Much like some party elders, college Republican groups in Texas are ambivalent about embracing presidential nominee Donald Trump, leaving GOP operatives concerned that the party's usual pool of eager young volunteers might be shallower this election season.
College Republican chapters at the University of Houston and Rice University have decided not to endorse Trump. Conservative student groups at the University of Texas at Austin have split, with the school's Young Conservatives of Texas saying no and the College Republicans chapter endorsing him despite "reservations."
“Donald Trump is very unpopular at Rice,” said Sam Herrera, former chair of the Rice College Republicans chapter. “We were very concerned about the implications that endorsing Trump and actively campaigning for him on campus would have on our organization. We’ve branded ourselves as very inclusive ... and at the end of the day, we decided that if we endorsed Trump that would go against those values.”
The group has seen some backlash, Herrera said, but is not alone among groups worried about what a Trump endorsement might do to their reputations on campus.
At UT-Austin, the Young Conservatives of Texas haven't endorsed Trump. But the organization — which endorsed Ted Cruz for president in February — isn't officially anti-Trump either, said chairman Vidal Castañeda. Members have agreed to make up their own minds.
“We’re definitely for free speech and the open expression of ideas, but when it comes to running for the highest public office of the land a lot of people I’ve talked to agree that there needs to be a degree of professionalism and just general etiquette,” Castañeda said. “Mr. Trump has, time and time again, shown that, you know, maybe that’s not such a big deal to him. We’re not so much as advocates for trigger warnings and filtered speech to benefit everyone. We’re all about free expression, but professionalism is what it boils down to.”
Trump is not without support at the collegiate level. In a statement Sunday, the UT chapter of College Republicans decided to back the nominee.
“Although the College Republicans at Texas have some reservations about Donald Trump, we are officially supporting him as our candidate for president,” the UT chapter announced. “We do so because of the necessity of having conservative justices on the Supreme Court and we are against the election of Hillary Clinton.”
The Texas Young Republicans — a statewide conservative group for young voters — have rallied behind Trump although the group hasn't issued a formal statement.
“There were people that had some concerns about [Trump], but we as an organization and as a body decided to endorse the Republican in the race,” said Jonathan Gaspard, policy director of Texas Young Republicans. “Whatever opinions we all hold, we truly believe Trump is going to be the better of the two candidates.”
The hesitation among college groups reflects voters' attitudes statewide. In Texas’s primary election, only 27 percent of Republicans supported Trump. And although Clinton has failed to generate the same enthusiasm among millennials as her former primary opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, she leads Trump 56 to 20 percent among voters under 35 nationwide, a USA Today poll shows.
With many young voters either against or on the fence about Trump, it’s hard to gauge how the Republican Party will perform this November, GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said.
“For every college Republican group that hasn’t endorsed Trump, he also has the Fraternal Order of Police,” Mackowiak said. “He has appealed to that group, and that’s an example of where he was able to pick up support that wouldn’t traditionally go to a Republican. There are trade-offs.”
The perceived lack of unity among college-age Republicans, however, could spell trouble for the party past the November election, Mackowiak warns.
“All the research shows that if a person votes for one party their first two times they cast a vote for president, they basically stay that way their entire life,” Mackowiak said. “You really have to clinch voters when they’re young. So if, and this is a big if, we’re losing that young generation this election that does give Democrats a chance to work toward a demographic wave looking out decades from now.”
And there is also some concern that potential college-aged Trump volunteers could defect to third-party candidates.
“I think to a great extent it’s probably Trump not really trying to win millennial votes,” said Mackowiak. “Plus, you have [Libertarian] candidate Gary Johnson who is much more of a better fit for that vote. And he is going to perform better than we’ve seen recent third-party candidates perform.”