Hard and Soft Sell : Orange County GOP Goes After the Younger Voters
First of two parts on how Republicans and Democrats are wooing Orange County’s young voters. Next: A new Democrratic club hopes to revive the party in the county.
The Orange County Republican Party started courting Tim Baynham four years ago when he was a tennis-playing junior at El Toro High School. After attending several GOP-sponsored youth leadership training institutes, Baynham gave up his allegiance to the Democratic Party.
“I went in calling myself a Democrat,” Baynham, 21, recalls. “But I had never seen the Republican Party displayed like it was at the leadership conferences. The Republicans presented to me an attitude I could identify with, about individual freedom and personal choice. I found it very appealing.”
Now a political science major at UCLA, Baynham is active in Republican Youth Associates, a group sponsored by the county GOP Central Committee.
Baynham’s conversion illustrates the county GOP’s resolve to woo 18- to 24-year-olds, who strongly supported President Rea gan in pre-election polls but who stayed home in droves on Election Day.
County Republican officials are also targeting “baby boomers” between 24 and 39.
The approach is both hard and soft sell, attracting a variety of young people, from computer-oriented “nerds” interested in high-tech space weapons to “yuppies” keen on personal initiative and upward mobility.
‘Heavy Metal’ Music
The county GOP is now spending thousands of dollars annually on leadership conferences, college scholarships, special U.S. State Department foreign policy briefings, “heavy metal” music at Republican social events, access to Republican officeholders and new campus clubs that offer “alternative perspectives” on controversial issues.
Although Republicans already have a solid majority in Orange County, party leaders believe an even stronger local organization will aid GOP efforts to become the majority party nationally.
“The 18- to 24-year-old group has been strong and very positive in its support of the President, at least among those who voted,” said county Republican Chairman Tom Fuentes. “We need to do all we can to keep them aboard.”
The party’s youth activities have been successful, Fuentes added, because they attract people outside the political mainstream: students who are not political science majors and whose parents are not already active in politics.
“There are those youths who are still not ready to commit themselves, but there are some among them who will remember that it was the Republican Party that invited them to a fun event,” Fuentes said.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the county have been struggling to rebuild since the November election. The Democratic Foundation of Orange County, which targets wealthy Democrats, and the Democratic Associates, which focuses on younger, upwardly mobile professionals, have sponsored well-attended events featuring such national political figures as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri).
Outside Party Structure
Both groups have an expanding membership, but they are working outside the party structure. In fact, the county Democratic Central Committee refused recently to charter the Democratic Associates as an official party organization because the group allows Republicans to join.
Outreach programs specifically aimed at young people are still under review by the Democratic Central Committee and were not included on the committee’s list of priorities until last month.
“Democrats realize they can never compete with Republicans financially or in terms of slick programs, but we believe we will prevail with young people on the basis of issues,” said John Hanna, a member of the county’s Democratic Central Committee and chairman of the Democratic Associates.
For county Republicans, psychology plays an important part in the drive to capture support from younger voters, who usually don’t have many political experiences on which to base party allegiance.
Gary C. Lawrence of Decision Making Information, a Santa Ana firm that does national opinion surveys for the White House, said he noticed that “Reagan’s support among youth dipped sharply after Reagan bombed in his first televised campaign debate” with Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale.
Support Bounced Back
“But support among the same age group bounced back to previously strong levels for the President after the second debate,” Lawrence said.
Adults did not show such a wide swing in support.
“I think this shows that young people, who have the least varied and lowest number of political experiences of any age group, are strongly influenced by the few encounters with politics that they do have,” Lawrence said.
One of the most successful Republican youth programs is an annual youth leadership institute.
Started four years ago at a private retreat in Coto de Caza, the one- or two-day institutes expose high school and college students to Republican officeholders, political analysts from organizations such as Santa Monica-based Rand Corp. and speakers such as Charles Wiley of Accuracy in Media, a conservative organization that criticizes news organizations for allegedly biased, liberal reporting.
The 75 students who attended the institute in April came away with a favorable impression of the Republican Party, according to Lynn Turner, chairman of the county GOP’s youth advisory committee.
‘Feel Good About Country’
“There was a mix of Democrats and Republicans,” Turner said. “The popularity of Ronald Reagan among these young people is enormous. He simply makes them feel good about their country . . . . The (1984) Summer Olympics also had a lot to do with it, by increasing patriotism.”
Baynham, the 21-year-old UCLA student who turned Republican after attending several of the leadership conferences, said he first heard about the program from a high school counselor.
Another device for reaching high school students is the Dwight D. Eisenhower Scholarship Fund, which provides $1,000 college scholarships each year to two Orange County high school seniors.
This year the scholarships were awarded to two young women who are scheduled to attend Harvard University in the fall.
The county GOP has also sponsored two youth dances and an “All-America” celebration featuring Olympic athletes. The events have each drawn more than 200 young people, many of whom were responding to flyers posted on school bulletin boards. The price tag: about $6,000 for the events held since the November election, which is more than the entire treasury of the Orange County Democratic Central Committee.
Some Work in Campaigns
But some youths have been brought into the Republican fold by firsthand experience in political campaigns.
Jeff Ullman, 17, of La Habra worked as a volunteer in Republican Robert K. Dornan’s successful 1984 campaign to unseat veteran Rep. Jerry Patterson (D-Santa Ana).
“I heard about the campaign from a friend,” Ullman recalled. “I come from a household that is split politically, with one parent from each party. I had been undecided for a long time, but I liked the Republicans’ positive outlook on current issues, instead of a dreary, end-of-the-world attitude that seems to come from Democrats.”
Ullman, who wants to major in electrical engineering and minor in computer science and political science when he gets to college, programs his own Latin vocabulary quizzes on his Apple home computer.
“I’m interested in Star Wars (Reagan’s Strategic Arms Defense Initiative) and a stronger defense, and that’s what the Republican Party is for,” Ullman said.
A student at the all-male, Catholic Servite High School in Anaheim, Ullman acknowledged that Youth for Dornan was aggressive toward Patterson supporters (there were several physical confrontations between the two groups during the 1984 campaign).
‘Attack and Counterattack’
But Ullman defended the Dornan supporters, saying their zeal grew out of the bitter nature of the campaign itself.
“It was very much an attack and counterattack campaign,” he said. “Some of the campaign literature from the other side would get us upset, and we would feel like we had to do something to get back at them. The fire was always there.”
Another Dornan volunteer, Cindy Gonzalez of Buena Park, is a 20-year-old political science major at the University of Southern California.
Constantly at odds with her father over her support of Reagan, Gonzalez joined Dornan’s campaign through a school-sponsored internship. A friend participating in the same program worked for Patterson’s reelection.
Gonzalez said she initially saw political science courses as “an easy way to get into law school.” But she said the Dornan campaign “changed all that.”
Organizing rallies and demonstrations for Dornan, she said, made her “proud to be an American.”
And she hopes to run for public office eventually--as a Republican.
Currently, Gonzalez serves as an alternate member of the county Republican Central Committee. She was recently invited to Washington for a special GOP-sponsored youth briefing on foreign policy at the U.S. State Department.
As for the older yuppie group, a major part of the county Republican effort to woo this segment involves a rejuvenated Young Republican organization that has targeted the 24-39 age group.
The group’s chairman is Nathan Rosenburg, a USC graduate, real estate investor and former Navy pilot who parlayed three dozen paid memberships into about 250 in the last six months.
Picture a party scene from the television series “Dallas,” in which J.R. Ewing and friends arrive decked out in Western garb, drink and holler to good ol’ country tunes and roll a few dice on green felt tables.
But instead of arriving by horse, truck or private helicopter, some guests arrive by yachts docking at the back porch.
Welcome to the Young Republicans’ “Oil Barons Ball.”
Held recently at Balboa Pavilion in Newport Beach, the ball drew more than 150 people and generated 75 new Young Republican memberships.
“We’re purposely trying to keep from being an elitist group,” Rosenburg said. “It only costs $36 to join.”
There was a mix at the ball of young professionals, entrepreneurs, white collar office workers and a few older college students.
‘Always a Little Wary’
Some people said they came because a friend invited them. A few said they came because their dates insisted. But others said they were genuinely interested in the Republican Party.
Former Democrat Laura Holmes, a teacher at a Costa Mesa elementary school, was among those who attended. “I had always been a little wary of politics,” she said. “But I wanted to learn more.”
She said it was Gov. George Deukmejian’s proposal to increase funds for some higher eduction, the number of party activities and the enthusiasm of her Republican friends that won her over.
Meanwhile, campus Republican organizations are also experiencing a membership boom, according to Steve Sheldon, 20, chairman of the 113-member student Republican club at Cypress College.
Many participants in the club’s events, says Sheldon, are Democrats who have not yet switched parties but who are concerned that their instructors may be giving them a “one-sided, liberal perspective” in classroom lectures and discussions.
Sheldon is among those who say President Reagan’s personal popularity is a factor with youth, but added:
“Our economy is doing better; we’re not in Vietnam.”
Greg Haskin, county GOP executive director, said of the party’s expensive youth programs: “We’re not buying votes with these programs. We do as a party try to reward loyal participants . . . . And people like to join a going organization. It also helps to have a popular Republican president sitting in the White House.”