What If Millennials Start to Hate Obamacare?

Republicans need young voters, and so they’re searching for a way to exploit the ACA rollout debacle.

People listen as US President Barack Obama speaks during a rally at Cornell College October 17, 2012 in Mt. Vernon, Iowa.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
Oct. 24, 2013, 1 a.m.

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.

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