In the wake of what has arguably been a disastrous election season for the Republican Party, party officials, donors and representatives have mostly been turning inward for answers. I say “mostly” as I read about Mitt Romney crediting President Obama’s campaign with buying off minorities–apparently, the GOP couldn’t come up with enough “gifts” this year.
All vitriol aside, the Republicans have work to do, not only among minorities (as has been repeated reportedly in the press), but also among a group growing as fast if not faster in the electorate–the “youth” vote, which broke for President Obama 60-36% this election cycle and made up roughly 19% of the electorate, an increase from 2008.
I spoke with some college-age Republicans in Washington D.C. who were interning with Senators Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Scott Brown (R-MA), the American Conservative Union and a GOP-leaning media firm. When I asked them why they were voting for Governor Romney, they said something akin to “it’s the economy, stupid.” They described themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially indifferent,” and justified their votes despite the GOP’s radically conservative social stances by saying, “don’t care.” In their August 8 issue, The New York Times wrote that this demographic and this attitude would be at the heart of next generation’s Republican Party.
Even though voters of all ages identified the economy as America’s number one problem, many young voters admitted they voted for President Obama despite believing Governor Romney’s skill set would be stronger for fixing it. This discrepancy begs the question–why did Romney lose voters who trusted his economic know-how? The answer is that the fact the Republican Party’s zealot-like social ideology informs its fiscal conservatism turned off young voters. In other words, college students could not justify voting for the Republican Party, even if they were “fiscally conservative and socially indifferent” because today’s GOP is fiscally conservative and socially insane.
Thus, to court the growing number of “fiscally conservative, socially indifferent” voters in the 18-29 age bracket, the GOP needs to take three concrete steps between now and the next midterm elections in 2014:
1. Promote a fiscally conservative party without imposing on the rights of women and the poor.
Republican pledges to indiscriminately defund Planned Parenthood, public education and welfare offend the intelligence of young voters who do not believe the poor deserve to be poor (a view not-so-subtly implied by many Republican candidates) and that women should not have power over their own bodies. The vast majority of the youth vote does not want to live in a country where economic growth comes explicitly at certain groups’ expense. The GOP has framed its budget cuts not as unfortunate cuts to vital programs, but as necessary cuts to programs benefitting lazy freeloaders, (remember Governor Romney’s 47% comment?), immoral women and broken public schools. Free market arguments are sufficient, specifically among college-age voters fresh out of ECON 101. Don’t make things more complicated by imposing social arguments on economic theory.
2. Do not be outspoken on outdated social positions with shrinking constituencies and look to modify extreme positions when you can.
The issue of gay marriage looks to become our generation’s Civil Rights Movement, and it seems that the Republican Party has aligned itself on the wrong side of history. As Jon Stewart aptly stated on the Daily Show in the wake of the Chik Fil-A blow-up in August, “Gay marriage is happening. Like many drive-through window lanes, it ain’t going backwards.”
To say gay marriage is inevitable is not to say that the GOP has to become a pro-gay marriage party–there is still a significant constituency within their party that opposes it. However, the Republican Party should think about taking a more “libertarian” approach of “we don’t like gay marriage, but we’re not going to deny gay couples the right to do what they want.”
Furthermore, the idea that healthcare providers should not provide contraception to clinics because it incentivizes immoral behavior is reactionary and belongs, along with Prohibition, in the annals of the early 20th century history.
3. Avoid talking about social issues that will do nothing but cost the party votes.
Abortion is an issue where everyone has an opinion. The pro-life stance, while divisive, is still a valid position held by many voters, young and old, and there are many one-issue voters that vote Republican because of the party’s abortion stance. However, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock’s rape gaffes were intolerable for the GOP because they struck too close to the ultra-conservative, anti-women social ideology of the Republican Party and hinted at social positions beyond the scope of the pro-life argument. If the GOP remains pro-life, which the party brass believes it should, it should not wear its views on their sleeve.
Although the youth vote breaks farther to the left than older demographics, it is not out of reach for the GOP–Reagan won the youth vote in 1980 and 1984 and George H. W. Bush won it in 1988. To gain these votes going forward, the GOP has to take a play out of the Reagan playbook, talking about social issues, while at the same time reassuring moderate voters that that they will not act on them. However, as long as the Republican Party remains the party of Todd Akin and does not appeal to “fiscally conservative, socially indifferent” young voters, it is perpetually doomed.
Ben Leiner is a College junior from Baltimore, Md.