The Republican Party is flailing among people my age—I’m just eight months away from becoming eligible to vote. Since the Great Recession, the Republican Party has consistently, spectacularly underperformed among young adults; it’s one of the key reasons the Party has not won the national popular vote since George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. Many attributes this to the view that the youth always start out liberal – but eventually matures into conservatism, but this isn’t happening. Millennials are just as liberal now, if not more so than they were in their youth. Generation Z votes for Democrats by much larger margins than other generations at that age.
But this doesn’t have to be true – and it hasn’t always been the case. Not so long ago, Republicans were extremely competitive among our youth. Even recently as the 2000 Presidential Election, George W. Bush tied among the youth against Al Gore. Youth support for Republicans was even stronger in the 1980s, with President Ronald Reagan winning voters aged 18-24 by a landslide 61%-39% margin over Walter Mondale. Reagan had some of his most vital support among youth voters, with the 1980’s sitcom Family Ties being based on the ideological conflict between a young Reagan-loving conservative and his old-school New Deal liberal parents.
Ever since George W. Bush tied with Al Gore among youth voters, Republicans have faced a major image problem with the young. Bush lost young voters by 56%-43% in 2004, largely due to the Iraq War. John McCain further deteriorated with young voters, losing them 66%-32% in 2008, largely thanks to the financial collapse months before the election. In 2012, Mitt Romney slightly improved on McCain’s performance but still lost the youth by a landslide 60%-37% margin, partially due to being perceived as an out-of-touch elitist. Donald Trump lost the youth vote by a 55%-36% margin in 2016 and then by a 60%-36% margin in 2020.
From both the data and my personal experience, Republicans face one major problem with the youth: image. Young people are not opposed to many Republican policies. Pro-business, pro-freedom, and common-sense social policies resonate with the young. But many on the Republican fringe – like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz – and the brash behavior of Donald Trump has given the party a bad name with the youth of America.
But not all hope is lost. Many Republicans who promote popular policies and behave respectably made drastic improvements in the youth vote compared to President Trump. A prime example of this showed up in Virginia. In 2020, the youth in Florida voted for Democrats by a 62%-33% margin. In 2021, Republican Glenn Youngkin was able heavily narrow that gap to a 53%-45% margin. On the other hand, thanks to Republicans nominating the unelectable extremist Doug Mastriano, the youth in my home state of Pennsylvania went from voting for Democrats by a 59%-37% margin in 2020 to a 72%-25% margin in 2022.
There are countless examples like this across the country. Ron DeSantis in Florida, Brian Kemp in Georgia, Lee Zeldin in New York, Mike DeWine in Ohio, and Kim Reynolds in Iowa followed the Youngkin playbook and all outperformed Donald Trump by massive margins. Tudor Dixon in Michigan, Tim Michels in Wisconsin, J.D. Vance in Ohio, and both Kari Lake and Blake Masters in Arizona took the Mastriano path. Politicians like Glenn Youngkin – not Doug Mastriano – who are able to promote popular policies while coming off in a dignified way are the way forward for the Republican Party.
The Republican Party squandered an easy Senate majority and almost lost the House in what should’ve been a slam dunk year for one reason: terrible optics. It’s the same reason we’ve been losing the youth vote by landslide margins for the last decade and a half. The Republican Party needs to choose: do we want to be a party of common sense and decency, embodied by men like Glenn Youngkin and Ron DeSantis – or do we want to be a party of extremists and eccentrics, embodied by men like Donald Trump and Doug Mastriano.
One thing is clear: Millenials and Gen Z despise the nastiness of Trumpism, but not common-sense conservatism.
This shift isn’t just the fault of Republicans – the youth has also changed drastically. As a Gen Z-er, I can safely say that Millennials and Generation Z are obsessed with kindness and not being offensive. As Bill Maher puts it – we are “emotional hemophiliacs.” There was a marked shift in parenting styles during the 1990s – the same time the earliest millennials were in their childhoods. The number of helicopter parents and participation trophies boomed during this time. It led to the creation of the most emotionally coddled generation in human history, a feat that has been replicated with Generation Z.
We face a dilemma – how can a party based on realism, individualism, and traditionalism win a generation that is so opposed to those same values? My proposal: rebranding. Millennials and Gen Z don’t care about substance – they care about optics. Being a Republican is not tolerated among many circles of the modern youth, keeping many who naturally identify with conservative values from supporting Republicans. I see it all the time – I can name at least a dozen students at my high school who hold conservative views, but are so afraid of facing backlash for those views that they suppress their actual views.
The Republican Party needs to make it easier for closeted conservatives to support it. Instead of keeping with the dark, nihilistic messaging of the Trump Era, the Republican Party needs to adopt softer, more optimistic messaging; perhaps emulating both the fervent optimism of Ronald Reagan and the compassionate conservatism that George W. Bush espoused around the turn of the century. If Republicans are viewed as an acceptable and legitimate political entity among the youth, many will be open-minded to supporting us. Many policies that Republicans promote are popular with young people, but they cannot bring themselves to support a party with such a terrible image among their peers.
Millennials and Generation Z are also not as progressive as many believe. Many are opposed to the far-left positions on affirmative action, cancel culture, race, and sexuality that are often pushed upon students in the American education system. Then you may ask, why don’t they support Republicans? Because of the extreme positions that some Republicans take on social issues. Complete bans are not a viable position with youth voters, who view gay marriage and abortion as settled issues.
Republicans cannot keep neglecting the youth vote. If we continue to do so, our party will eventually lose demographic viability and will continue losing elections. We have not won the national popular vote since 2004 and will continue to lose it if we continue to write off roughly 40% of the American population as “unwinnable.”
The Democratic hold on Generation Z and Millenials appears to be far stronger than it actually is. President Biden is not popular among the youth, and the overwhelming majority say he should not run for re-election. If the Republican Party were to run a young, energetic, and less divisive candidate in 2024, I firmly believe we will see a massive improvement. There are no shortages of potential candidates – Governor Ron DeSantis, Governor Glenn Youngkin, Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Senator Katie Britt, just to name a few.
An entire generation has had their view of the Republican Party sullied. Millennials are not maturing into conservatism like past generations. Generation Z seems likely to do the same if current trends continue. Republicans will keep losing elections if we don’t appeal to the youth.
Lucca Ruggieri is a student at Great Valley High School in the Philadelphia Suburbs. He is the founder of Patriot Polling, one of the first nationally-recognized polling firms to be founded by high schoolers. He is a Fellow at the Germination Project, a prestigious program for cultivating future leadership in Philadelphia. In addition, he has been published by Sabato’s Crystal Ball, is a Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute, and interned for Dave McCormick’s campaign for U.S. Senate.