I had coffee in Los Angeles last week with a young Republican operative with whom I worked on a campaign in 2010. He was asked whether or not I thought there was opportunity for the GOP to grow in the LA area. After I cleaned up the coffee I’d spit on the table, I told him probably not, at least not today.
For California specifically, and many places generally, there aren’t a lot of people moving in who self-identify as "conservative," let alone "Republican." Most probably call themselves "moderate" or something equally vague and indefinable.
Republicans have long had trouble with younger voters, but for the most part we had enough other people to help soften the blow and, truth be told, their participation wasn’t enough to worry us.
For a long time, the GOP was seen as stuffy and uncool. Good on national security and taxes but mostly boring. And boring was okay! As Americans aged and got over their campus-inspired liberalism and settled comfortably into both middle age and the middle-class, we could count on them to come home to roost.
But now younger voters too often see Republicans as not just uncool, but old, white, out of touch, and in some cases scary. And now that we’ve experienced tectonic shifts in life-expectancy, the economy, family, and technology, a good chunk of Generation Y and many millennials aren’t going to grow up as fast or fit neatly into the middle age/middle class construct that worked for so long.
In fact, we’ll be lucky if they find a job upon graduation, marry before 30 (if they marry at all), have kids before 35 (if they have more than one), or live within any of the classical American outlines that were created by the Cleavers in the 1950s and were valid as recently as the Seavers in the mid-80s and early 90s.
The GOP undoubtedly faces demographic issues as related to Latinos, Asians, and African Americans. But what we too often leave out is that we as a party are aging rapidly. And while I’m happy to say that many of us will live longer and healthier lives than ever, there won’t be enough of us in 10 or 20 years to make up a viable party on our own.
We must begin laying the cornerstones of a new conversation with millennials. This doesn’t mean acting like we care or trying to be cool. We must care and we’re unlikely to be "cool" in any reasonable sense of that word anytime soon.
Their concerns are different from those over 40 and their worldviews are worlds apart with those over 50. Marketing to the younger cohort is not enough. We must as Republicans directly address the problems they face and will face: below-par public education, exploding college tuition rates, too few jobs to find upon graduation, and a future that is constantly rewritten and rarely in focus.
We have an advantage with millennials — they, like their older Gen X and Gen Y cousins, have grown up fiercely independent. They want to do things on their terms and in the way that provides satisfaction (if not happiness) rather than just sitting in an office from 9-5 for 25 years.
These are inherently conservative and entrepreneurial instincts and they should be fostered constantly. While millennials may not vilify government the way Republicans do today, they understand, after four-plus years of Barack Obama, that despite its promises, it still takes one person getting out of bed every morning to make the difference in their own lives.
Will we build on what millennials are already programmed to believe? Or will we instead continue to bombard them with insults and views, particularly on social issues, that they do not agree with and tend to shut us out before we have a chance to make our pitch?
There is opportunity here — and now is the time to focus some energy and resources on the next generation of American adults and leaders. But time is not on our side. Every year and every election cycle that goes by, there will be fewer older Republican voters to serve as the bulwark against a burgeoning independent and socially libertarian tranche of younger voters.