Young voters moving away from GOP

Published 12:14 pm Wednesday, November 19, 2008

In the post-mortem dissection of the Republican election defeat, the most dire indicator of the party’s future prospects may be its woeful performance among young voters.

Democrat Barack Obama won 61 percent of Ohio voters under 30, compared with Republican John McCain’s 36 percent, according to exit polls from the Nov. 4 election.

The Grand Old Party is increasingly becoming the bastion of its middle name. And without cultivating a younger generation of stalwarts to continue the tradition, it will have difficulty remaining grand.

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“It is my belief that our party has lost a generation of young voters,” incoming Ohio GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine told reporters after the stinging election defeat.

Republicans have lost that generation at a time when young people are forming the political beliefs and associations they will likely carry for the rest of their lives.

The Republican fall from power has Ohio State University political science professor Paul Beck looking back to a previous era for guidance.

Republican Herbert Hoover’s presidency was discredited, particularly among young voters, as the economy tanked in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Beck said. The door was opened for Franklin D. Roose-velt, a powerful political persona who ushered in the New Deal brand of Democratic politics that cemented a generation of Democrats and led to decades of dominance.

“Some of these candidates leave an indelible impression on young people and that whole generation of young people becomes a carrier of change, really in realignment proportions,” Beck said, referring also to John F. Kennedy in the 1960s and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

But, Beck added, “The Democrats have a lot to do before they seal the deal with the young people (of today).” That will depend largely on whether Obama can take the opportunities — and challenges — presented to him by GOP failures and become a Roosevelt-type figure.

Because Democrats haven’t yet “sealed the deal,” the GOP has an opportunity to change its approach to young voters. And despite the conventional wisdom that young people are more liberal while older voters are more conservative, Democrats haven’t always held a monopoly on the young generation.

President Bush beat Democrat Al Gore 49 percent to 45 percent among young voters in Ohio in 2000, and the first President Bush beat Bill Clinton by four points in the demographic in 1992.

As some GOP leaders of today continue to talk about bringing the party back to the ideals of Reagan, a young generation of voters is left with an icon they’ve only heard about from their parents, read about, or seen clips of on television. Reagan left office 20 years ago; he died in 2004.

“Ronald Reagan was a great man and he was a great president,” said Jonathon Snyder, the chairman of the Ohio College Republican Federation and a junior at Columbus State Community College. “But when it comes down to it, that was before most of us were aware of anything going on, much less voting at that point.”

Snyder said the party needs to present a less ideologically rigid, more pragmatic image that doesn’t shun social issues such as abortion, but doesn’t let them dominate the agenda, either. Social conservatism doesn’t appeal to the majority of young Americans.

He said young voters want to talk about health care, jobs and student loans, not just tax cuts.

Snyder said he knew of many young voters who were supporters of Obama because of his persona, but didn’t really know where he stood on the issues. That could change if Obama is able to translate his political personality into successful policies.

Republicans have a narrow window to prevent a realignment among young voters that could haunt them for decades.

“It’s not a lost cause by any means — yet,” Snyder said. “But we’re behind the eight ball and we have a lot of work to do.”