Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus has begun a series of meetings with groups that have overwhelmingly gone Democratic in the past two presidential elections.
He’s sitting down with Latino and Asian voters and with young people across the country. The youth group is of particular concern to the GOP because voting habits established at this stage could last a lifetime.
College students at Ohio State University were eager to talk about the state of the GOP brand. The class is called American Political Parties.
In the lecture hall, one student’s open laptop has a sticker bearing the iconic Obama campaign logo. Near the front of the room, another has a Romney bumper sticker.
During a break, 22-year-old Ben Leone, who’s from a Republican family, comes by to talk.
“During the 2008 election, I was registered Republican,” he says. “Technically, I still am registered a Republican, but I definitely identify myself more with the Libertarian party.”
Leone is a fiscal conservative, but when it comes to the GOP, he thinks the party needs to take a different approach to some issues.
“They need to change their outlook, especially on social issues, which is why I identify myself more as Libertarian,” Leone says. “But I think that they are still very much in the right in terms of economic issues, the Republicans are.”
Young voters are quick to raise social issues such as same-sex marriage. They are far more likely than other age groups to approve of it.
Pre-law student John Milligan, 23, is an independent voter who describes his upbringing as very conservative.
Here’s what he says about how his peer group on campus views gay marriage: “There’s no argument. Most of us — well, maybe I’m in sort of a bubble here, but — we watch Jon Stewart, we have very socially tolerant, very tolerant views, and that is just the direction the young people are moving in.”
Immigration is another issue where young voters are much more likely to align with Democrats.
Austin Jones, a senior and an independent voter, says it’s not just the Republican stand on social issues that troubles him.
“Evolution is a fact. Climate change is happening. There’s no arguing that. If you’re arguing that, you’re a fool,” Jones says.
Campus Democrats, meanwhile, see such comments from an independent as an opportunity.
Maggie Echols, a sophomore, sees it as a benefit for her side when the Republicans are out of step with young people.
“I think that they’re more, they’re appealing to more religious, and I think our generation is probably the least religious generation to ever come through America,” Echols says.
But at a recent meeting of the Ohio State College Republicans, alarm bells over the future are not sounding.
Sophomore Miranda Onnen says after graduation, fiscal realities will begin to take hold for her generation and priorities will shift.
“We’re also the ones who are going to have to pay for Obamacare,” Onnen says. “A lot of people don’t necessarily connect those things. They say, ‘Oh, well, health care is great. I get to be on my parents’ health-care plan until I’m 26.’ Well, once you turn 27, you have to pay for that. And especially with the joblessness rates being what they are, I think that’s going to hit kids our age pretty hard.”
Drew Stroemple, 20, also a Republican, says the party has lagged behind Democrats in use of social media and technology — two things critical to reaching potential voters. But he says that can be fixed. He argues that no big policy changes are needed as long as the focus is on fiscal responsibility. And he says potential candidates Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and others give the GOP a deep bench.
“We have a lot people, and we have three years to work on changing what we do politically to ensure we’re in the right position for 2016. The Republican Party is smart and we know what we’re doing, and we’re going to make the changes that it takes,” Stroemple says.
But that view of the future doesn’t deal with the real problems the party has today, says Peter Levine of Tufts University, who studies voting habits of young people. For two elections in a row, Democrats have enjoyed a huge edge among these voters. And while many think that’s the way it’s always been, Levine says that’s not so.
“As recently as 2000, the youth vote was evenly split between the Democrats and the Republicans. So the phenomenon of the Democrats getting a lion’s share of the youth vote is new, and it’s really problematic for the Republicans because this generation will continue to vote for 50 years,” Levine says.
And, he says, Republicans shouldn’t simply think it’s a matter of young voters idolizing Obama.
“Young people in the exit polls really aligned with Barack Obama on the issues as well. So I don’t think they just voted for him because the Black Eyed Peas liked him. I think they actually voted for him in both ’08 and ’12 because they agreed with him,” Levine says.
Levine says that is the reality Republicans truly need to confront when it comes to the newest generation of voters.
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.