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The Republican Party loss among young voters goes way beyond ‘rebranding’

By Ana Marie Cox, The Guardian
Wednesday, June 5, 2013 16:35 EDT
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The College Republicans National Committee report focuses on the GOP’s image problem. It’s way more fundamental than that

In reading the report on the GOP and young voters from the College Republicans National Committee, one should keep in mind that they were clearly hamstrung in making recommendations for broadening the party’s appeal beyond the “old white guy” bloc by the party’s core certainty that there is nothing wrong with the policies they’ve put forward. Written between the lines of the report (and often in the lines themselves) is the belief that issue is marketing and message, not values or beliefs. (This is nothing new: Republicans who have faulted GOP policies, while media darlings, don’t seem to have gained traction in the party itself.)

There’s a section in report superficially about policy, but that’s just it – it’s superficial. The recommendations revolve around how to talk about policy, not engineer it. This isn’t the fault of the report’s authors, I think: around the edges, there are glimmers of self-awareness, hints that the CRNC would do things differently if they were given the chance.

For example, they emphasize over and over the advantage Obama gained by his attempts to actually pass legislation – even legislation opposed by the “winnable” conservatives and moderates the CNRC interviewed. Even respondents who didn’t like Obamacare, for instance, believed “that Obama had attempted to change things.” The mere acknowledgment of Obama as someone who, in good faith, “attempted to change things” would be watershed moment for the GOP leadership, and could shift the national conversation from mutual “NANANA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU” to dialogue.

The parties shout at each other rather than converse because we live in the era of the permanent campaign. It’s only in campaigns that politics is a winner-take-all scenario, where shouting the loudest is what makes you a success. In crafting policy, it’s possible for everyone to win something; this isn’t something the authors of the report (following the lead of their elders) emphasize. The belief in, and consequences of, zero-sum politics are painfully evident in the section about the traits young people value and how the GOP might align itself with them.

First, the bad news:

“Asked which words least described the GOP, respondents gravitated toward ‘open-minded’ (35%), ‘tolerant’ (25%), ‘caring’ (22%), and ‘cooperative’ (21%).”

But, hey!

“Theoretically, the good news in all this is that while the Republican party’s negative brand is being driven heavily by a perceived lack of open-mindedness and caring, the other brand attributes that matter to young people – intelligence, a strong work ethic, and competence – are not out of reach and certainly up for grabs.”

First, let us note the weight of faith placed on the word “theoretically” there. (It’s adorable!) Second, we need to award the report’s authors a gold medal in Olympic-level silver lining hunting. But then, let’s be kind of sad that they assume only one party can claim ownership of any given trait: young people don’t associate us with “intelligence”, but they don’t think that about Democrats, either! We can hunt down intelligence and kill it, put its head up on the clubhouse wall.

Even more disturbingly, the CRNC seems to think that traits such as intelligence are to be claimed rather than earned: “Intelligence, competence, hard work, and responsibility matter a lot, too, and neither party has cornered that market” – in its polling, young people don’t associate either party with those things – but, they write:

“These are brand attributes that, if the party makes real efforts to emphasize them over and over, can begin to turn the tide on the GOP’s negative brand image.”

Right. The idea that Republican candidates would take to heart the strategy of “emphasizing over and over” how smart, competent, and responsible they are is probably the best news Democrats have had in ages – or at least, the last month.

You want people to think you’re smart and competent? Try developing policies that aim for the best possible benefit for the most possible people. Though, to be honest, that doesn’t always mean people in Washington will think you’re “smart”. In DC, there are all-too-many policy proposals that pundits deem “smart” but are really just shiny new outfits for the same ideologically-driven assumptions about outcomes. Newt Gingrich is awesomeat this.

And that’s essentially what the report does, too. Its focus groups and polling show again and again that young people believe the GOP to be hostile to immigrants in general and, more specifically, that its policies would make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to eventually participate in the American dream of social mobility. I want to be clear: the focus group participants emphasize that they are sympathetic to ‘illegal‘ immigrants: “But sometimes,” one says, “it’s not really their fault.” Another whose parents immigrated legally – “and now have nothing to retire on” – notes that she understands why others wouldn’t: “It’s really expensive to do it the right way. And it was just really difficult.”

But the report doesn’t endorse changing GOP policy to, you know, make it easier for illegal immigrants to participate in the American dream or even to make it easier to immigrate. No, the ultimate suggestion:

“It is important for the Republican party to be clear about the difference between legal and illegal immigrants.”

As if that were the problem? Those folks in the focus groups seem to understand what the difference is – indeed, seem to understand it better than most Republicans.

To believe a party’s popularity is simply a matter of branding is a profound disservice and insult to the electorate, one that young people are more apt to recognize than most. (Maybe the GOP can just “emphasize over and over” that they’re trying to “rebrand” themselves as appealing to young people … see how that will work. See also, Poochie.)

In our modern age, it’s easy to cynically dismiss all politics as “branding”, sure, but voters have more depth than that – even if politicians don’t. Todd Akin didn’t lose because of bad “branding”; he lost because of his beliefs and policies.

This is the flaw at the center of the GOP’s “image problem”, which is really a “substance problem”. It’s not that the party is – as the report has it – “disliked”; it is that they are disagreed with, that they are working from a set of assumptions and values that young people recognize as, at best, misguided or uninformed and, at worst, destructive.

The focus group members (remember: made up of “winnable” moderates and conservatives) say a lot of things that, if the GOP took seriously the statements about what young people actually want, would change the very nature of the party. They told the CNRC:

• “everyone in America should have access to health coverage”• “reducing big government” does not make sense as a policy goal• there is a worthwhile difference between “fixing” and “reducing” the national debt• gays should be allowed to get married• “we are spending way too much time out there fighting other countries’ wars”• “taxes should go up on the wealthy” (Not kidding: 54% of the young Republicans surveyed agreed with this sentiment. Obviously, “takers”)

There are conservative policies that can flow from these values and goals, ways that conservative principles can shape the actions taken toward making them a reality. But these sentiments and aims simply aren’t in line with the modern GOP. If you believe, as many Republican leaders do, that big government is an evil in and of itself, that gays don’t deserve to get married, that America is still the world’s policeman, and the wealthy should be extended the privilege of not paying their fair share, then no amount of “branding” can convince voters you’re going to work to accomplish what they want you to do. Your task as a candidate will be to attempt to either change their minds or to convincingly lie to them, about either your beliefs or the way policy works, or both.

Take focus groups’ lack of interest in lowering taxes on the wealthy. Advises the report:

“The challenge for Republicans is to connect lower (or simpler) taxes to economic growth, a link that is not currently strong in the minds of many young voters.”

Points for disingenuously eliding “lower” and “simpler”! You’re already on your way to confusing the issue. Respondents didn’t see those as synonyms. Indeed, they told the CNRC that they believed the “wealthy were able to take advantage of loopholes to ensure they paid less in taxes than young (and not particularly wealthy) people do.”

And you can connect lower taxes with economic growth rhetorically all you want, but the reason that the “link is not currently strong in the minds of young voters” is because nothing in their life experience suggests it to bethe actual result of such policy. To connect the two isn’t objectively educating voters; it’s asking them to believe an ideological conviction as a statement of fact. That is, lying to them.

There are those who scoff at the very notion of conservatives broadening their reach to young voters. But there’s nothing inherently antagonistic between youth and conservatism. Being under 30 doesn’t biologically determine progressive beliefs: if youth has a political persuasion, it’s to be idealistic. And idealism doesn’t have an inherent bent, either. Heaven knows, there are idealistic conservatives. The question at the moment is whether there are enough idealistic Republicans.

Cynicism is endemic to any professional politician, sure. But Democrats and the progressives who support them manage to retain hopefulness and compassion as a part of their policies, not just of their image. In fact, optimism about human nature is probably the central flaw in many of those policies. But clearly, that’s the side young people (including young conservatives) would rather err on.

The polling done by the CRNC bears this out. Asked how they would like to be seen by others, the most frequent response was “intelligent” (39%) – and that’s the trait the CRNC latched onto as the GOP’s entry to favor. But second on the list was “caring” (30%) with “open-minded” and “helpful” coming in 18% and 13% respectively. So I’d say that young conservatives told the CNRC that, more than anything, they want to embody some form of compassion – to be seen as caring, as open-minded, as helpful.

This gives me greater hope for the future of the Republican party, and the future in general. I just hope it’s not too far off.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

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