to engage them on policy specifics unless you meet them on their values,” Della Volpe said. “Young people aren’t even going to consider voting for you if deny that climate change exists.”

The Republican Party has sporadically tried to address this problem, Brabender said, but has made “no effort to do anything about it on an organized basis.”

Which is not to say that nobody has tried. The Republican National Committee’s post-2012 autopsy concluded that the party was seen as “old and detached from pop culture” and urged Republicans to “fundamentally change the tone we use to talk about issues and the way we are communicating with voters.” Then the party nominated Donald Trump, who did the opposite.

When Representative Elise Stefanik of New York entered Congress in 2015 at just 30 years old, she convened experts to brief Republicans on the views of millennial voters. In 2017, a task force she helped lead produced a report, “Millennials and the G.O.P.: Rebuilding Trust With an Untapped Electorate,” that made modest recommendations for addressing the cost of college education, but sidestepped more thorny cultural issues.

In the years since, as Stefanik has climbed the ranks of Republican leadership, she has rebranded herself from a forward-thinking change agent in the party to a devoted acolyte of Trump, whose approval ratings among younger voters are abysmal.

There are upstart groups on the far right like Turning Point USA, which has positioned itself as the youth wing of the Trump coalition. Representative Dan Crenshaw, a 38-year-old Republican from Texas, has begun holding annual youth summit meetings, which tend to draw a more moderate crowd. And there are venerable organizations like the Young America’s Foundation, whose roots date to the days of William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review.

The foundation is now led by Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin, who has oriented the group toward a longer-term approach of waging a battle of ideas from college campuses all the way down to middle schools.

“The immediate reaction from the consultant class is going to be, ‘We need slicker digital ads or new youth coalitions,’” Walker said.

“I think that’s really shortsighted,” he added, arguing that “years and years of liberal indoctrination” in the education system had led to a monoculture that silenced conservative ideas. “These are young people who have heard nothing but the left’s point of view.”

There’s a robust debate among analysts about the depth of Republicans’ problems, as my colleagues have reported. Pew Research has found that while Biden won voters under 30 by a 24-point margin in 2020, that was actually a retreat from 2016 and 2018.

Last year, according to one set of exit polls — Edison Research’s data, as analyzed by researchers at Tufts University — voters under 30 overwhelmingly chose Democrats. In Senate races, Democrats captured 76 percent of the under-30 vote in Arizona, 70 percent in Pennsylvania and 64 percent in Nevada. Nationwide, voters under 30 preferred Democrats in House races by 28 percentage points.

Republicans find comfort in Associated Press/VoteCast data, where the nationwide gap was far smaller among voters aged 18 to 29: 53 percent for Democrats versus 41 percent for Republicans. In a postelection analysis, The A.P. concluded that young people’s enthusiasm for Democrats “may be waning,” noting that younger voters tend to be much less tethered to party identities than older generations.

Young people are notoriously difficult to survey. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, a researcher at Tufts, said her team used the Edison data because it tracked census numbers more closely and dated further back in time, though she acknowledged that it was an “imperfect” barometer.

What about turnout? According to an analysis of voter-file data from TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, voters under 30 made up a larger percentage of the electorate in 2022 than they did in 2014 across seven battleground states. In Michigan, for instance, their share grew from just 6.9 percent in 2014 to 12.2 percent in 2022. In Nevada, it grew from 5.9 percent in 2014 to 13.2 percent last year. And while those numbers represent a slight retreat from 2018, that was a huge year for turnout, fueled on the Democratic side by a nationwide backlash to Trump’s presidency.

Tom Bonier, the chief executive of TargetSmart, also pointed to signs that registration among young people had surged at two distinct points in 2022: after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and after President Biden passed an executive order wiping out some student debt.

Before the election, the Harvard Youth Poll found that 59 percent of young Americans believed that their rights were under attack — reflecting their reaction to the abortion decision and their worries about election deniers linked to Trump.

Overall, Bonier said, “The lesson we learned writ large in the election is that the stain of Trump on the party had an impact even without him even on the ballot.”

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