Young Voters, GOP, and Race

04/21/2009 12:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, I took a look at two issues where young voters tend to diverge with older voters. Traditional Republican messaging about the gay marriage and the perils of big government is quite different from the ways young voters tend to look at the issues and if the Republican Party wants to prevent a generation of voters from becoming solidly Democratic, they should assess both the policies and messages that are used to reach out to younger voters.

But beyond these two topics, the Republican Party is facing changing demographic forces that present a challenge to its long term growth. This is not a new notion, and I am obliged to give credit where due: Ruy Teixeira and John Judis' 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority looked at political and population trends and predicted that in 2008 these trends would come together produce a Democratic majority.

While I haven't looked extensively at whether or not Teixeira and Judis' predictions have come to pass (2008 Democratic victory aside), I can certainly agree that the racial makeup of young voters supports their conclusion. In short, young voters are less likely to be white than voters overall and are becoming increasingly more diverse. While 77% of voters overall in 2004 were white, only 68% of voters under age 30 were white. By 2008, that number was only 62%. Both African-Americans and Hispanics were found in higher proportions among young voters. In 2004, African-Americans made up 15% of young voters while making up 11% of voters overall; 13% of voters 18-29 were Hispanic compared to 8% of voters overall. By 2008 those numbers had increased, with African-Americans comprising 18% of voters 18-29 and with Hispanics comprising 14%.

So what does this mean for a Republican Party that has been branded (fairly or unfairly) as a party of "old white guys"? Put simply, the party cannot survive with this label attached. The recent demographic changes in the United States have been extraordinary; between the 1990 and 2000 Censuses, the number of Hispanics in the United States increased from 22.4 million to 35.3 million, and increase of over 58%. In 1980, 80% of the population identified as white (non-Hispanic); by 2000, that number had fallen to 69% of the population. These changes have expressed themselves in the demographic makeup of the younger voting cohort. With future generations of voters less and less likely to be made up of overwhelming proportions white non-Hispanics, the issue of expanding the Republican Party's appeal to younger voters is inextricably linked with the issue of expanding the party's appeal to minority communities.

In addition to the makeup of the voters themselves, today's young voters have grown up in a society that handles race in a dramatically different way than previous generations. Take for instance college campuses across the United States. In October 1985, there were some 10,846,000 Americans enrolled in college, 9,323,000 of which were white and just over 1,000,000 were African-American. Hispanics made up 579,000 of those enrolled in college as well. By the 2000 Census, those numbers had exploded; just over 17.4 million Americans were enrolled in college and of those, about 11.6 million were white non-Hispanic, while another 1.9 million were Hispanic and 2.2 million were African American. While college enrollment overall was up by 62% in 2000 over 1985, enrollment among Hispanics had more than tripled and more than doubled for African-Americans.

Universities across the United States today boast more diverse student bodies than in decades prior and students in those institutions are far more likely to interact with people of other races and cultures than previous generations. A party that appears to be uninterested in the concerns of (or votes of) African-Americans or Hispanics does not only risk forfeiting a growing segment of the population (and educated population) as a whole. But as white students attend schools and universities with more diverse student populations, the needs and concerns of the African-American and Hispanic communities will not be the abstract concerns of a group of citizens with which they have little contact; quite the contrary, a generation more accustomed to a multicultural America will be likely to find a racially homogenous party to be out of touch. So long as the Republican Party appears inattentive to the needs and desires of minority communities, the Republican Party can be almost certain to retain its minority party status.

President George W. Bush appointed numerous African-Americans to his cabinet during his eight years in the White House - National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as well as Secretary of State Colin Powell to name some of the most prominent appointees. Yet despite the prominent placement of African-Americans in the Bush cabinet, no gains were made among African-American voters. The impact of the election of former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, an African-American, to the leadership of the Republican Party has yet to be seen. Indeed, Steele was largely derided early in his term for such statements as his expressed desire to take conservative principles and "to apply them to urban-surburban hip-hop settings".

African-Americans and Hispanics need to be given reasons to believe that their concerns are being legitimately heard and addressed by the Republican Party. Republicans have had a great deal of success with the Hispanic vote in Florida (particularly the Cuban community) in the past in part as a result of the Republican Party's tough stance on Cuba. In the 2000 campaign,80% of Cubans in the state of Florida voted for George W. Bush, proving a key component of the victory in that state where a margin of 537 votes ostensibly handed Bush the Presidency. By authentically addressing a concern of a portion of the Hispanic community, Republicans helped to develop a credible base of support.

Yet the Republican Party continues to stumble in terms of its handling of the Hispanic and African-American communities. For instance, in late December 2008, candidate for RNC Chair Chip Saltsman, the former campaign manager for the Huckabee presidential campaign, distributed a CD of songs including a track entitled "Barack the Magic Negro", prompting outrage and a rather public and embarrassing moment for the Republican Party. Perhaps even more surprising, some leaders within the Republican Party rushed to Saltsman's aid as POLITICO ran a story with the headline "'Magic Negro' flap might help Saltsman".

Just a troubling is the perception that the GOP ignores minority communities; in 2007, the four major contenders for the Republican presidential nomination declined to attend a forum on issues relevant to the African-American community, and Univision had to cancel a discussion it planned when only McCain agreed to attend.

This incident is to say nothing of the damage to the Republican Party's standing among Hispanics that occurred as a result of the immigration debate that flared in the Summer of 2007; according to a Pew Research Center study, while in July of 2006 Democrats enjoyed only a 21 point party identification advantage among Hispanics, by December of 2007 that had widened out to a 34 point Democratic advantage, alongside a sharp increase in the importance of the immigration issue among Hispanics. In 2004, Bush lost Hispanic voter 44-53, a 9 point margin, yet by 2008, McCain lost Hispanics to Obama by a 36 point margin, garnering 31% of the Hispanic vote compared to the 67% that voted for Obama.

Younger voters are more comfortable with immigration reform than are older voters. In a May 2008 New Models study, age was a significant factor in terms of belief in the statement "Illegal immigration is significantly hurting the country". While a majority of young voters still believe the statement (51%), there is a softening of opinion among young voters compared to the overall (62%) and particularly compared to older voting groups. Furthermore, in a Spring 2008 Harvard Institute of Politics study of 18-24 year olds, when presented with an immigration reform proposal that would give "illegal immigrants now living in the U.S. the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements", 46% of the respondents in the Harvard study supported the proposal while 30% opposed it and 24% neither supported nor opposed. This is not to say younger voters are not concerned about illegal immigration, but rather that they are likely to be more open to reform.

The importance of addressing the needs of minority groups is clear. As a younger and more diverse cohort seeks a party to identify with, the Republican Party must authentically address issues of concern to minority communities. As African-Americans and Hispanics seek opportunities for socioeconomic mobility, efforts such as those to reform education and improve opportunities for small business should be promoted. These policies, such as efforts to improve teacher quality and to reduce needless regulation and taxes on small businesses, would not be a stretch for Republicans to support and speak to the concerns of minority communities.

Moving forward, in order to remain a party that is acceptable for young voters, the Republican Party must shed its image as the party of "old white guys". This includes a change in tone and messaging from those who are the face of the party (in an official or unofficial capacity) as well as an emphasis on policies that have proven, positive outcomes for minority communities. America is quickly becoming an increasingly diverse nation, and the Republican Party must evolve its message and agenda to address these changes in order to have relevance with young voters.