In 1984 and 1988, first Ronald Reagan and then George H. W. Bush won first-time voters and under-29 voters by big margins: 20 points in 1984. The twentysomethings of the 1980s remain the most Republican cohort in the electorate to this day.
But since 1990, the GOP has lost its connection to the young, and the problem gets worse with every passing election. Today's twentysomethings are the most anti-Republican age group in the electorate.
What's driving the young people away? Four things.
- Young people react to the success or failure of the first politicians they know. The twentysomethings of the 1980s, for example, associated the Democratic Party with the malaise of Jimmy Carter--and the GOP with the triumphs of Ronald Reagan. Today's Republican Party is associated with a wave of disappointments and embarrassments: Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, congressional corruption scandals, the mortgage crisis.
- The Reagan years were a time of prosperity for young workers. Unemployment plunged, wages rose, housing became more affordable. The Bush years have not been so favorable. The cost of a college degree rose faster than pay for college graduates. New college graduates saw their wages actually drop after inflation. And the costs of housing have outpaced incomes for just about all young people.
- The Republican Party has become increasingly identified with conservative Christianity. Younger Americans are becoming more secular and more permissive. In particular, young Americans have become increasingly tolerant of homosexuality and increasingly willing to have children outside marriage. While unmarried births have dropped among teenagers since the welfare reform of 1995, unmarried births have actually been rising among women in their 20s.
- Today's twentysomethings are browner and blacker than those of the 1980s. Hispanics and Asians both tilt strongly Democratic, as of course do African-Americans.
It's a tough map for Republicans--tough but not hopeless.
Here's a short plan of action:
Think Social Security taxes, not income taxes.
Today's young voters are paying much more in Social Security taxes than in income taxes--and contributing much more into Social Security than they will ever see out of it.
Republicans took a beating on the Social Security issue in 2005. But the issue is not going away. And Barack Obama's solution--taxing more income for Social Security--is neither workable nor popular. Personal accounts offer hope for personal wealth to a generation that is increasingly anxious about its economic future. With a relatively small subsidy--$300 per year for workers earning less than $40,000--a revived Republican personal account plan could guarantee that every American worker would retire a millionaire, even if they never earn more in their lives than minimum wage.
Republicans will always face overwhelming disadvantages among blacks and Hispanics. President Bush's attempts to woo Hispanics via lax immigration policies disastrously backfired, alienating white Republicans without achieving gains among Hispanics.
But we can talk to young blacks and Hispanics as young people, who share economic interests with an entire generation of overtaxed young workers, regardless of race.
Present a sunnier face on social issues.
We need to make clear that we defend the family not to impose our values on others, but in order to give the next generation of America's children a fair chance in life.
Children who grow up without their fathers are more likely to go to jail, drop out of school and create fatherless families of their own. A majority of America's poor children would be lifted out of poverty if their mothers married their fathers. Republicans defend marriage between a man and a woman to defend opportunity and equality, not because we condemn those who happen to be gay. The same-sex marriage issue (might have) worked for Republicans in 2004. It won't in 2016.
On abortion, too, it is important that Americans understand that the end of Roe v. Wade does not mean a national abortion ban. Ending Roe means that individual states recover the power to make their own decisions on abortion. We as Republicans need to make it very clear: If California and New York vote to retain abortion rights after Roe, national Republicans won't interfere.
A Green Discussion
Re-emphasize the environment.
The voting data suggest that young voters might care less about the environment in reality than they think or say they do. Nevertheless, environmental concern is the price of admission to any kind of discussion with the young. John McCain has understood that--the rest of his party needs to follow.
Almost every major piece of environmental legislation enacted since 1970 has been signed by a Republican president. This is our party's history. Let's reclaim it.
Above all, results matter.
Republicans must avoid the temptation to forget Iraq and the war on terror. As the Iraq situation improves in the months ahead, as the USA continues to enjoy greater security from terrorism, we need to argue the case that it was our policies that delivered these results.
If the inexperienced Barack Obama wins--and then discovers that there is more to being president than giving speeches--we could discover that the next generation of young people reacts to the failures of an Obama presidency by rediscovering the enduring Republican principles of limited government, individual rights, strong national defense and pragmatic effective governance.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.