GOP Faces Test Of Youth Outreach In Florida

Published Aug 11, 2009. By Zack Hale.


The Republican Party doesn't need to be reminded about the work it has ahead of it in winning over young voters.

President Obama captured nearly two-thirds of the youth vote last November; if the election had been decided by voters under 30, Obama would have taken more than 450 electoral votes, according to a study of exit polls by progressive group Future Majority. And in May, a report by the Pew Research Center announced that for the first time in two decades, Republican voters were older on average than Democrats.

Republican leaders have conceded that the youth vote is critical to the party's survival and are making new overtures to bring them into the fold. What will these new advances look like? Local efforts in Florida, the perpetual swing state where the 2000 election was decided, provide a glimpse.

In a state where young voters went for Obama by a 61 percent clip, the Republican Party of Florida has enlisted an unlikely trio to speak at its youth-centric "Drive the Discussion '09" exchange this month: former Olympian Bruce Jenner, beauty queen Carrie Prejean and conservative mini-pundit Jonathan Krohn.

"The stakes are extremely high," RPOF Chairman Jim Greer said. "If the Republican Party fails to grow... it will not only fail on elections days, it may also fail to be a national influence on the political process."

Local bloggers have scoffed at the selection of what appears to be a motley group. But the psuedocelebrity-laden lineup arguably represents a cogent set of choices showing how the Republican Party intends to recast itself in the eyes of young voters.

The question, of course, is whether it will work.

Generation Debt

Jenner, the event's keynote speaker, admits he's probably better known by today's youth as Kim Kardashian's stepfather on E!'s reality show "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" than for the gold medal he won 33 years ago. "Everybody knows me for my kids," he said. And it's his concern for his children's future that drove him to speak on a political stage.

"I want to fight for my kids and the future generation -- they're the ones that are going to have to pay for all this," Jenner said, referring to a mounting budget deficit swollen by historic levels of government spending.

The thread of fiscal conservatism will be taken up repeatedly at GOP youth gatherings like the one planned in Florida later this month. Younger generations have been charged with footing the bill for about $60 trillion in unfunded liabilities in the form of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the national debt will match the gross domestic product as early as 2023, and interest payments on the national debt will reach $800 billion by 2019.

"We're on a fiscally unsustainable path," said Charles Konigsberg, chief budget counsel for the Concord Coalition, a fiscal discipline group. Younger generations will soon be forced to borrow vast sums of money just to pay the interest on the national debt, he said.

According to the Youth Entitlements Summit, which is dedicated to raising youth awareness of long-term budget problems, the combined cost of new taxes needed to pay for the rising cost of entitlements will mean that "the living standards of average workers in America will start to decline in the early 2020s," just as today's young voters reach middle age.

Zach Howell, chairman of the College Republican National Committee, said he expects to see a "dogged emphasis" placed on fiscal discipline as the GOP courts young voters in the coming years.

Still, it's hardly an open-and-shut case for Republicans -- the Bush years saw $1.3 trillion in tax cuts as well as massive spending on two wars and Medicare drug benefits. Howell said the party realizes it will be difficult to distance itself from the previous administration. Over the past 10 years, he said, "we've been very irresponsible in a lot of ways."

Widen The Tent?

While fiscal policy looks to be a central part of any revamped Republican youth outreach, it's unclear whether the party will dial down its rhetoric on social issues like same-sex marriage to better court a less outwardly religious, more socially libertarian generation. The selection of Carrie Prejean to speak at the Florida event suggests the local GOP is ready to begin tackling that question head-on.

Prejean became a familiar face when an answer she gave to a same-sex marriage question posed by gossip blogger Perez Hilton at the Miss USA pageant garnered widespread attention. Prejean's response to the din: "He asked me a question and I gave him my honest opinion."

Her selection indicates that the party is willing to engage in what Howell called a "healthy debate" on where it should stand on moral issues. Drive the Discussion is designed to "flesh out what issues are important to [young people], what issues aren't important, and in some cases prioritize those issues," Greer said.

Nationally, 54 percent of voters under 30 favor same-sex marriage, while only 37 say they oppose it, according to Pew. But Kathy Salerno, a deputy youth outreach coordinator at the RPOF who helped organize the event, is quick to note that, if this is the case, young Floridians bucked the national norm in 2008.

"In a year where you saw Barack Obama carrying some of our largest counties, those same areas voted for the conservative values of lower taxes and traditional marriage," she said, alluding to a Florida state constitutional ban on gay marriage backed by 53 percent of voters under 30.

The question of how culture-war issues will play with young people isn't limited to gay marriage, either: Support for legalized abortion in some or most cases among 18-to-29-year-olds has dropped 5 percentage points since this time last year, down from a majority of 52 percent to 47 percent, according to another Pew survey. Hosting Prejean could help the Florida GOP feel out a new generation of voters.

Faces Of The Future

A third prong in the RPOF's varied strategy is to showcase conservative voices of the future to a younger demographic. That's where Jonathan Krohn comes in.

Krohn, a smash hit at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference whom Time later dubbed "Lil' Limbaugh," is still years away from legally casting a ballot and much younger than most of the people he will be speaking to. But Salerno said Krohn was selected for his tone-setting ability and because he embodies the idea that "it doesn't matter how old you are -- you have to be passionate about what you do."

Greer said the RPOF is beginning to place a premium on up-and-coming conservative leaders. "When you look at the Republican Party of 2009, if you see the past then we're on a course to failure," he explained. "But if you see the Republican Party of the future, which is in fact the young people... then our greatest victories are yet to come."

Although Krohn may be viewed as a forward-looking young voice, he plans to preach to young people the same conservative gospel of low taxes and less government that Republicans espoused during the Reagan era.

"A lot of groups within the Republican Party have been able to pander to young people in a separate manner than the way they get their message out to the rest of the party, and that's a problem," Krohn said in an interview. "The only reason Barack Obama won the youth vote is because he said the same thing to young people that he said to adults."

'Substance, Not Silicone'

Of course, it's not hard to find critics of a strategy that relies on an aging reality TV personality, an adolescent pundit and a former beauty pageant queen. "It is not a winning strategy," said Bob Buckhorn, a Tampa-based Democratic strategist. "Young people look to substance, not silicone."

Republicans are hoping, however, that Drive the Discussion will not only help with honing their message to a hard-to-reach demographic but also serve as a listening session to hear young voters' concerns. "It's got to be a two-way conversation," Buckhorn said. "And they'll have to provide real solutions instead of just being the party of 'No.'"

As part of that push, the event aims to make up lost ground in the online arena as well; Web consultants will head panels to discuss what kinds of new media strategies can help the GOP connect with voters.

The efficacy of these new strategies remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: Florida Democrats are keeping up the pressure. The party took a net three House seats from GOP incumbents and gained nine seats in the state legislature since 2006. And while Republican Charlie Crist has a massive advantage in next year's Senate race, Bill McCollum has a strong opponent for governor in Democrat Alex Sink.

Greer said states such as Georgia and California have met with his party to discuss youth outreach strategies, and other states will also be keeping on eye how Drive the Discussion goes over. How the youth vote shakes out in 2010 will likely determine whether it's back to the drawing board for Florida Republicans, and other states as well.