Youth outreach can’t be just an election year effort

It’s not news at this point that the Republican Party has a serious problem with winning over young Americans.

President Barack Obama received 60 percent of the youth vote in Tuesday’s election according to the New York Times’ exit polling, while GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney attracted only 37 percent of this demographic.

The butt-whooping Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney got among 18-29 year olds on Tuesday was to be expected.

Of all the political conferences Red Alert Politics attended in the last year only one – the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) – had more young people than we could count on two hands. And where there were young people in attendance at other conferences they were mostly employees of conservative groups with booths at the conferences or activists bused in by the Romney campaign.

The reality is that few conservative and Republican organizations made a real effort to reach out to young people ahead of the election. And for many of those that did, it was simply too little too late.

Republican pollster Scott Rasmussen told Red Alert nearly five months ago in June that people under the age of 40 were firmly in the Obama camp. Rasmussen said that Romney could “pick up a larger share of the vote, but it won’t be a decisive advantage.”

He was exactly right.

Overall, Romney claimed a greater share of the youth vote than his predecessor John McCain did in 2008, decreasing Obama’s youth vote advantage from 34 percentage points in the states the New York Times polled down to 23 points.

In New York, Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, Iowa and North Carolina the GOP presidential candidate increased his share of the youth vote by four to six percent. In Connecticut and Indiana he improved it by a surprising 14 and 16 percent, respectively. While President Obama had small gains of one to two percent in the states the New York Times listed, his only substantial gains were in states with growing Hispanic populations – Florida (+5) and in Arizona (+16).

Unfortunately, Romney’s gains were not in states where the GOP needed it the most. Romney’s 12 point advantage with young people in in Connecticut was practically erased by Obama’s one point gain among young people in Virginia, proving that it’s not enough to just turn out the youth vote – the party needs to focus the bulk of its efforts on states with the largest overall impact on the election. For instance, Obama’s two percent lead in youth votes in the critical electoral state of Ohio garnered nearly the same amount of votes in that state for Obama as Romney’s four percent leads in every state polled but California.

It’s not shocking that Obama took more of the youth vote in Ohio. Not only did he hold a free concert with Jay-Z there the day before the election, he rans ads on the radio falsely claiming he’d make higher education more affordable for young people. Romney only cut one web video targeting young people and never cut a radio ad targeted at this demographic, to my knowledge. If he did create a radio ad targeting youth, I never heard it in the 30+ hours I spent driving around the state listening to pop music on the radio. I heard Obama’s ad at least four times over a four day period.

Even the national Young Americans for Romney coalition was a dud, holding just two conference calls during the general election – one with former Texas Governor Rick Perry on Oct. 1 and one with Tagg Romney two weeks before the election.

The gains made among young voters were not the result of efforts by the Republican Party or the Romney campaign. That can be directly tied to the efforts of groups like the College Republican National Committee, which launched an unprecedented field operation to target young people, and Crossroads Generation, which released the funniest political video of either party, and even Red Alert Politics – the first social media based national publication for conservative youth.

It’s easy to blame liberal college campuses for Democratic Party’s appeal to young people, but colleges were just as liberal during the 1980s when young voters formed the core of the Reagan-Bush coalition. Likewise, in 2004 Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry beat then President George W. Bush in this demographic by only nine points. In that election 17 percent of the electorate that year was comprised of young people. The share of young Americans as a percentage of the whole has crept up a point every presidential election since, highlighting the importance for the GOP to make youth outreach a priority before the next presidential election.

It’s not impossible for the GOP to take back the youth vote. But it can’t be left to the College Republicans, Crossroads Generations and media outlets like Red Alert Politics to affect most of the change. Change has to come both from the bottom up and from the top down. The Republican Party needs to make youth outreach a key priority ahead of the next presidential election and it needs to do it now. Republicans can’t expect to win the youth vote by popping up election year – or worse, election month – efforts to reach out to young people. The GOP needs to have a designated youth outreach arm. While the College Republicans and other youth based groups are an effective vehicle to engage young people, groups like that don’t have the resources of the Republican National Committee.

The GOP also needs to start engaging youth – who are most likely to get their news from social media – on their turf with not only aggressive social media strategies that include meme building. While the Democratic Party’s focus on Big Bird, binders and bayonets was an immature distraction from the issues, conservatives need to figure out how to use memes more effectively to get out their message.

If conservative groups and the Republican Party as a whole do not do a better job of recruiting young people now, the conservative movement will suffer in the long-term. As the founder of the esteemed conservative non-profit the Leadership Institute, Morton Blackwell, says, attrition affects every group.

As this election has proven, the conservative movement will not be any exception.

Red Alert Politics senior political contributor John Rossomando contributed to this column.

 

 

 

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