Tuesday, June 4, 2013

How the GOP lost young voters in 2012

THE RESULTS of the various post-election autopsies for the Republican Party have been coming in from various quarters since November 7 — the day after the election. Most of them have offered the perspectives of analysts and pundits of every political persuasion. On Monday we got a post-election analysis that really matters — or it should — to the party in question. It’s a view of the recent past according to younger voters, the people in the GOP need to pay attention to, if they hope to have a future.

In a 95-page study that’s stunning in its frankness and willingness to break with the behavioral tics and philosophical pieties of the Grand Old Party, the College Republican National Committee calls out the party of Lincoln for its inclination to act like the party of John Calhoun.

The report, “Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation,” was culled from a variety of sources including a March survey conducted for the committee. It throws down the gauntlet, saying “the Republican Party has won the youth vote before and absolutely can win it again. But this will not occur without significant work to repair the damage done to the Republican brand among this age group over the last decade.”

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The committee report finds that most post-election postmortems for the GOP fell into three broad categories: “the ‘technology’ camp, the ‘policy’ camp, and the ‘brand’ camp.”

The technology crowd, the report says, “posits that Republican losses had quite a bit to do with the GOP’s failure to keep up with Democrats on key items such as data systems, polling, social media, and advertising. While each of these items is very different from the others, they are frequently lumped together under the umbrella of a GOP technological deficit.”

According to the policy crowd “it was the party’s policies that kept young voters from supporting the GOP. Indeed – and as this report will examine in great detail – there are subjects where the Millennial generation and Republican Party are not in perfect agreement.”

And those in the brand camp hold that it was a messaging problem that victimized the Republican party in November. “House Majority Leader Eric Cantor prominently espoused this position in his statement likening the GOP to a pizza company, saying that the party needs to focus on changing the ‘pizza box’ rather than the ‘pizza.’”

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TO ITS credit, the CRNC addresses the party’s shortcomings from a holistic perspective, looking at the totality of the problem, rather than one facet of the problem. “Neither technology, nor policy, nor branding alone will fully endear the Republican Party to a generation that has now twice broken for a Democratic candidate by historic margins. Indeed, these areas are all quite connected with one another.”

The report finds that (not surprising in this era of informational atomization) younger voters went to a variety of different sources for political news. Even some news sources that wouldn’t be considered “news.” According to the report, “29% of young voters [said] that they get political news from The Daily Show at least once a week, and 26% [said] the same of The Colbert Report.”

“While more traditional communications channels such as local news and the newspaper are not completely obsolete, programs like The Daily Show and the emergence of a variety of popular online news sites offer new ways to reach Millennial voters and underscore the need for Republicans to catch up to the changing media landscape.”

It’s axiomatic in a time of 24/7/365 information: my news isn’t your news isn’t her news isn’t his. But the report, strikingly, found that 58 percent of young people responding to the committee survey reported that the social networking utility Facebook was their leading source of news. The fact that such a viral, bottom-up, grassroots information source is considered news in the first place underscores the need for the GOP to (among other things) break out of the box of its shopworn assumptions, and resist thinking that, just because party elders read and swear by The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times, all Republicans do too. To go by the survey, it ain’t necessarily so.

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THE REPORT looks at other modern tech phenomena like smartphones, e-mail, tablets and laptops, and how they’re used by young voters together along with more traditional media exponents, like television and newspapers. The takeaway is that younger voters adhere to a “both/and” approach to political news, rather than an “either/or” approach, despite an admitted preference for online information as first among equals.

The report also came to a conclusion that should give Republican obstructionists serious pause. There’s no love feast going on between young voters and the Democratic Party. But Obama and the Democrats last year held the White House and grew their numbers in Congress after capitalizing both on their strength (credibility) and on GOP weakness (the same thing).

“It is not that young voters are enamored of the Democratic Party,” the report finds. “They simply dislike the Republican Party more.”

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Here’s one reason: “Democrats held a 16-point advantage over the Republican Party among young voters on handling of the economy and jobs ... For those respondents who said they approved of the job Obama had been doing as president, the number one word they used? ‘Trying.’ He was trying. Young voters were disappointed in Obama’s performance, but gave him credit for attempting to improve the situation.

“In our focus groups, many respondents strongly defended President Obama even while acknowledging the mediocrity of the last four years. And when it came to ‘trying,’ they doubted Republicans would do any better; that same survey showed only one in four young people thought Mitt Romney would put into place policies that would make it easier for young people to get jobs. ...

“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.”

The message is simple: Republicans hell-bent on stopping the initiatives of President Obama would do well to rethink their tactics. The report determined that a number of young Republicans respect the valiant effort — especially when they see that effort to improve the country frustrated by their own party’s intransigence.

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MAYBE THE sharpest rebuke to the standing Republican ethos came down to simple word association. “In the focus group research conducted in January 2013, 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.
“When someone purchases a product, in some ways they are buying into the value system espoused by the brand. With a list of attributes like that, who would want to buy the product the GOP is selling?”

This leads into a shattering conclusion vis-à-vis minorities’ relationship with the GOP. The CRNC may be composed of young people, but the committee message on the need for more diversity couldn’t be better expressed by any of the party graybeards.

“The Republican Party cannot survive in elections winning white voters by twenty points overall yet losing non-white voters by such margins as to swing the whole election to the Democrats. ... Mitt Romney won young white voters by a 7-point margin but still lost the race. It could be said that the GOP’s young
voter problem is as much about failing to gain support from the African American and Latino communities as anything else. With non-white voters making up 42% of voters under the age of 30, the issue of party diversity and the party’s success with the youth vote are absolutely inseparable.”

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The 2012 presidential election was an object lesson in what not to do in order to win. The conclusions of this readable, professional, admirably exhaustive report deserve to become part of the GOP playbook for 2014 and beyond.

The report seems to grasp the fundamental challenge the Republican Party faces in the future: getting a handle on its own identity, and making that identity (whatever it turns out to be) palatable to the wide cross-section of American voters. And young Republican voters.

There’s a saying: Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. This report explores the problem — not insurmountable but a problem just the same — when the devil you don’t know is the one on your own team.

Image credits: Report cover: © 2013 College Republican National Committee. Still from “The Colbert Report”: © 2013 Comedy Central. Facebook logo: © 2013 Facebook.  Obama 2nd term portrait: Pete Souza/The White House.

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