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Young Voters, Taxes, and the Government

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Across the country today, conservatives, libertarians, Republicans and those concerned about taxes will gather for "tea parties" in protest over increased government spending and over taxes. After all, today is April 15th, tax day, and the tax issue proved successful for the Republicans in the 1990s; under a new Democratic administration, Conservatives are hoping that the tax issue can again be a winner.

Many in the GOP that I've spoken with are quite confident that, despite differences between the party and young voters on some social issues, young voters are far more libertarian on fiscal issues. The idea that young Americans are largely "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" is one that many Republicans hold on to as a hope that the these voters will reject big government spending, high taxes, "wealth redistribution" and expanded government programs and regulation. On Monday, I posted about the divergence in attitudes toward homosexuality between younger voters and older voters. Indeed, the beliefs held by young voters on gay marriage and homosexuality also differ greatly from the position of the Republican Party, presenting a challenge to the party's ability to grow long-term. However, this was tempered with the reminder that issue salience is key; just because a group of voters disagrees with the GOP on an issue does not preclude those voters from voting Republican or becoming Republican if the issue is not a high priority. While gay marriage may be important to many voters, one issue alone is unlikely to make or break a voter's decision to affiliate with a party unless that issue is clearly dominant in the issue mix.

So what issues are dominant in today's issue mix? The economy. Poll after poll has shown that Americans care about the economy as a top priority and the same is true of young votes. The Harvard Institute of Politics in April 2008 found that the economy was far and away the top issue to 18-24 year olds; 41% of respondents named it as one of the top two national issues that concerned them. And in today's public discourse, the economy has become inextricably linked to taxes and spending. Between TARP, the stimulus package and now the budget, national coverage of government efforts to repair the economy come down to issues of taxing and spending.

Unfortunately, as I noted on Monday, the Republican Party may have bigger problems on its hands in terms of reaching young voters that the differences on the issue of gay marriage. Fundamental principles of the Republican Party - smaller government, lower taxes - are not embraced by younger voters at the same level as voters overall. Fiscal conservatives and Republicans have quite a bit of work ahead for them in terms of winning young voters, as well.

Let's begin with the role of government overall. In a May 2008 national survey conducted by The Winston Group* for nonprofit New Models, respondents were asked if the believed the statement "Government should help people". To be sure, a high positive response rate was to be expected; even many serious libertarians can see a role for government in helping people in some limited cases. Sure enough, 79% of respondents believed the statement. Yet age was a significant factor in looking at responses to this question; 92% of those 18-34 believed the statement compared to 71% of those 65 and older. Younger voters are simply far more likely to believe the government has a role in helping people.

Then there's the issue of the efficacy of tax cuts as economic policy. In the aforementioned Harvard IOP study, when asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement "The best way to increase economic growth and create jobs is to cut taxes.", some 36% agreed with the statement, 23% disagreed, and another 41% said they neither agreed nor disagreed. (Had I put together the questionnaire, I would not have used the same language; I likely would have changed "the best way" to "a good way", as the stronger language here I believe is responsible for the high "neither agree nor disagree" response.)

Looking at a question with a similar aim but different wording, the May 08 New Models study asked if respondents believed that "lowering taxes will benefit the economy". Some 60% of respondents overall believed it, as did 57% of voters 18-34 indicating that young voters do see the efficacy of tax cuts. However, the uncertainty shown in the responses to the Harvard IOP study shows that young voters are uncomfortable with the idea that tax cuts are the only answer or the best answer. While this should give heart to conservatives, it should also serve as a warning that there is work to be done if the right wishes to convince young voters that tax cuts are usually the best option.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling, the conservative notion that the free market tends to hold the answers is not as widely accepted by this new generation. In the May 08 New Models study, respondents were asked if they believed that "the free market is a better way to solve problems than the government". On the whole, the results supported the notion that America tends to be "center-right" - 56% believed the statement while 34% did not (10% did not know or refused to answer). Yet the trend among voters 18-34 was cause for concern - 46% believed the statement while 48% did not believe it. In this case, age was a statistically significant factor. All other age groups found more support for the free market than government.

So what do young voters think about government? Pew's values surveys have shown a shift in how young voters view government efficiency. In their 1987-88 and 2002-2003 studies, respondents were asked "when something is run by the federal government it is usually inefficient and wasteful". In the '87-'88 study, younger respondents were evenly divided with 47% agreeing and 47% disagreeing. Among those 26 and older, some 67% agreed while only 28% disagreed, showing an age gap and a more positive impression of the government among the young. Yet in 2002-2003, impressions of government were more positive overall, particularly among those 18-25. Only 32% of those 18-25 in the 2002-03 study agreed that the government is usually inefficient and wasteful, while 58% of those 26 and older agreed. While these numbers are a few years old, they show an important shift over the last two decades that deserves attention. In short, young voters have a more positive view of the government and its ability to handle responsibilities.

So where should the Republican Party or conservative movement go from here? There is a belief structure among young voters that is slightly in conflict with a core principle of the Republican Party - the belief that the free market trumps government. Young voters have a more positive view of government and are not as convinced that the free market provides better solutions than government.

Yet on the issue of taxes, young voters do believe tax cuts can improve the economy, despite their uncertainty about whether or not tax cuts are the best option. If the Republican Party wants to win young voters in the future, an understanding of the ways that young voters view the economy is essential. Messaging that focuses on the need for less government and lower taxes is not likely to be as well received or convincing to this generation. This isn't to say these messages won't work, to be sure. But the spectre of Big Government is not as frightening to young voters, nor is the devotion to the free market so prevalent. In order for the Republican Party to grow long-term, they must work to impact these belief structures and spend the effort convincing a new generation of the sorts of beliefs that are taken for granted among older cohorts.

*The Winston Group is the author's employer.