Bow Ties And Mohawks At CPAC 2013 Show Changing Republican Party

Opinion

  on March 16 2013 4:25 PM
CPAC 2013
Dressed as a patriot, Tea Party activist William Temple stands for the Pledge of Allegiance at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, at National Harbor, Md. Reuters

When Mitt Romney lost the U.S. presidential election last November, he was crushed by Barack Obama among young voters, who went for the Democrat over the Republican, 60 percent to 37 percent, according to CNN.

But you wouldn't know it by looking at the attendees at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, where the American right comes together every year. As if attuned to the theme of the 2013 conference -- "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives" -- today's youth showed up en masse.

And you would be wrong by thinking they were all young Republicans in bow ties, faithful to the usual portrait of them as straitlaced geeks. The young conservatives who descended on the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., for CPAC's 40th annual get-together sported all manner of attire, including those bow ties, yes, but mohawks as well.

This is not chance. Targeting CPAC toward the young is vital if Republicans are going to find themselves successful in the future. After all, they have been steadily losing the youth vote, and, in the last election, 18-to-29-year-olds made up almost one-fifth of the electorate.  

Studying youth voting habits since 2002, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or Circle, found that younger voters were vital for Obama in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia -- all battleground states.

"If you wipe out the youth vote [in those states], or if you allocate the vote for [Obama and Romney] 50-50, those states switch from blue to red," Peter Levine, director of Circle, said after the election. "It's enough to make Romney the next president."

As two young Republicans -- Bret Jacobson and Ian Spencer, who run Red Edge, a digital-advocacy group for Republicans -- told the New York Times magazine: "1.25 million more young people supported Obama in 2012 over 2008."

Many young conservatives would assert Republicans are losing the image battle. Especially considering that the many connotations of the word "Republican" conjures up images -- to the left, at least -- of Bible-thumping, homophobic, women's-choice hating, racist puritans.

But Republican leaders can fix that image among the young -- by meeting them where they are, culturally and technologically.

Using a 61-point presentation, Jacobson and Spencer are showing Republicans just how much Democrats are owning them technologically.

"Obama was the very first candidate to appear on Reddit. We ask our clients, "Do you know what Reddit is?' And only one of them did," Jacobson told the Times. "Then we show them this photo of Obama hugging his wife with the caption 'Four more years' -- an image no conservative likes. And we tell them, 'Because of the way the Obama campaign used things like Reddit, that photo is the single-most popular image ever seen on Twitter or Facebook.'"

Republicans also need a sense of humor, as one CPAC panelist asserted while young people filled the Potomac conference room to hear the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre speak. They also need an ability to not take themselves so seriously, as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., demonstrated during his speech Thursday.

"Let me just say, I love the hospitality, but this is an exaggeration," Rubio said, lifting three full glasses of water from behind his podium. "One should suffice." The audience laughed with him, exorcising the ghost of Rubio's failed, dry-mouth-plagued star turn giving the Republican response to the president's State of the Union speech.  

But, beyond the jokes, the focus was also on other core Republican concepts.

"Our individual liberty is the very essence of America," LaPierre said to standing ovations and Jersey Shore-style fist pumps. "It is what makes America unique. If you aren't free to protect yourself when government puts its thumb on that freedom, then you aren't free at all."

The impression from the conference, then, is that reports of the death of the Republican Party have been greatly exaggerated. The Republican message hasn't been found wanting, its delivery has just been found unattractive.

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