College Republicans to Young Voters: Forget Social Issues. It’s the Economy.

The diversion technique didn’t work for Mitt Romney, but it’s all they’ve got.

Fresno State College Republicans outside a Paul Ryan event before the 2012 election.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Vasilogambros
Aug. 21, 2013, 2 a.m.

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.”

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