Youth & the Republican Party

Posted on June 3, 2013 by


No one does ritualistic self-immolation like the Republican Party. Still stinging from the 2012 setback, the Grand Old Party remains on the political couch, yearning for therapy and analysis. On Monday, the College Republican National Committee (CRNC) issued a lengthy report on the party and the youth vote. Politico‘s Katie Glueck published a nice summary here.

The highlights are expected, in some ways. The Republicans appear behind the times on social issues, especially when it comes to gay marriage, where a full 1/4 of respondents said they could not vote for a candidate who opposes it. 18-29 year-olds also perceive the party as “extreme” on abortion, and intolerant on immigration. There are some hopeful glimmers, though, primarily in the economic area. Lower tax, pro-small business, and supportive entrepreneurial policies remain popular and attractive. On foreign policy, young voters are less concerned about national security and appear to be weary of foreign wars, particularly when compared to their elders.

This report tends to confirm other trends. The Republicans may be out of step on social issues, while they are on more stable footing when it comes to economic policy. Even if this is true, it is not necessarily important. The 2008 and 2012 elections were dominated by economic issues. There is no evidence the party’s positions aided it whatsoever, at least against the Obama Juggernaut. So, for the GOP to begin to reconfigure itself around such positions will not necessarily yield different results. Other factors, like demographic changes, urbanization, and secularization may be far more critical than mere policy preferences.

Regardless, there are a few principles to keep in mind as you consider the role and nature of political parties. No matter what issue we think they ought to adopt, parties do not exist primarily to further our interests. Parties exist to win elections, so they serve party members and leaders first. When the Republican Party determines that shifts in tone or issues will benefit party leaders, the party will shift accordingly. Of course, as we know, if the Republicans shift positions on gay marriage, they may make themselves more attractive to some potential supporters, but they will, undoubtedly, alienate others. Any such decision will bring similar costs and benefits.

Finally, there is always a tendency in political and cultural circles to fetishize youth. It may make sense for marketers to target young people for particular products, but that is dangerous politically. Based on age distribution, young people 18-29 vote less than other eligible age groups. Strategizing to reach these voters seems short-sighted at best. There is also no guarantee that issue positions held when young will be durable throughout the aging process. Preferences at 20 are not the same, necessarily, as they are 40, 60, or 80. Youth, along with what it values, is fleeting. The Republicans would be wise to remember this.