Memo to the GOP -- If You Want to Win In 2012, Pay Attention to Young Voters

If left unaddressed, the Republican Party’s inability to connect with young voters will have catastrophic political consequences for the GOP. In 2008, the vast majority of America’s Millennial Generation – also known as "Generation Y," "the 9/11 Generation" and "Generation Next" – chose Barack Obama over the older and, no doubt, wiser John McCain.

If Republicans want to win in 2012 and beyond, they’ll need to shift strategy and rethink the ways in which they engage young voters.

As a 27-year-old Millennial, I recognize the importance of a sound GOP strategy for mobilizing and energizing my generation. Our nation faces unprecedented challenges. My generation will inherit record debt, crumbling infrastructure, an unacceptable level of domestic poverty and a society that is plagued by moral decay.

If Republicans fail to foster relationships with young people, while building a solid case for conservative values, America’s future (not to mention the GOP’s) may be in question. As time progresses, Millennials will take the helm to grapple with these uncertainties. What better to equip them with than values that espouse fiscal conservatism and pragmatic approaches to today’s most prominent social ills?

Millennials, by most estimates, are shaping up to account for the largest generation in American history. With a population of more than 45 million, the “youth vote” has growing influence. Ignoring this undeniable fact and trotting onward without a fine-crafted engagement plan would be a disastrous move for the GOP. Why, you ask?

According to a Feb. 2010 Pew Research Center study, in addition to being culturally diverse and technologically in-tune, Millennials are also – predictably – more liberal than other age cohorts. In 2008, Barack Obama, the “cooler” and more youth-centric candidate, captured 66 percent of the Millennial vote. In contrast, John McCain won only 32 percent of the youth vote.

Pew points out that, “In the four decades since the development of Election Day exit polling, this is the largest gap ever seen in a presidential election between the votes of those under and over age 30.” Historically speaking, in 2008 turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds was one the highest on record. Taking into account the progressive nature of Millennials and their increasing interest in the democratic process, the GOP has some major problems on the horizon.

The Brookings Institution recently found that, among young leaders, 38 percent self-identify as Democrats, 26 percent as Republicans and an additional 29 percent as independents.

onservative leaders should be working fervently to expand their party’s reach among this latter group, while chipping away at the Democratic majority. With the Millennial Generation still in its infancy, there are some short-term steps the GOP should take to begin gaining youth support.

When it comes to campaigning, Republicans need to capitalize on the power of social media. The Brookings study found that young people sent an average of 79 Tweets, texts and other digital messages per day last year (up from 39 messages in 2009). Piggybacking off of Obama’s successful new media campaign tactics, GOP candidates should launch multi-platform operations early on and utilize them to dialogue with and attract Millennials.

On the general messaging front, Republicans should consider amending their political tone. During the 2008 campaign, President Obama bombarded the electorate with “hope” and “change.” Despite the monotony, young voters bought into the hype and were attracted to Obama’s “post-partisan” promise to fundamentally change Washington.

Millennials are problem solvers who like pragmatic compromise. Obama’s call for “change” in Washington was one of ideological balance and reasonability; it was a proclamation that resonated with young voters. Pointing out a rare opportunity for conservatives, Pew reports that nearly half of young people now believe that President Obama hasn’t lived up to his promise.

With this in mind, Republicans would be smart to rethink their vocal hammering of Democratic policies. While it’s certainly appropriate to speak out against proposals that are anti-capitalistic, the “party of no” label and the perception that conservatives don’t like compromise will turn Millennials off.

Why not take a more reasoned tone that illustrates a willingness to work through America’s domestic and international ails? The GOP should strive to balance a strict adherence to values with practical policy reforms and an openness to discuss all possible solutions before landing on definitive proposals.

On a more specific note, Republicans should refine the way in which they address national security issues. A study by the Brookings Institution finds that Millennials see terrorism as America’s “top priority” and 84 percent of young people say that they cannot foresee a time in their lives when terrorism will not be a concern. These same young people, coincidentally, place a high value on the need for U.S. energy independence. Both of these issues pertain to America’s national security interests.

Republicans have traditionally been strong on fighting terrorism and protecting America. Additionally, the GOP has taken the lead on crafting policies for decreasing dependence on foreign oil. Conservatives would be smart to shift their focus towards domestic security issues and new proposals for procuring domestic oil.

On the social issues front, Republicans need to change the way in which they address gay marriage. Half of Millennials support same-sex marriage, which is much higher than the proportion supporting it in any other age cohort. It would be in Republicans’ best interest to stop harping on morality as a basis for opposing gay marriage.

If the GOP truly stands for states’ rights, conservatives should argue in favor of keeping the marital debate out of the federal sphere. Republicans should focus on policy rather than morality by empowering states to craft their own marriage laws, and encouraging the federal government to step out of the marriage business and simply recognize any and all state-accepted unions.

Finally, the GOP needs to be careful when addressing health care. It’s important to balance criticism of the law with viable proposals that, if implemented, would make options more affordable for all Americans. As stated, Millennials are more likely to respond to compromise and discussion rather than intensely negative rhetoric.

Young Americans have been hard hit by unemployment and are more likely than other cohorts to lack health coverage. Simply saying “no” to ObamaCare without solid provisions makes the GOP look unable and unwilling to empathize and compromise – a perception the party desperately needs to shed. Furthermore, Republicans aren’t likely to secure Millennial support without pledging to and showcasing how they plan to fix the system.

Winning America’s young generation over will be essential to the future success of the Republican Party. While there are certainly many challenges ahead, the large proportion of Millennials that call themselves political independents offer a world of possibilities for conservative candidates. Only time will tell if the GOP can successfully attract youths, but the aforementioned proposals would provide some good first steps to reaching this essential goal.

Billy Hallowell is a journalist and commentator. From 2008 until 2009, Hallowell served as the director of content and Chief Executive Officer of VoterWatch, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that focused on issues pertaining to U.S. government transparency.