If the Republican Party is to have a successful future, I believe its biggest challenge will be reaching out to the millennial generation. Millennials are one of the largest age groups in America today, numbering approximately 78 million, almost as many as the Baby Boomers (80 million) and 32 million more than Generation Xers (ages 30-45).
Ronald Reagan brought an entire generation of young voters into the Republican Party during the 1980s, which largely contributed to his landslide victories in 1980 and 1984. Ironically, he was one of the oldest and most conservative candidates of modern times, yet was able to tap into the 18- to 29-year-old age group as one of the greatest communicators of the 20th century.
Young people want a bright future and want to believe or at least hope that tomorrow will be better than today. This is where Reagan excelled and where Obama was able to capitalize in 2008. The difference, though, was that things did get better during Reagan’s tenure in the White House. The economy, unemployment, and business have yet to turn around under Obama’s first term. Today’s millennials are graduating college in debt and fearing there won’t be any jobs waiting for them in the workforce, fearing that they’ll be living with less than their parents did.
Millennials have been hit worse by the Great Recession than any other age group. 37% of millennials are unemployed or underemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The College Republican National Committee is aware of this, and is looking to capitalize with a new ad entitled, “What’s Your Plan?” The ad uses the president’s own words against him, claiming Obama is “losing the future.” The ad is running during sportscasts, reality TV shows, and late-night comedy programs popular with younger people.
Regardless of what some of today’s far-right conservatives may think, Reagan also understood that elections are won by addition, not subtraction. He practiced the politics of inclusion, not exclusion. He took his message of freedom, individual choice, and less government to anyone and any group who would listen. He never tried to exclude anyone from his coalition.
That would also resonate well with today’s millennials, who are more pragmatic than ideological. More millennials identify themselves as moderate (40%) than as liberal (29%) or conservative (28%). They are the most diverse and least traditional generation in America. They are 39% non-white, have the highest number of single-parent households, and are the least affiliated with organized religion. Divisive social issues will not win over this demographic. The Republicans needs to stay focused on job creation, entitlement reform, education, and the economy in 2012.
Center-right candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman understand this and are keeping their campaigns focused on the economy and jobs, without signing pledges that bring attention to religious or social issues. Another Republican who, like Reagan, shows age doesn’t necessarily turn off youth support is Ron Paul. In fact, a Gallup poll shows Paul’s support goes down the older the voter is. Paul’s libertarian leanings and stances of small government, anti-interventionist foreign policy, and adherence to an originalist interpretation of the Constitution seem to be finding lots of support among the millennial generation.
But whatever it is that millennials find attractive, Republicans will find a very receptive audience among them in 2012 willing to at least listen to what solutions they have to offer in this sluggish post-recession recovery (or lack thereof). What millennials are interested in most of all is job opportunities, education reform, and long-term solvency for entitlements so that they’re even still around when we’re eligible for them.
Photo Credit: MAGIS2011