- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2008




The youth vote in 2008 was not the decisive electoral factor in the election of Barack Obama. At the end of the day, the under 30 demographic represented only 18 percent of the voting electorate, a far cry from the droves some had predicted.

What did go as expected, on the other hand, was the major swing in Mr. Obama’s favor among young voters. In 2004, 25-29 year olds voted for John Kerry by a slim margin (51-48 percent). In 2008, that same demographic — increased in size thanks to the political arrival of the Millennial Generation — went for Mr. Obama by a much larger margin (66-31 percent).

These are daunting numbers for conservatives. But those on the right do not need the support of a majority of young voters to achieve electoral victory. They should not aim to win a majority of the youth vote, but rather to contend for it, to restore the close margin of the older, post-college under 30s.

Significant social changes have altered what it means to be a young voter in America. In the past, the natural experiences of life led Democrats to dominate the insulated world of college students, but lose their grip on those voters as they passed 30. Voters were naturally brought into contact with the demands and responsibilities of family life, causing them to forsake the classroom ideology of their professors for more conservative beliefs.

From the moment the first sonogram comes home, political views change. The responsibilities for a budget, for mortgage payments and property taxes, for choosing where to worship and where one’s child learns, for protecting one’s family from crime, drugs, cultural decay, and financial ruin — all of these factors tend to make a voter reconsider his or her worldview. Where young people today emphasize how much they possess a global view, how much they care about people around the world, for most good parents a child of their own becomes their world.

Yet as author Kay Hymowitz has pointed out in a series of articles in The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, this is an experience that many Americans of voting age are delaying or avoiding entirely. Ms. Hymowitz writes that “in 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively.” This demographic shift has now pushed the median age of marriage for white males to nearly 28 — if they get married at all — further delaying fatherhood and motherhood.

Absent a new set of targeted policy appeals and a reinvigorated message, it is conceivable that the next generation of American voters takes much longer to reexamine the views of their youth — and that their margin in favor of Mr. Obama’s party remains closer to 66-31 percent than to 51-48 percent.

At this moment, Mr. Obama has done no wrong in the eyes of those too young to remember the welfare state — he’s the celebrity who has never had a flop. Yet wedge issues will emerge, and conservatives must watch for them, as the new president balances his Great Society-like policies, and deals with a new Congress with a highly inflated view of their mandate for social reorganization.

As a start, if conservatives are to contend for young voters, they must first reform their stance toward the environment. Conservatives must adopt a platform that balances energy security, economic freedom, property rights and strong conservation. And they must outlaw the kind of tone-deaf antics that reinforce preexisting caricatures.

A specific moment in the 2008 campaign exemplified this. When Mr. Obama recommended that individuals could conserve energy by making sure their tires were properly inflated, Republicans scoffed, and created Obama-branded tire gauges, as a joke. That kind of talk-radio snark may appeal to the base, but it turns off young voters who thrive on do-it-yourself planet saving.

Some have argued that Republicans ought to embrace a more libertarian attitude toward social policies to win the young. But while there are advantages to this, it seems more often to reflect the advocate’s own beliefs than to serve as a response to the facts on the ground.

When young voters in California are still supporting traditional marriage by a full 16 percentage points more than they supported John McCain, it’s hard to suggest that same-sex marriage is the defining issue preventing conservatives from winning more of those voters. And even if the next generation of voters does not move to the right at a traditional pace as they get older, an abandonment of conservative principles on issues like abortion would gut the one right-leaning young voting demographic, which also provides the largest number of grassroots volunteers: young churchgoing evangelicals.

Conservatives cannot rest on a single issue, or use drastic policy shifts in attempts to win the most unreliable 1/5th of the electorate — but they must bring new ideas and strategies to bear. When William F. Buckley, Jr. founded the National Review, he did so in large part because conservatism needed an injection of intellectual heft, separating the ideas of conservatism from the know-nothing cliché dogging its political leaders. Today, conservatism desperately needs to escape the “Grandpa’s talking about the old days again” moments and foster a youth movement - one that empowers young voters to motivate each other, embraces the internet, and brings new arguments to old battles.

Consider: the Republican presidential candidates your average Millennial Generation voter remembers are Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and Mr. McCain. These are not candidates who can evangelize conservatism to the young.

It’s time for the face of conservatism in America to stop being a group of old-money gentlemen and ladies who came into politics fighting the Reds. It’s time to stop writing off the youth vote.

It’s time for some new blood.

Ben Domenech is the editor of The City.

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