How can GOP steal young voters from Obama? Jobs.

In a shift, Republicans at their national convention are showcasing young voters. They acknowledge that President Obama has the cool factor. But they think they can woo young voters – many of whom are out of work – with jobs.

Warren Richey/The Christian Science Monitor
Evan Draim, at 17 the youngest delegate at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., takes part in the events on Tuesday.

Evan Draim, a delegate from Virginia sitting in the front row at the GOP convention, isn't even old enough to vote – yet.

The youngest delegate here, the high school senior turns 18 in just over two weeks. And he's not buying the idea that his party has an image problem among young voters.

"Young people want the government that gives them ... freedom and independence," says Evan. "The momentum is definitely on our side."

The Republican Party is doing all it can to showcase young voters at the convention, and – in marked contrast to 2008 – to reach out to them. But it sometimes struggles to achieve the hipness of the Democratic Party – featuring songs like "My Girl" and "Shout" at the convention doesn't do much to dispel the stereotype of the GOP as a party of old white guys – and faces challenges among a generation that tends to see GOP views on social issues as out of touch.

"If they show a sea of older white people [at the convention], young people are pretty sensitive to that," says Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "It's a turnoff."

Still, Mr. Levine notes that the party can only improve from its showing with young people in 2008, when John McCain set a record for the lowest share of youth vote received by a Republican candidate. Fewer than a third of voters aged 29 and under voted for McCain, compared with 66 percent for President Obama. In three states – Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina – it was young people who put Obama over the edge and allowed him to win the state.

In a July poll of 18-to-29 year olds that CIRCLE conducted, young people supported Obama over Mitt Romney 55 percent to 42 percent – but if Romney actually succeeds in getting 42 percent of the young vote, notes Levine, it "would be a big improvement."

To do so, he needs to appeal both to socially conservative young people as well as those who are independent and willing to overlook social issues because they favor Romney on economic ones.

It's that last group that Republicans are banking on making on making inroads with.

"If you have 17 percent of a generation sitting on the sidelines, not employed fully, the predominant issue for this demographic is working in full-time jobs," says Paul Conway, president of Generation Opportunity, a conservative group focused on educating, organizing, and mobilizing young voters. He is referring to the 12.7 percent unemployment figure for young people, in addition to the 1.7 million more Mr. Conway says has stopped looking for work and is no longer counted.

"You have at least three years of high Millennial unemployment, the highest since World War II," he adds. "I've never seen an issue that characterizes or unites a generation more than this one does."

Conway acknowledges that in the recent past, conservatives haven't done as good a job at reaching out to young people, but he says they're starting to learn from the other side. Generation Opportunity, for instance, is making heavy use of social media as it pushes the message of economic opportunity and small government.

Republicans haven't always lost the youth vote. In 1984 and 1988, young voters went for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively. But since that time, the party's increased alliance with social conservatives and right-wing Christians has hurt its image with many young people, who tend to be more liberal on issues like gay rights, immigration, and contraception and abortion rights.

In the CIRCLE poll, 50 percent of young people supported gay marriage, compared with 31 percent who opposed it. (Another 19 percent were undecided.)

"To survive, we're going to have to become the big tent party that we always were," says Torrey Shearer, a member of the leadership committee of Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry, which, along with Log Cabin Republicans, took out a full-page ad in Wednesday's Tampa Tribune calling on the GOP to support gay-marriage rights.

Mr. Shearer says he's disappointed that party takes the stand it does on what he thinks shouldn't be a partisan issue, but says he believes that in his lifetime that will change. "If we believe in family values, we need to truly believe in all families," he says.

But for the most part, Republicans trying to mobilize Millennial voters are using the same strategies they are in reaching out to independent voters: Mention social issues as little as possible and focus instead on economic malaise.

"I can't deny the coolness factor with Obama, but I think that's wearing off over time," says Soren Dayton, executive director of the Young Republican National Federation. "They're disappointed with what they've seen and they're looking around.... People come to us because they're interested in economic issues and they feel that this president has failed."

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