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Youth Vote Gap Suggests Republicans Risk Losing An 'Entire Generation' To Democrats

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President Barack Obama speaks at the Intel Ocotillo Campus, Jan. 25, 2012, in Chandler, Ariz. The president won the youth vote in 2012 by well more than half. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
President Barack Obama speaks at the Intel Ocotillo Campus, Jan. 25, 2012, in Chandler, Ariz. The president won the youth vote in 2012 by well more than half. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Heading into the 2012 election, Republicans were convinced young voters under the age of 30 were no longer in President Barack Obama's corner, and they'd likely abandon him at the ballot box or simply not show up on Nov. 6. Considering Bureau of Labor Statistics data show young people have consistently held an unemployment rate as high as 10 percent, higher than other adult age groups since 2009, Mitt Romney gambled on making gains with the youth vote by simply talking about the economy and promising to get Americans back to work.

Instead, voters ages 18 to 29 -- who made up 19 percent of the electorate, a greater share than in 2008, and half of whom cast a ballot, for the third presidential election in a row -- went for Obama by 60 percent to 36 percent for Romney.

Now Republicans are faced with a grim premise as they look toward the future, with a much more racially diverse and socially liberal young voter base that supports Democrats by a large margin.

"It's something Republicans need to worry about in the future, because they could lose that entire generation," said Paul Beck, a professor at The Ohio State University.

It is true Obama's support among young voters dropped by 6 points from 2008, but it was still a 24 point margin over Romney. Yes, young people tend to be more liberal, but both George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were able to win the youth vote. Obama's youth vote victories this year and in 2008 were the biggest wins among this demographic of any presidential candidate in recent history.

According to Beck, those kind of consistent margins among an entire age demographic suggest an environment where those voters become inclined to support a particular political party by default. "The clearest evidence that we have come from the 1930s," Beck said. "That's when a generation of the electorate entered and voted for [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt." After FDR's death, that generation included the strongest supporters of the Democratic party. A similar loyalty was inculcated during Ronald Reagan's years in office.

If one follows the voting trends of generations that voted for Roosevelt and Reagan when they were young, Beck said, as they grew older, they continued to lean toward the same party. This trend has yet to establish itself among millennials, but it could certainly happen.

"They've got a problem," Beck said of Republicans.

Young voters identified the economy as their number one concern in the 2012 election, followed by student debt and health care, according to polling done by CIRCLE at Tufts University. But Romney offered no plan to tackle the growing student debt bubble. When asked about the cost of college at rallies, he said he wouldn't promise more money, and he called for rolling back Obama's student loan reform, which would have pushed more students toward student loans from private banks with higher interest rates and fewer repayment options. He also pledged repeatedly to repeal health care reform, which would have affected how young people get insurance coverage.

Generation Opportunity, a right-leaning organization focusing on the youth vote and headed by former Bush administration official Paul T. Conway, was confident going into election night that young voters were ready to revolt, sending out a press release titled "GOTV Efforts Show Young Adults Abandoning President Obama." The group spent the campaign insisting a bad economy would hurt Obama's support among millennials. After the results came in, GO declined an interview with HuffPost but said in a statement that they believe young voters will move to the right in 2014 and 2016.

"For future campaigns, the results of [Tuesday's] election further demonstrate, yet again, that to succeed in garnering the support of young Americans, they must engage them fully in social media and must embrace the technologies that young Americans utilize to inform their opinions," Conway said. "More importantly, campaigns need to demonstrate that they respect the intelligence and influence of young Americans and provide them the content necessary for individuals to reach their own conclusions."

For any young voter who might favor conservative economic policies, many are turned off by a host of issues on which the GOP fails to align with the mainstream opinions of their generation.

Recent polling by YouGov shows a large margin of young voters who support abortion rights and raising taxes on the rich. According to Gallup polling and 2012 exit polls, 70 percent of young voters support same-sex marriage rights. By and large, millennials do not believe global warming is a debatable phenomenon. And virtually the whole of the Ten Point GOP Purity Test floated in recent years and the 2012 Republican party platform are out of step with the majority opinion of young voters.

As a college student, Jessica Bruning knows this generational split in the GOP well. Bruning considered herself a Republican and volunteered for GOP candidates in Iowa, but she ended up losing her job as a clerk for a Republican legislator because she openly supported a state Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage rights.

"I think that the instance of my problems with the Republican position on same-sex marriage represents the current Republican attitude towards many issues that affect young people," Bruning said. "The Republican party is so adamantly against -- or judgmental of -- issues like abortion, contraceptives and same-sex marriage that young people, many of whom don't see these issues as much of an issue, are turned off by the negativity."

Bruning said she ended up casting a ballot for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, but would take Obama over Romney and did vote mostly for Democrats on the rest of the ticket.

Brian Jencunas, a student at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, said while the GOP might not win the youth vote by a 20 point margin, there's no reason they should surrender it.

"There is a large portion of millennials who are natural Republican voters. They distrust large institutions and instead believe social change is best achieved in the private, nonprofit setting," Jencunas said. "However, so long as the Republican Party is defined by hardline stances on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, it will be unable to capitalize on these millennial beliefs, and will instead continue to surrender the youth vote to Democrats."

The problem is more than ideological for the GOP: The demographics are shifting, and millennials are the least white generation in American history. While many people have pointed out the importance of black and Latino voters showing an overwhelming support Obama in the 2012 election, voters under age 30 make up a larger share of the electorate. As millennials are poised to continue to increase their share of the electorate simply through consistent engagement and participation, according to CIRCLE, the GOP's aging white base could have its voice drowned out.

As Matthew Segal, co-founder and president of the millennial advocacy group Our Time, explains, it's not such a bad thing to give young voters a bigger influence in elections. Millennials are pragmatic, he said, and have moved far beyond some of the more ridiculous political discourse going on today.

"Growing up in a technological era, we trust science and data. Denying climate change, denying facts about abortion, denying the Bureau of Labor Statistics defies logic," Segal said. "Part of pragmatism is also compromise, and we reject ideologues who would risk our nation's credit rating to make a political point. Four out of 10 young Americans do not identify with political parties anymore. This is an indictment that the parties are not in touch with our evolving views."

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