Kyle Curtis, a University of Washington sophomore and president of the Collegiate Republicans on campus, believes that the Republican party “needs to go back to core conservative values” like small government, and not focus so much on gay marriage or abortion.
Lauren Pardee, a 24-year-old volunteer in Rob McKenna’s losing campaign for governor, agrees. “We have to lighten up as a party,” she says. “We can’t have older white guys talking about rape. It doesn’t help our cause on bigger important issues like education reform.”
These are the voices that Washington State Republicans need to hear as they gather at Ocean Shores later this month for their annual Roanoke Conference, a strategic planning retreat. Republican losses at the state and national levels in this last election have forced some serious soul searching throughout the party. The two big questions on the Roanoke agenda will be: How do we grow the party, and where do we go from here?
To look forward towards solutions, Republicans may want to first look back — to a political strategy that worked for Ronald Reagan, their iconic hero. They could start by inviting a lot more young people like Curtis and Pardee to the conference, and rather than offering them internships, they could put some young Republicans on the podium and listen.
The American youth vote has often been associated with the winning campaigns of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But it first emerged more than 40 years ago, as a political force that propelled Reagan to the White House in 1980 and again in 1984.
“The oldest president in U.S. history and the youngest members of the nation’s electorate have forged one of the strongest bonds in American politics” is how The Philadelphia Inquirer characterized the phenomenon in 1986, adding that “Reagan has encouraged Republican strategists to think that they may be able to nurture the youth vote to help the GOP regain majority status in U.S. politics.”
Ronald Reagan’s courting of the young proved prescient, and effective; Republicans would go on to gain a majority in the House of Representatives — for the first time in 40 years — and win three terms in the White House, one for George H.W. Bush and two for George W. Bush.
Like today, the mood among Republicans was dark in the late 1970s owing to Watergate and to the successful, populist campaign of Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s focus on young voters lifted the dark cloud. In a 1984 poll, voters under age 25 approved of Reagan’s presidency by a ratio of 67 percent to 31 percent. Two years later, they liked it even more: 79 percent to 20 percent.
That’s quite a contrast to last fall’s presidential race when Mitt Romney lost the youth vote by a huge margin. (Sixty percent of young voters who cast ballots chose Obama.)
And those young votes mattered. The Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which studies youth voting trends, found that if Romney had split the vote in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia he would have been elected.
The 2012 exit polls showed that the participation of young voters nationally increased slightly over 2008, which was a big year for young voters. Not so in Washington State, where 62 percent of voters aged 18-24 cast ballots in 2012, down from 68 percent in 2008.
University of Washington Collegiate Republicans
In the Evergreen State, slightly less than one million voters fall into the 18-29-year-old demographic. In the last several election cycles, not more than 35 percent has gone Republican. In 2008, it was less than 18 percent. If elections continue to be tight, those youth votes could prove decisive.
Interviews with young Washington Republicans over the past several months show that the party has its work cut out for it when it comes to wooing its younger base. Though still committed, many young Republicans wonder if there is any use in pursuing statewide offices in a place like Washington where elections are largely determined by liberal Seattle.
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