Michael Knowles should have spent the spring planning his senior thesis. Instead, he and a classmate found themselves on a plane to New Hampshire, courtesy of Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign.
Knowles and his friend Max Eden got the VIP treatment when the pair of Yale students founded Student Initiative to Draft Daniels. And when Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels announced that he wouldn’t enter the presidential race, they became hot commodities. Huntsman chief strategist John Weaver called Knowles, and asked his group to consider switching its allegiance to Huntsman. To sweeten the deal, he threw in plane tickets to New England and the chance to spend time with the candidate and his family.
This election cycle, Republicans are taking younger voters seriously. And they’re hoping to use economic malaise as a recruiting tool.
Fiscal issues dominated the conversation at two recent Washington conferences for conservative student activists. A Pew Research Center Poll released on July 22 found the Democratic Party’s advantage among young voters narrowed from 28 points in 2008 to 13 in the first half of 2011, suggesting that the grueling recession has tarnished Obama’s aura of hope and change for young voters.
While disillusionment might keep young Democrats at home, economic worries might bring more young Republicans to the polls—or convince young independents that they’re better off backing the GOP candidate.
“I want to know that I can get a job” after graduation, said Brendan Madigan, a rising freshman at the University of North Carolina. “I’m not confident that opportunity is going to be there … that’s not the American Dream.” Madigan is chairing the North Carolina chapter of Students for Rick Perry because he admires the job growth in Texas under the governor’s tenure.
Democrats owned the youth vote in 2008. Roughly 22 million Americans under the age of 30 voted in the 2008 election, one of the highest youth turnouts ever. Among young voters, supporters of President Obama outnumbered those of his rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., two to one.
Without more younger voters backing GOP candidates next year, “we won’t have a chance,” Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz, told students two weeks ago at the College Republican Committee’s Biennial Convention in Washington, D.C. “This is going to be won on the ground.”
As reported in National Journal, more than 17 percent of 16 to 24 year olds who are looking for work can’t find a job. Adding to their anxiety: They’re entering a tight job market saddled with student loans.
The concerns go beyond the students’ personal financial situations. College Republicans “are worried about debt and deficits and spending,” said Justin Higgins, a rising senior at The Ohio State University and founder of Students for Tim Pawlenty. Higgins is backing Pawlenty because he believes Pawlenty is the most conservative candidate who can beat Obama in 2012.
Students and speakers at both conferences said the bad economy will be a top campaign issue next year. Addressing the College Republicans, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, called the national debt “an immoral transfer of wealth” between generations. At the Young America’s Foundation National Conservative Student Conference last week, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, described the debt “a really pernicious form of taxation without representation.”
At the National Conservative Student Conference, economic concerns appeared to have pushed social issues to the back burner. “Social issues used to be a lot more prominent” at past conferences, said staff member Ron Meyer. Those issues remain important to young conservatives—a speech by CNN commentator Bay Buchanan that drew on pro-life arguments met with a standing ovation. But students were asking a lot of questions about the economy and the debt, Meyer said.
After being wooed by Huntsman, Knowles, a rising senior, decided to back the former Utah governor. But instead of following suit, his old Students for Daniels group morphed into Students for Solvancy PAC, a network of 68 student groups nationwide committed to agitating for debt and deficit reduction. The PAC is not endorsing a candidate in the primaries.
The group created a tongue-in-cheek TV spot showing a government bureaucrat throwing a baby off a cliff—a retort to much-viewed granny-off-a-cliff attack ad by The Agenda Project against the budget plan offered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
This year, Republicans plan to make “a concerted appeal to younger voters” this cycle, former national party chairman Ed Gillespie told the College Republicans. “Millions who were inspired by the stirring rhetoric of then-candidate Obama in their college years are now among the unemployed and underemployed under President Obama.” There are some signs the president should be worried.
Just ask Max Eden: The co-founder of Students for Daniels voted for Obama in 2008.