It has become increasingly clear that President Barack Obama will not be able to mobilize young voters the way he did in 2008. That makes the youth a demographic that Republicans can court, but not if the party nominates a loyalist of the Tea Party — a movement that represents more an anti-government crusade than a viable governing force. Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and ambassador to China in the Obama administration, is someone who could bring young voters into the Republican fold.
If Huntsman wants to have any chance among young voters (aged 18-29), he will have to stay true to his moderate positions, which include support for civil unions, leniency for children of illegal immigrants, and acceptance of the science behind climate change. He risks compromising such authenticity if he lurches right during the primaries.
In order to gain traction among young voters, Huntsman will have to prove himself as a candidate who has a serious plan for job creation in addition to portraying himself as an alternative to the Tea Party. The most optimal place to drive home this message will be New Hampshire, given its large proportion of independent voters and its position as the nation’s first primary.
I saw Huntsman’s appeal to youth firsthand as he was touring New Hampshire in May. When I heard Huntsman speak in Hanover, N.H., he said that during his time as ambassador to China his first-hand view of Beijing’s awful air pollution helped him formulate his support for renewable energy. Such commitment to addressing environmental issues will no doubt resonate with young voters disillusioned by the Republican Party’s refusal to take action on climate change.
However, the most daunting issue facing young voters will be employment. Huntsman is going to have to make clear to young voters his strategy for job creation. Concern over jobs and the national debt will be the most important issue related to young people in the 2012 election, according to Communications Director for the College Republican National Committee Robert Lockwood.
“The debt has been placed on our generation's tab and we are looking for a leader who can take it off of our tab, and put us back on the path to fiscal solvency,” Lockwood said.
Lockwood told me that students should look to influence the primary campaign discourse by highlighting the connection between job creation and student debt. Being unemployed following graduation makes it difficult for students to repay loans, and that means students have to be subsidized by the government — adding to the national debt.
Huntsman is going to have to provide an answer for students on the jobs issue when he visits campuses, or else his appeal to youth will considerably lose its potency.
Indeed, Huntsman is delivering the keynote address at the College Republican National Committee’s convention later this month — although this does not amount to an endorsement (as all candidates were invited), this presents Huntsman the perfect opportunity to woo the youth demographic.
Huntsman’s best shot at winning the nomination will be if he focuses heavily on New Hampshire, the first primary following the Iowa caucuses. The Granite State has more independent voters than registered Republicans or Democrats, according to Dartmouth professor of government Dean Lacy. Quite frankly, Huntsman stands no chance in Iowa, with its high population of Christian conservative voters.
But in 2008, New Hampshire proved itself to be a state where a victory meant you could pull ahead of or catch up to the winner of Iowa. John McCain won in New Hampshire after placing third in Iowa. Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucus on the Republican side that year but was largely irrelevant afterwards. And Hillary Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire is a large part of the reason she was able to make the Democratic primary such a highly contested race.
Yet in New Hampshire Huntsman lags far behind another moderate, Mitt Romney, with whom voters there are a lot more familiar, according to Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire and the director of the UNH Survey Center.
Smith pointed to a UNH Survey Center poll released this week showing that Romney was favored by 35% of New Hampshire voters, compared with just 2% for Huntsman.
Smith said that to overcome his lack of familiarity among voters, Huntsman will have to pour substantial resources into television advertising, particularly this summer when few people are attuned to politics. This step will be crucial to Huntsman’s ability to raise enough money when the primary campaign heats up in the fall.
If Huntsman wants to court college-aged voters in New Hampshire, he may want to avoid campaigning alongside that state’s Republican politicians, Republicans in the state legislature wanted to deny college students the right to vote in the state, and also support cuts to education. (The voting bill was denied in the New Hampshire House).
Huntsman may be a long shot for the Republican nomination. But he may be able to help the Republican Party work toward a goal that Obama’s election in 2008 made almost unthinkable: energizing college-aged voters during the Republican primary.
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