Young conservatives have descended on this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in search of ideas, skills and connections they can use to sway their undecided and liberal-leaning peers, but many say they could use a little more help from the older generation of conservative leaders.
While listening to a who’s-who of leaders of the conservative movement addressing the giant CPAC gathering here, many younger conservatives expressed a wish that those leaders follow them home and return the favor.
“President Obama is on college campuses everyday, so we need conservatives,” said Sophia Coyne-Kosnak, an 18-year-old freshman at Hillsdale College in Michigan. “Kids just can’t have other kids talking about it. We need authority figures.”
As CPAC kicked off Thursday, the prominent demographic in attendance was the young conservatives who came from their jobs and from college campuses across the country to take in a three-day conference that organizers have largely billed as a showcase for the next generation.
Conservatives are looking for ways to attract college students and 20-somethings, a group that supported Mr. Obama by a more than 2-to-1 margin in last year’s election, according to exit polls.
While Democrats enjoy a heavy advantage with young voters, many Republicans are optimistic that they can make gains with a small-government message and dynamic leaders.
The first day at CPAC featured a roundtable on reaching young voters, and many college Republicans spent the afternoon taking in festivities, attending seminars and taking photos with conservative icons like former Florida Rep. Allen B. West, who was mobbed by supporters outside the convention hall.
Perhaps the day’s highlight was a fiery speech by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul that drew cheers from young conservatives who have held him up as a libertarian hero and rising GOP star.
“We need candidates like him that stand for something. Politics as usual doesn’t appeal to young people,” said Scott Bowen, a 22-year-old senior at Texas A&M University. “That was what Obama campaigned against, but it turns out that’s exactly what we got.”
The three-day conference features other events aimed at young conservatives, including a panel on Saturday featuring 10 prominent state-level conservatives under 40, and workshops to help college students become better campus leaders.
On Thursday, the Leadership Institute — a Virginia-based group that provides training for conservative activists — hosted a public speaking seminar to help college students be more persuasive when they return to campus.
“These students are usually on liberal campuses and if they have no organization they can go to, they become disenchanted,” Mitchell Nozka, the institute’s donor communication coordinator. “They don’t want to speak up because of their peers around them.”
Cary Cheshire, a 20-year-old junior at Texas A&M, said the key for Republicans seeking the youth vote is finding a combination of organized student leaders and more active and attentive candidates.
He pointed out that the amount of youth support for Mr. Obama dipped between 2008 and 2012 and argued that a large portion of the demographic is ripe for the taking.
“The messaging of diverse ideas and economic opportunity is what’s going to bring this party in to young voters,” he said.