Republicans are searching for an in with Millennials, and they think Obamacare's glitchy rollout is it.
Next to minorities, there's no larger voting bloc more resistant to the Republican Party. (President Obama won 18 to 29 year olds by at least 23 points in both of his campaigns.) GOP leaders feared the party's positions on social issues like gay marriage and immigration had alienated a generation of voters.
But then the Affordable Care Act's online exchanges went live, or tried to, on Oct. 1. Now, with everyone from comedian Jon Stewart to the satirical Onion web site mocking the program's rollout, Republicans see a chance to convince young voters that big-government solutions favored by Democrats don't work.
It's an argument resting on an assumption about young people: Even if they possess an overall liberal bent, youths reserve enough skepticism for big government – and big institutions generally – to make them receptive to the GOP's message. The heart of a fiscal conservative, they hope, lies inside every Millennial.
"This is the time to point out that the old top-down public sector doesn't work, not because it's ill-intentioned. It doesn't work because it's old," said Alex Castellanos, a longtime Republican strategist who has written about how the party can reinvent itself for younger voters.
Millennials – a group that technically includes people born between 1982 and 2004 – have a nuanced view of government activism. Compared to earlier generations, they want government to do more to solve problems. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found 53 percent felt that way compared with fewer than 45 percent for older generations of Americans. Youths also are far less likely to see government as inefficient or wasteful.
But their relative bullishness is replete with caveats that Republicans can exploit. As a study from the left-of-center Third Way showed, attitudes about government activism can fluctuate wildly. Indeed, Millennials support for an activist government has dropped steeply during the last decade. External events – such as say, a widely covered implosion of the health care law – can have a deep impact.
"Rather than a deep and lasting political value, preferences on the size of government appear more responsive to real or perceived changes in the political environment," wrote Michelle Diggles in the Third Way report that questioned whether Democrats had a lock on younger voters.
Their version of government activism also differs from the kind normally conceived by Democrats in Washington. Generally speaking, younger voters are distrustful of large institutions, whether the federal government or behemoth corporations.
"Where Democrats may have it wrong is that activist government doesn't mean they want New Deal bureaucracy and the traditional liberal approach to things," said Michael Hais, a Democrat and a coauthor of the book Millennial Makeover. He added: "In the economic sphere … Millennials are not convinced totally that either party has an answer yet. Both parties will have to figure out how to appeal to this generation."
So far, the Republican effort to destroy Obamacare has failed to appeal to youths. A majority of them support the law, according to Gallup, the only age group to feel that way. But the way the GOP frames the debate around implementation of the health care law can change to address Millennials biggest concerns, says Kristen Soltis Anderson, a GOP pollster who has examined the party's problem with youth voters.
"Republicans' former arguments about the specter of big government were too vague and out there; now it's something that's very concrete," said Soltis.
Millennials, Soltis argued, care about results, not ideology. "That's the power here. Rather than being an esoteric philosophical argument about big government, this is now concrete, you can see it on your screen."
Republicans also are counting on the way the exchanges are delivered, online, to help them. People who matured in the iPhone and Facebook age have little patience for technical mistakes, especially if they last for weeks or months.
"The president did himself a disservice when he started comparing the rollout of Obamacare to products that young Millennials know, like Apple and Kayak," said Raffi Williams, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee who specializes in youth outreach. "It gave them something firm to compare it to. They think, 'I use these products every day and they're terrific.' Whereas with Obamacare and the exchanges, they're not working at all."
Democrats dismiss the idea that young voters will somehow be newly hostile to the ACA because of the enrollment problems online. Besides, Dem strategists argue, even a troubled rollout doesn't mean the entire law is doomed to failure.
"When all this stuff is behind us, and this thing is actually working and people are posting on Facebook that they just got health insurance … [Republicans] will be seen as criticizing and obstructing something that is demonstrably going to help people's lives," said Daniel Franklin, a Democratic pollster. "Where's the win for them there?"
Certainly, a single mishap, no matter how bungled, won't send droves of youth voters into the GOP's arms. And the exchanges' problems might not last much longer, making a few weeks of glitches a distant memory next time voters head to the polls. But for a party that must play the long game to bring youths back to its cause, nonfunctional websites could serve as valuable evidence that Democrats maybe don't have all the answers.