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Ponnuru: Real reasons GOP lags with young

Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, won among voters over the age of 30, but lost younger voters by 23 points. That statistic has gotten a lot of attention from Republicans, especially since they have now lost young voters in three presidential elections in a row. They worry that voting Democratic could be habit-forming for this generation.

The party leadership’s postelection “autopsy” offered a superficial take on its challenge with young voters: It’s just social issues, and particularly Republican opposition to same sex marriage, that have turned them off. The College Republican National Committee has just released a detailed report on young voters that goes considerably beyond this conventional wisdom.

It’s true that most polls find strong support for same sex marriage among young people. The report, mainly written by Winston Group pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, tries to gauge how important the issue is in driving their votes. It finds that 26 percent of young voters favor same-sex marriage and wouldn’t vote for a candidate who opposes it even if they agreed with that candidate on most other issues. Some of those voters, maybe most of them, must lean toward the Democrats on issues other than same sex marriage. So Republicans are losing some young voters on this issue, but it may not be central to the party’s troubles.

And young people aren’t socially liberal when it comes to abortion. In the College Republicans’ March survey, 51 percent of them believed abortion should be banned altogether or with exceptions in unusual circumstances. They aren’t all that liberal on immigration, either. About 65 percent of young voters favored deporting illegal immigrants, enforcing the law before offering them legal status, or offering them legal status but not citizenship – all positions to the right of the immigration bill now being debated in the Senate. Young voters also consider climate change a low-priority issue.

They are deeply concerned, on the other hand, about economic issues. And Republicans have a lot of work to do on them.

A majority of young voters think the party’s economic policies played a big role in the recession. They don’t follow Republican politicians in thinking that higher taxes on the rich are higher taxes on small business. Although they tend to agree with Republicans about the future of entitlement programs for the elderly, they are much more worried about the here-and-now. (The report cites a survey showing 20 percent of young people had delayed marriage because of the economy.) They consider student-loan debt a major obstacle to their goals.

And they give President Barack Obama credit for trying to help the economy, reduce their debt burden, and fix health care. Among those young voters who approve of Obama’s job performance, “trying” was the No. 1 word they used about him – as in, he has been trying to improve things.

They think that public spending should be cut and that government is too big. Fighting big government is, however, a much lower priority for them than expanding the economy, reforming the safety net and controlling the national debt.

To my eye, these findings suggest there is an opening among young people for Republicans who advance credible plans to reduce the cost of health care and college, to foster job growth, to control the national debt and to address the other issues they consider important.

Republicans will want those plans to involve shrinking the government, but that shouldn’t be their chief selling point. If they can do that – a big if, for many reasons – Republicans will also get credit from young voters for trying, whereas they now seem reflexively anti-Obama. It will also make them seem more intelligent, which is a quality that young people, according to the report, prize more than coolness.

There are a lot of ways to slice the polling data. Dividing voters based on whether they have turned 30 is just one, and it can obscure some truths – for example, Obama carried voters aged between 30 and 39 by 13 points.

One question the report doesn’t directly address is how much age and generation influence voting. Young voters are less likely than older voters to be married, white or Christian, all of which would make them less likely to be Republicans even if they were older. The party’s poor performance among young voters is partly a sign that they do badly with nonwhites and that nonwhites are a growing share of voters.

It is probably a mistake for Republicans to spend a lot of time targeting young voters. They should concentrate more, for example, on doing better among nonwhite voters, which would improve their numbers among the young, too. And above all, they ought to have something more compelling to say about voters’ daily economic concerns. Young voters are just like their elders in wanting that.

• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.

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