Ronald Reagan’s run for president in 1980 is what drew me into politics at age 15. His message of reinvigorating our economy and rebuilding our military resonated with many young people. The Republican party I knew then was filled with young activists who believed in free markets and free trade, entrepreneurship and a strong, activist foreign policy designed to spread democratic institutions and defeat tyranny abroad.
Today’s Republican Party is losing younger voters and that is dangerous both nationally and here in Idaho. A recent Pew analysis found that in the 2018 elections those under 53 years of age outnumbered those over, 62.5 million to 60.1 million. In the 2020 presidential contest the single largest voter bloc will be Millennials. The shift to a younger electorate will accelerate in coming years.
These younger voters are no longer GOP friendly. A nationwide Morning Consult/Politico poll conducted last month found that Baby Boomers disapprove of Trump’s job performance 43% to 55%. But for those under 30, the numbers are far more negative, 27% approve to 67% disapprove.
When asked whether they intended to vote in the Democratic or Republican presidential primaries and caucuses, only those between the ages of 45-64 were slightly inclined to vote in the Republican contests.
Those under 30 are overwhelmingly inclined to vote in the Democratic primaries and caucuses, by a huge 50% to 24%. And, among young people, those active politically on the Democratic side outnumber those similarly engaged on the Republican side 3-1 (PRRI survey).
This is not just a national trend. Next door in heavily Republican Utah, a poll by Utah Policy found that only 31% of those 18-24 identify with the GOP.
Earlier this year prominent Republican strategist John Brabender (who advised Vice President Pence] raised the alarm and outlined his thoughts of how GOP candidates can reach younger voters:
[T]he GOP must embrace a message beyond tax cuts, a hard line on immigration, and increased military spending for a strong national defense. Contrasting solutions to challenges like affordable student loans, criminal justice reform, addiction treatment, school safety, family leave, and climate change need to play a much bigger role in the Republican agenda. The message must be delivered in a way that is more entertaining, more authentic, more inspirational, more supportive of diversity, and less harsh and negative.
In that context, the recent anti-BSU diversity letter by 28 Idaho House Republicans is destructive. The blasting of this year’s BSU graduation celebration events for black, Native American and gay students was odd in the first place in that it ignored simultaneous separate events/recognition for veterans, nursing, international and first-generation students.
But it sends a clear message to Idaho’s young people that at least a significant segment of Idaho’s GOP is hostile to certain minority groups. Many (if not most) of them have friends who fall into these categories.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation is now doubling down, urging the Legislature to deny scholarships to dreamers. That is a mistake and will deepen the hole.
Gov. Brad Little understands this is a mistake. He told BSU public radio last week that he supports diversity programs: “That’s something that those institutions have been doing — and I’m all about having more and more kids graduating from college … If they think there’s a barrier there, real or perceived, if we can say, ‘We want this barrier out of the way where they can get their education,’ I’m all in.”
Little’s approach is similar to that taken by the Republican leadership in Utah. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert supports a path to let dreamers stay in the U.S. The leading Republican candidate for governor next year, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, gave a well-received address urging kindness to the LGBTQ community, has prodded employers to hire refugees, and has criticized Trump for his harsh remarks. Salt Lake Community College just opened a center specifically for dreamer students.
To win over younger voters long term, Idaho Republicans need to do two things:1) Put forth candidates who can connect with the young and 2) Develop an appealing policy agenda.
Idaho GOP needs more minorities, women and young people out front. New party chair Raul Labrador, with his Hispanic heritage, can be part of such an effort. But far more non-traditional candidates should be recruited to run for Idaho local, legislative and statewide offices as Republicans.
The issue agenda component is critical. Brabender’s point is that the GOP needs initiatives connected to needs of young people. Next year’s Legislature should expand affordable education options post-high school. More emphasis on community college and career technical paths that graduate students employers crave should be top priorities.
With rapidly climbing Idaho housing costs there is an opportunity to push local communities to allow homeowners to rent basements, space above garages, etc. A close look at and expansion statewide of Ammon and Idaho Falls’ efforts to roll out fiber optic connections to homes would appeal to many younger voters.
Failure to reach Idaho younger voters is not a good option. Such a course will cost Idaho Republicans heavily in the future.
Steve Taggart is an Idaho Falls attorney specializing in bankruptcy with considerable real estate experience. He was previously a political consultant and ran a congressional office in Washington, D.C.