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The GOP's Challenge to Win Back Young Voters

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In Jon Stewart's 2004 satirical textbook on government and politics, America: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction, the chapter on elections features an illustration of a graveyard of political parties, complete with an archway sign reading "abandon political viability all ye who enter here." There, next to the Whig and Bull Moose parties, was a freshly dug grave with a tombstone reading "Democratic Party 1828 - ".

Oh, how things have changed.

Today's Republican Party finds itself in dire straits, but the short term challenges the party faces also come with a longer-term concern: the GOP's recent poor performance among young voters. In the 2008 election, Obama defeated McCain among young voters 66-32. Of even more concern for the GOP, young voters kept voting for Democrats down the ballot, with 63% of those 18-29 voting for Democratic house candidates compared to 34% for the Republicans.

This is not simply an isolated, Obama-induced phenomenon. In 2006, young voters picked Democratic house candidates over Republicans by a 60-38 margin. But it's also not as if young voters have always been more likely to call themselves Democrats; even when more identified as "liberal" than "conservative" during the 1992 election of Bill Clinton, there were still more 18-29 year olds identifying as Republican, perhaps a lingering effect of the Reagan years.

To say that young voters are always more Democratic or that 2008's poor performance among 18-29 year olds is the product of Obama alone is to underestimate the gravity of the situation. The problem is a serious one, and the Republican Party would do well to pay attention. Young voters who start voting today and have a bad taste in their mouth about the GOP are likely to look at politics through that lens for years to come. Gallup just released a study that supports this theory of how people identify with political parties; those who came of political age in the Reagan era were much more likely to identify as Republican than those who came before or after. The events of today matter tomorrow and for decades to come.

But what can be done with young voters? Much of the current discussion has focused around leveraging technology or moderating on social positions. But the idea that the GOP can get all of their members to sign up for Twitter, flip its position on gay marriage and suddenly have young voters rushing to join the party misses the point. The problem is that the Republican Party today has failed to articulate a vision for America that resonates with the values of the Millenial Generation. Luckily for the GOP, there is still a chance to win these voters back.

In order to begin that effort, the GOP needs to have a positive message and vision that focuses on outcomes that matter to young voters. Right now, a lot of what Republicans are talking about is "less taxes" and "smaller government." But young voters are less convinced than older generations that the government tends to be inefficient and wasteful. One of the things that the Clinton years of relative peace and prosperity did was to make young voters less likely to view "small government" as a positive end in and of itself. This isn't to say that there isn't a compelling story to tell about the virtues of keeping a check on expanding government size, but right now the Republican Party isn't telling it. Instead there are calls for smaller government, less spending, and then... full stop. No outcome, no argument for why that is a good thing, just a silence that expects voters see the virtue in the process alone.

Democrats may pass policies that are irresponsible but if the Republican Party doesn't provide a sensible alternative, there's no reason for young voters to be attracted to the GOP. And when I say "sensible alternative," I don't just mean talking about the process of the policies, I mean talking about the outcome. For instance, on the issue of size of government, the question to answer now is "How is my life better because the government is small?" Explaining why Republican policies are worth supporting requires a clear articulation of the positive outcome of those policies. This is perhaps most true for young voters.

The other side of component is that the vision must be positive. If Republicans make these next elections all about the Democrats, with a strategy centered on trotting out tried and tired negative attacks through the traditional 30-second "dark picture and spooky voice" television spot, they lose. And not just among young voters. It is that simple.

Here is where new technology has a role to play. New tools for connecting with voters -- blogs, social media, YouTube, you name it -- should be used by the Republican Party in order to have a fighting chance at reaching young voters, who increasingly are heading online and are getting personally involved in campaigns through the internet. But joining Twitter doesn't guarantee you will have an army of adoring followers. And if a party and its candidates don't have anything compelling to say, it is all just empty noise anyhow. The medium is not the entire message, and one without the other doesn't have a fighting chance with the Millenials.

Longer term, the Republican Party has to confront the issue of diversity. If the Republican Party retains a brand as the party tailor-made for conservative older white males, it will not survive for long. Consider the fact that younger voters represent a more ethnically diverse cohort than other generations. The issue of winning the youth vote is more and more inextricably linked to winning support among Hispanics and African-Americans.

There's also the issue of ideological diversity. Some have said that the GOP needs to move one way or another on the ideological spectrum in order to come back to power, but I see that as a false choice. More than fixating on moving the party one way or another, the priority should be expanding the reach of the GOP to reassemble a majority coalition. Former NJ Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, an outspoken GOP moderate, recently said "I am not saying to Christian conservatives, 'There is no place for you.' I am saying, 'Please stop saying there is no place for us.'" The Republican Party should focus its efforts on creating a diverse coalition that can win again, and those efforts need to include bringing young voters into the fold.

In the end, the Republican Party has a long road back with young voters, but the difficulty of the task only underscores the need to undertake it. The political winds have changed since the 2004 election for a whole host of reasons. And without taking proactive steps to repair the standing of the GOP with young voters, there is a great risk that the election of 2008 will echo in election returns for decades to come.