How to Get Young Voters Seeing Red

header-hoover-institution-fellows1-1by  Michael Warren

While the Democrats run ads in online videogames, the GOP continues to buy 30-second spots during ‘Jeopardy!

If the Republican Party builds a pro-Uber, pro-gay-marriage platform, will the millennials come? In “The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (And How Republicans Can Keep Up),” pollster and self-described millennial (she’s 31 years old) Kristen Soltis Anderson argues that the cohort of Americans born in the 1980s and ’90s is ripe for the Republicans’ picking. But in her view, the party as currently constituted is in danger of losing an entire generation.

“I’ve spent the last six years trying to crack the code on young voters,” writes Ms. Anderson. “What I have found should terrify Republicans.”

Young people, she has discovered, are more likely to live in cities and are more racially diverse. They aren’t regular churchgoers, and they aren’t getting married. They like videogames and public transportation and craft beer. They hate the NSA and student debt and paying for cable. In several of her focus groups, she found that millennials view their comfort with technology as what makes their generation “special.” Like she says: terrifying.

Ms. Anderson offers two broad solutions for the GOP to win over millennials. The first is structural, not ideological, and it’s more convincing: The GOP’s digital communication infrastructure is in dire need of an update.

BN-JH873_bkrvse_JV_20150709151229Take the 2012 presidential race. Mitt Romney’s campaign stuck mainly with network TV ads during prime time, sometimes (as Politico reported in October 2012) paying nearly six times as much as Barack Obama’s campaign for an ad of the same length during the same time slot. Team Obama made use of individually targeted ads for satellite subscribers, tailoring the campaign’s message to specific voters in swing states and spending less money on network TV. The Obama campaign also developed cost-effective online ads that targeted Facebook and YouTube users based on personal-preference data, even running ads in online videogames like “Need for Speed” and “Madden NFL.” As more millennials pull the cable plug and spend their free time exclusively online, Republicans can’t expect to compete by pouring resources into 30-second spots during “Jeopardy!”

Ms. Anderson’s diagnosis is that while the GOP’s voter-data operation isn’t too far behind Democrats’, the party’s problem is one of culture: The people in charge rely too heavily on old models. But her prognosis is hopeful. Ms. Anderson profiles a few members of a new generation of GOP digital strategists, like Azarias Reda, the Republican National Committee’s chief technology officer, who was recruited from the tech-startup world. With hires like Mr. Reda, Ms. Anderson says, the GOP is getting “much smarter” about how to run campaigns.

Her second remedy for the GOP is an updated party platform that addresses the millennial voter. The voter Ms. Anderson has in mind sounds a lot like, well, Ms. Anderson herself. Throughout the book she drops in personal details about her life as a sort of case study, a window into the mind of the type of person she believes the GOP is letting slip away. The author uses Snapchat, plays “World of Warcraft” and doesn’t own a car. Her liberal friends can’t understand why she’s a Republican.

But her agenda for the future isn’t very well-defined. Take one potential entry point with young people that falls naturally within the GOP’s governing philosophy: reforming federal entitlements. Millennials don’t expect Social Security benefits to be around for them, Ms. Anderson argues, so Republicans should emphasize that they are the party trying to modernize the system in ways “that give individuals more power over when and how they retire.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Republican Paul Ryan made that same argument about entitlement reform for years leading up to his selection in 2012 as the vice-presidential nominee. Millennials didn’t seem convinced by that line of thinking. In fact, according to the author, any reforms that put the benefits of older generations at risk are a nonstarter with millennials.

It’s hard to blame Ms. Anderson entirely for this lack of specificity. Millennials don’t appear to be well-informed or consistent about the issue. A 2014 Pew poll found that just 18% of those age 18 to 29 saw the aging of America as a “major problem.” How exactly Republicans are supposed to galvanize young voters on an entitlement crisis they aren’t concerned about is a mystery.

Is there an overarching vision that Republicans should proclaim in order to grab the kids? “Perhaps,” Ms. Anderson writes, “the way forward is to consider what a policy agenda that puts ‘Love one another’ at its core might truly look like in modern America.”

It’s not quite the Contract With America. And how could it be? A generation of some 80 million Americans, united only by their proximity in age, couldn’t possibly be so politically monolithic that one of the major parties is at risk of losing them. Trying to craft a political agenda to appeal to that generation is a fool’s errand.

It would be wiser for Republicans to think critically about the challenges the country faces—stagnant middle-class wages, threats from Islamic terrorism and a broken health-care system, for starters—and draft solutions that answer those challenges. Ms. Anderson’s subtitle suggests that the GOP needs to “keep up” with millennials as they lead America into the future. Would that the parties—and their leaders—tried leading millennials instead.

Mr. Warren is a staff writer at the Weekly Standard.

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