Going into the 2012 election, Republicans were hopeful that the love affair between voters under 30 and Barack Obama was over. High rates of youth unemployment led conservative political prognosticators to think that millennial voters, those under 30, would have a far lower turnout rate than in 2008.
This prediction was completely wrong. Millennial voters made up a greater share of the electorate than they did in 2008, and they voted for President Obama by a margin of 60-36. In comparison, the overall popular vote favored Obama by a margin of 51-47. Millennials are the most diverse age cohort in American history, so Republican difficulties with minority voters account for some of their struggles with millennials. Even among white millennials, however, Republicans underperformed by eight percent compared to the overall electorate. While younger voters have always tended to be liberal, since 2004 they have begun favoring Democrats to an unprecedented extent. This is no coincidence, and despite some Republican’s wishful thinking it isn't just because of the influence of Hollywood and Barack Obama’s charisma — it’s because the Republican Party drives away millennials on social issues and fails to speak to their economic needs.
The issue of gay marriage is the first barrier between the Republican Party and millennial voters. Millennials understand that two men can love each other and raise a family just like a man and a woman can — almost two-thirds of millennials support gay marriage. Every Republican Presidential candidate in 2012, with the exception of Ron Paul, endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban homosexual marriage, and even Paul backed the Defense of Marriage Act. If Republicans want to win millennials votes, a good first step would be to stop viewing homophobia as a civil right worthy of enshrining in the Constitution alongside free speech and bearing arms. This does not mean the GOP needs to stop being pro-family, but that term should translate to economic policies that make it easier for people to marry and have children rather than being a euphemism for bigotry against gay Americans.
Pro-family economic policies represent a great opportunity for Republicans to make inroads with millennial voters, whose familial ambitions have been hit hard by the recession. According to a Pew Foundation survey conducted in 2012, 31% of Americans under 35 have either put off getting married or having a child because of their economic conditions. To reach these voters, the Republican Party should apply conservative anti-tax principles to problems facing millennial Americans and support an increase in the tax credit for children, making it easier for lower-income parents to have a family without wondering whether they’ll be able to provide for their children.
Additionally, Republicans can fight to make housing more affordable without repeating the dangerous mortgage polices that contributed to the housing bubble of the 2000s. Housing is among the most pressing of millennial concerns, since a near-record high 21.6% of Americans under 34 live with their parents. Republican governors are best suited to confront this problem and should do it with a three-pronged approach: oppose urban rent control that harms younger would-be tenants by reducing the overall supply of apartments and therefore increasing rents on uncontrolled buildings; build more roads to make suburban commuting easier for cash-strapped new workers; and confront inefficient zoning restrictions that keep property values high by making it harder to construct housing to meet demand. All of these polices would help millennials, but they are also good public policy for all Americans, and the Republican Party would be wise to support them.
Even if the Republican Party took these steps, there would still be an 800-pound gorilla in the room when it came to millennial voters — Pell Grants. These low-interest federal college loans are, unsurprisingly, incredibly popular among their recipients. Millennials struggling to pay ever-increasing college tuition will flock to a political party that promises to increase their subsidies, and will be skeptical of one that threatens to reduce them. Conservatives can rightly argue that the weight of economic evidence shows that large government subsides increase the overall cost of college, but that economics lesson is irrelevant to a 20-year-old staring down a college bill equivalent to small home mortgage. Republicans should not be expected to join Democrats in wholeheartedly embracing federal student loan subsidies — they fly in the face of any consistent small government economic policy — but the political realities surrounding the millennial vote are enough to justify taking Pell Grants off the budgetary chopping block. If Republicans manage to address millennial concerns through economic policy while moving away from anti-gay rhetoric and policies, the next Republican Presidential candidate should easily improve on Romney’s sorry performance with young voters in 2012.