Last November, young voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama over John McCain by a 2 to 1 margin and broke heavily for the Democratic Party, leading many strategists and pollsters (myself included) to believe that long-term damage had been done to the GOP's standing with a new generation of voters. Columnists began writing the Republican Party's obituary; Democrats cheered while stunned Republicans asked "what now?"
But a year is a long time. With Obama's approval ratings having fallen dramatically since he took office and with Republican victories in VA and NJ statewide elections, both states that Obama had won a year earlier, the question now is: is the GOP back?
I would argue "not yet", and that has quite a bit to do with young voters. Bear in mind that young voters made up woefully slim portions of these off-year electorates (9% in NJ, 10% in VA, compared to 17% and 21% in 2008 respectively).
These groups were also less friendly to the GOP candidates. Exit polls showed Chris Christie won every age group except 18-29 year olds, who broke for Corzine 57-36. (It is a remarkable credit to the McDonnell campaign that they won 18-29 year olds by 10 points, though that margin is slimmer than his overall 16-point victory.)
Young voters have not come back to the GOP and there hasn't been a major effort to win them back. For those who are focused on the short-term fortunes of the Republican Party, young voters seem an irrelevant distraction. It's also easy to dismiss these margins as inevitable. But 18% of the electorate breaking 2 to 1 for your opponent creates a steep uphill climb to victory no matter how you slice it.
Remember, while the conventional wisdom is that young voters are "always" more Democratic, that's definitely not the case; take a look at Patrick Fisher's excellent work on the age gap. He notes that young voters were the strongest supporters of Reagan:
"Dividing the electorate by age into 18-34, 35-64, and 65 and older age groups demonstrates that younger voters tend to vote differently from the rest of the population, but not necessarily more Democratic. In every presidential election from 1960-1976 the 18-34 age group was the most Democratic age group, but in the presidential elections from 1980-1992 the 18-34 age group was the most Republican age group."
Young voters today are still leaning more Democratic and this still presents a problems to the GOP's long term hopes of reassembling a majority coalition. Young voters remain the group that gives Obama his highest approval ratings, and his decrease in approval among voters 18-29 has been only 13 points from January to November, compared to 19 points among voters 30-49.
Even young Republicans nowadays themselves differ from older Republicans. For those young people who do call themselves Republicans or Republican leaners, Washington Post's Jennifer Agiesta finds that there's a greater willingness to want to keep working with Obama, as well as an ideological gap between old and young Republicans. She finds that pluralities of young Republicans think the GOP needs to talk more about the environment (44%), federal spending (57%), illegal immigration (55%), economy and jobs (60%), and - perhaps surprisingly - same-sex marriage (33%).
Yet on a handful of the issues (including the controversial social issues), the Washington Post poll can be described in a number of ways that can seem contradictory. For instance, it is perfectly accurate to say that more young voters than older voters think the GOP focuses too much on abortion. (26% of 18-34 say abortion is focused on "too much", compared to 15% of those 65+) It is also perfectly accurate to say that more young voters think the GOP is not focused enough on abortion (34%) than those who say it is talked about too much (26%). To win young voters, do you talk about it more or talk about it less?
Not to mention the fact that this question doesn't convey how these young Republicans actually stand on these issues; 33% of young Republicans saying the party should focus more on gay marriage doesn't necessarily mean those 33% think the party should fight harder against gay marriage.
I've posted here before about the age gap on the social issues. But what I find more interesting in the data set in Agiesta's piece are the crosstabs about the economic issues. Want to find a way to unify the age groups? Take a look at the economy and jobs, where 60% of Republican voters 18-34, 61% of Republican voters 35-64, and 59% of Republican voters 65 and up all say the Republican Party should focus more on the economy. How about federal spending? With 57% of young Republicans saying the GOP focuses too little on spending (60% overall), it seems to me that the fiscal and economic issues are really where the heart of the potential is for the Republican Party to win these voters back without getting tripped up in the GOP's generation gap.
Beyond the high unemployment rates affecting young Americans, there are other polls have shown why young voters are so focused on spending and the economy. In July, Zogby found that only 18% of voters 18-29 think they are going to see social security checks one day. Young voters understand that growing entitlement spending is creating a long term nightmare for their generation and that high deficits will wind up being on their tab when the bill finally comes due. Winning back young voters starts with the economic issues, and though young voters have not returned to the GOP, the opportunity is ripe for the party to speak to their concerns.
One year later, young voters are still giving Obama a chance and have not returned to the GOP. But the Republican Party now has an opening on issues that do not create an age rift in the party: spending and the economy. It will be up to GOP leadership to take this opportunity and invite young voters to join a Republican majority coalition in greater numbers. Young voters are not lost to the GOP forever, but proactive steps need to be taken to capitalize on the opportunity to drive an economic message.