Victor Didia, who is 20 and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., voted for the first time last year. If he lives a normal life span, he will have the opportunity to vote in about 15 future presidential elections, and he expects to cast his ballot for a Republican each time. Although new to the electorate, Didia considers himself a full-fledged Republican, which Pew Research Center data indicate makes him something of an anomaly among his age-group peers in New York and even the country. His candidates of choice in 2012 were the GOP’s presidential nominee Mitt Romney and, as he put it, “Republicans down the line.” He is certain the GOP will get his vote in 2016.
“I don’t think Democrats come even close to what my beliefs are,” Didia says as he sits inside a busy Starbucks coffee shop, just around the corner from Brooklyn College, where he’s studying computer science. Didia is fresh-faced, with green eyes and neatly cut light-brown hair. He is a member of the Brooklyn Young Republican Club, one of the oldest such groups in the nation, and sports a preppy look, with a navy-blue sweater over a button-down shirt and khaki pants. In some ways, Didia looks the part: well-groomed, with a privileged air, although without the cockiness sometimes associated with young conservatives. But he sees himself as a member of a new political breed -- one that represents the future of American politics. He is pro-life, yet thinks health care and reproductive rights aren’t the government’s business. He takes a libertarian view on gay rights, saying the U.S. Constitution doesn’t apply to it. And he thinks freedom of religion is a good thing, although that doesn’t give lawmakers the right to impose their own fanaticism.
“I don’t think you are going to get people that are completely going to be liberal or Republican on issues,” Didia says. “I think being more flexible is the future of the Republican Party. We still have time. We have all the time in the world, right?”
Some political observers believe the answer to that question is “No,” that time may actually have already run out for the Republican Party. Most of the youth votes cast in the last two presidential elections went to Barack Obama -- 66 percent in 2008 and 60 percent in 2012, according to Pew -- which those observers interpret as a “modest realignment” indicating that a generation of long-term Democrats (or, at least, non-Republicans) may already be here.
If that’s true, the GOP is in trouble. Two election post-mortem reports released this year concluded that the brand is tarnished, characterized by stereotypically old-fashioned, aging white men whose views find little resonance among most Americans. Increasingly, according to the reports, young people are rejecting the party’s platforms, its policies and, more important, its basic view of the world.
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‘Millennial’ Concerns: Economy, Jobs And Student-Loan Debt
The most recent evidence came June 3, when the College Republican National Committee, or CRNC, released its report on why young people are avoiding the party. It found the GOP is out of synch with so-called Millennials on the social and economic front. According to the CRNC, these people born between 1980 and 2000 care a lot about the economy, jobs and their student-loan debt, the latter of which the U.S. government estimates to be more than $1.1 trillion nationally. Although party elders are clearly concerned about the economy, they are having a hard time showing they truly care about the future, which will affect young voters to a far greater degree than it will affect older voters. The question is whether that apparent disconnect represents a political watershed.
Of all age groups, young voters -- those between 18 and 29 -- are the least likely to turn out in elections, says Paul Beck, a political-science professor emeritus at Ohio State University whose research includes voting behavior. Turnout rates increase as voters age, which means, Beck says: “If indeed they are a Democratic generation -- I think they are -- the effect of that Democratic generation is going to get larger. You and I are going to have to pay attention for a decade to see what happens. In a way, it’s a modest realignment. These changes tend to take place all the time.”
A political sea change that links a generation to a certain party would not be a new phenomenon. Political scientists widely agree the 1932 presidential election was the critical event in what became a classic example of voter realignment. Americans of the day had lost faith in Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover, whom Democratic opponent Franklin D. Roosevelt blamed for the Great Depression and poor economy. Roosevelt won the election in a landslide, ending 12 years of GOP leadership and ushering in two decades of Democratic rule in the White House. A new realignment was initiated again in 1968, this time in the Republicans’ favor with the election of Richard Nixon. That, too, was the beginning of a long-term political shift in what had been the solidly Democratic South to the Republican stronghold it remains today. Only two Democrats were elected president between 1968 and 2008 -- Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (ironically, both from the South).
Then it was time for the Republicans' reascent, until the Iraq war and the financial crises of 2001 and 2007 under former President George W. Bush tarnished the brand, which led to the next shift -- the election of the nation’s first African-American president, who also happened to be comparatively young. A gifted campaigner and speaker, Obama and his technologically inclined campaign team took his White House run to both the grassroots level and the realm of social media, using Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) and the privately held Twitter as new outreach channels. He managed to draw Hispanics, one of the fastest-growing voting blocs, to him. Latinos supported him by a margin of 71 percent to 27 percent last year, according to Pew.
Obama’s re-election appeared to confirm that the pendulum had swung far into the Democratic zone, yet some observers believe it would be a mistake to try to extrapolate too much from that about the future of American politics. Instead, Obama's crossover votes among the younger electorate may represent a dealignment, meaning voters are becoming less wedded to any party. That is the view of Matthew Woessner, an associate professor of political science and public policy at Penn State Harrisburg and a public-opinion expert.
“In many ways, Americans are disillusioned [with] both parties,” Woessner says. “So while the youth have swung more for Obama than they have for previous presidents, it’s not clear yet whether that is a permanent feature of Democratic politics or whether it’s merely a phenomenon driven by Barack Obama himself.”
Don't Discount The Politics Of Whim
Woessner isn’t alone in thinking that. Charles Franklin, a political-science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is also a public-opinion expert, says he thinks the idea that Obama’s success with young voters signals some form of intrinsic Democratic advantage is false. If anything, the rapid change in the under-30 generation only means the group is ripe for the picking by any party, and certainly more so than those in their 40s who are less likely to be easily swayed by what Franklin describes as the “short-term attractiveness of a candidate” or the “short-term mistakes made by a party.”
“For those reasons, I think Republicans can be hopeful of greater success in the future with the youngest group of voters,” Franklin says. “We should think of it as meaning there will be a handful of percentage points more Democrats, not that they will be 15 or 20 points more Democratic forever.”
Experts agree that people tend to form their political allegiances early on, including tendencies toward partisanship, and when a shift in allegiance occurs, it does so gradually. Didia believes, as the CRNC does, that the Republicans can start making inroads with young voters. After all, he also thinks support for Obama may be a fad, and one that will end once he leaves office. That's when the GOP should be prepared to strike, he says.
“Republicans need to have better outreach,” Didia says. “They don’t have to change their message, just the outreach. Maybe on some issues you can say that they want to move a little bit to the left or the center in general. But they have to know the times. They have to take whatever technology that is coming out and use it to their advantage.”
Beyond that, the party also needs the right face. Didia is thinking someone multicultural -- like U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., or Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
“That’s where our country is heading, obviously,” Didia says. “[They] are pretty up-there on the list of contenders. I think they are very strong opponents for any Democrats out that would be opposing them.”
Both Rubio and Cruz are Hispanic, the youngest ethnic group in America, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Center. The median age among all Latinos is 27 years, and it is 18 years among those who are native-born (for non-Hispanic whites, that age is 42). Pew estimates the Hispanic bloc will double in size in one generation and be responsible for 40 percent of the increase in the eligible electorate by 2030. That will be a crucial factor for both parties.
Overall, Ohio State’s Beck believes it’s possible lifelong Democrats may have been created in the last elections. But he says the CRNC report makes the right recommendations for swinging the pendulum back in the Republicans’ direction. Doing so will require translating those recommendations into meaningful action when making policy decisions and during future political campaigns, he says, adding: “That’s a problem. That is their problem, I think. [Republicans] talk about trying to appear to be more moderate on social issues. That’s going to be easier said than done. The younger generation is simply more progressive. Some of the issues that moved their parents and grandparents are really not a concern for them. ... My response would be, ‘Good luck.’”