Who still wants to be a young Republican?

In the age of Obama, the GOP scrambles to attract a new generation of voters.

Sue Kroll/NBC Newswire/AP/File
Young Republicans gathered for a McCain-Palin rally in Hershey, Pa., in the final days of last fall's presidential campaign. The GOP will need to expand the ranks of its young: Voters under 30 broke for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin.

Ryan Tang is a young Republican who voted for Barack Obama last fall. He liked Mr. Obama’s talk of bipartisanship. He thought he was someone – finally – who would work with Republicans and Democrats.

But today, just six months into the president’s term, Mr. Tang is having buyer’s remorse. He doesn’t think Obama has lived up to his rhetoric. He’s worried about the country veering away from the core principles he believes in: free markets, smaller government, less regulation. Thus he’s now inclined to support a candidate with more managerial brio even if he or she is not particularly “cool” – a Republican like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former eBay CEO Meg Whitman.

“And those people aren’t hip,” says Tang, a recent college graduate who works for a consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

As the Republican Party tries to retool after its drubbing last fall, it can only hope there are more Ryan Tangs out there. For as bad as the party’s loss of the White House and retreat in the US House and Senate were, its hit among young people was even worse.

Fully 22 million young people voted for Obama. He was the trendy postmillennial candidate of college campuses. He was the sultan of the Jon Stewart crowd, the titan of the Twitter set. Surveys showed that voters under 30 broke for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin. Perhaps even worse for the GOP, a recent Pew Research Center poll indicated that these voters are more likely to continue participating in politics – meaning they could form a Democratic bloc for some time to come. “Time is very short for the Republican Party to win these voters back,” admits Kristen Soltis, a GOP pollster in Washington.

Yet young people today also tend to be less cynical and more pragmatic. So if the president doesn’t live up to his ideals, the Republicans may just be able to recapture some of the loyalties of Gen Obama.

Certainly, plenty of young conservatives remain out there. They often tick off the basic values they still adhere to: limited government, low taxes, a strong foreign policy. “The Republicans have definite viewpoints on a lot of issues,” says Zachary Gray, a young manager at a nursing facility in Hyattsville, Md. “Democrats just seem to want to tax people.”

Another young Republican, Andrew Clark, a college junior from Orange County, Calif., invokes the Gipper when he thinks of why he’s a Republican. Clark compares Ronald Reagan’s hard line against the Soviet Union to that of George W. Bush’s stand against terrorism after 9/11. “Republicans do have it right in the Middle East on foreign policy,” he says.

Brian Graham, an entrepreneur in his mid-20s in St. Augustine, Fla., says he’s attracted to the party’s “common sense” policies – principally, less Washington intrusion into peoples’ pocketbooks and the economy. “We need to get back to those Reagan values,” Mr. Graham says.

Yet as important as that may be, many young people also think the GOP needs to rediscover Reagan’s positive vision. Young voters tend to be optimistic. They often look for someone to articulate a message of hope as they begin their careers and families. “If you, as a candidate, aren’t able to articulate why that person’s future is brighter because you’ve been elected, it’s very tough to get their support,” says Ms. Soltis.

Others agree the GOP needs to do more than wait to see if the Obama administration policies fail. They want Republicans to lead on issues that many young people feel passionate about and that haven’t always been GOP strong suits – the environment, healthcare, and education. “We need to be unafraid to talk about things that younger people care about,” says Mike DuHaime, a 30-something strategist who ran former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential bid.

Young activists hope the party will embrace more debate and diversity. In July, a row erupted over the race for the chairmanship of the Young Republican National Federation. One front-runner, Audra Shay of Louisiana, was accused of racism after she made light of Obama on a Facebook posting. She won the election anyway, narrowly defeating Rachel Hoff of Washington, D.C.

Ms. Hoff’s supporters urged her to start another organization. But she has decided to work within the group, saying the contested election only strengthened the party. “The GOP has the right principles,” she says. “We just have to come up with the ideas to make them work in 2009.”

For now, even many young Republicans admit, the GOP doesn’t have anyone to compete with Obama on style points. “You always see conservatives as being very stiff people,” says Tang, sitting in a Starbucks near his downtown office. “I can never see that changing.” Yet he remains undaunted. A slogan that might work for him with the right candidate now: Uncool competence.

Part of a series of articles on reshaping the Republican party.


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