Next week, Wayne State University junior Michael Stroud will set up his table for College Republicans, handing out literature, pens, stickers, and even bottle openers to passing students at his urban Detroit school.
“Come join the best party on campus,” the 20-year-old Michigan native tells them.
In the last election, young people didn’t agree with that boast; 60 percent of voters between 18 and 29 voted for President Obama over Republican Mitt Romney, a difference of 5 million votes.
Economic conditions before the 2012 election, from high unemployment to skyrocketing college costs, should have made it easier for young people to choose Romney, says Alex Smith, the chairwoman of the College Republican National Committee. “We didn’t feel like there was a whole lot there to motivate them to vote for the president again,” says Smith, who was elected as the first female chair of the 121-year-old organization in June. “But it was my generation who cast the deciding votes against my party.”
This group — the country’s oldest student organization, present on 1,800 campuses, nurturer of conservative leaders such as Karl Rove, Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist — has released a blueprint for fixing the problem.
The 90-page College Republicans report, “Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation,” doesn’t sugarcoat the Republican Party’s difficulties with young voters. Many of its findings, in fact, are similar to the “autopsy report” the Republican National Committee released earlier this year. The report outlines problems with digital outreach and the brand, compiled from two national surveys and several focus groups in California, Ohio, and Florida. It concludes that the GOP is seen as “rich, lacking in diversity, and being old-fashioned.”
Like the national party, College Republicans are trying to ramp up grassroots and digital activities. The group is giving its members Facebook gift cards to promote online outreach to students across campuses, while also encouraging chapter presidents to increase their face-to-face interactions with students through new events and organizing on the ground.
All of that can help, and inviting a more diverse array of students who believe in the “big tent” approach to party politics might improve membership. But the biggest elephant in the room has always been the national party’s policies. And that’s where it gets tricky.
GOP opposition to abortion rights, marriage equality, and immigration reform is making it hard for College Republicans to reach young voters. Romney faced a similar challenge with both women and young people and attempted to solve the problem with an economic message. He tried to convince working mothers and younger voters that Obama’s economic plan was hurting them and that his would improve their lives. But the diversion strategy didn’t work with either group. In addition to losing young voters, Romney also lost the female vote nationally, 45 percent to Obama’s 54 percent.
Despite that failure, College Republicans are essentially using the same strategy: Don’t talk about the sensitive issues.
Take same-sex marriage. Polls show that young people — and the rest of Americans — are increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage and gay rights. While Democrats have by and large embraced this position, an overwhelming majority of Republicans have not, and younger voters noticed. But the College Republicans report notes, “A large majority of respondents were open to voting for a candidate they disagree with on this issue.” That is seen as an opening to talk about the economy, and to bring young people into the fold to work for policy changes over the long haul.
And it will be a long haul, judging by what happened to this week to Stephanie Petelos, chairwoman of the College Republican Federation of Alabama. After she expressed support for same-sex marriage, leaders of the Alabama Republican Party criticized her and threatened to remove her from state party leadership. This sort of reaction could have a chilling effect, Petelos told the Alabama Political Reporter: “I think a lot of people would be actively for it if they didn’t live in fear of backlash from party leaders.”
Same-sex marriage is a “huge issue,” says Ted Dooley, a Boston College senior and the Massachusetts state chairman. “But if you’re concerned about finding a job after graduation, join College Republicans. There is a divide, and we have to understand it. But you have to get involved in the party to change the policy of it.”
He also makes the same arguments to libertarian students, who echo the divide seen on the national stage right now.
Since the RNC released its report in March, members of the party have lambasted the results and many of the suggested changes have gone by the wayside. In particular, it is unclear if House Republicans will go along with one of its chief recommendations: support for comprehensive immigration reform. Several Republicans, notably Rep. Steve King of Iowa, have amped up their rhetoric in the immigration debate and opposed any proposals that have a path to citizenship. Rep. Justin Amash, a tea-party favorite from Michigan, said the “political establishment misses the point” and the report could push conservatives away.
Some members of the College Republicans say they are doing a better job than national Republicans of embracing their report and making the changes it recommends. “You hear a lot about how members of the national committee are rejecting the report or not accepting and throwing aside some of the policy polling that they did. We’re more accepting of it. We see it on the ground. We realize we need to change,” Dooley said.
For now, the centerpiece of the new strategy is luring people into the fold with the tools and policy positions currently available. Stroud is already thinking about ways to expand his 160-person chapter on Wayne State’s 29,000-student campus. Maybe he’ll bring in Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Or maybe he’ll take some chapter members to a gun range. His eyes are on the midterm elections.
“Yes, it is an off-year,” Stroud says. “But it is most important that we build our framework this year, looking forward to the incredibly important 2014 election cycle.”