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The Republican Party ignores young ‘millennials’ at its peril

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of the think tanks NDN and the New Policy Institute and the coauthors of "Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics."

If the Republican Party thinks it has problems now, just wait. The party’s incredibly poor performance among young voters in the 2008 election raises questions about the long-term competitiveness of the GOP.

The “millennials” -- the generation of Americans born between 1982 and 2003 -- now identify as Democrats by a ratio of 2 to 1. They are the first in four generations to contain more self-perceived liberals than conservatives.

And a recent Daily Kos tracking poll should send shudders down the spine of any Republican who understands how powerful a voting bloc this generation could become over the next decade.

Only 9% of millennials polled expressed a favorable opinion of the Republican Party. Only 7% were positive about the GOP’s congressional leaders. By contrast, 65% of millennials had a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, and a majority also approved of congressional Democrats.

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Though many people question the political sophistication of the millennials, they have been instilled with egalitarian and participatory values by their parents since birth.

This child-rearing produced a generation that was wide open to the personal appeal and message of Barack Obama and his party. Moving forward, the initial preference of millennials for President Obama and the Democrats will remain in place for a lifetime unless Republicans can quickly adapt their message and find a messenger who can speak to this powerful new force in American politics.

Only 41% of all millennials were eligible to vote in 2008, yet their overwhelming support for Obama transformed his win from what would have been a squeaker into a solid victory. Obama’s popular-vote margin over John McCain was about 9.5 million nationally; millennials accounted for nearly 7.6 million of those votes.

In the 2010 off-year election, half of millennials will be eligible to vote, representing about a fifth of the overall electorate. By 2012, 60% will be eligible to vote, and they could make up about a quarter of the American electorate when Obama runs for reelection. By 2020, when virtually all millennials will be over 18, they will represent 36% of the electorate and will completely dominate elections and the political agenda of America.

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And it seems likely that this civic generation, like its “Greatest Generation” great-grandparents, will vote in big numbers. Turnout among voters under 30 has been rising steadily since millennials began to replace the alienated and more cynical Gen-Xers in this age group. From a low of 37% in 1996, turnout increased to 53% of all eligible millennials, and 59% in the key battleground states in 2008.

Their unity of opinion and their numbers will make millennials’ preferences for economic activism, a non-intrusive approach to social issues by government at any level and a multilateral interventionism by America in foreign affairs the policy paths to political success during the next decade.

It is simply inconceivable that the Republican Party can craft a winning strategy between now and then that doesn’t accommodate these ideas.

But so far, Republicans appear to be tone-deaf on the issues that millennials care about.

Millennials have been reared with a desire to serve their community, and the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act provides them an opportunity to do just that, while at the same time dealing with their single biggest financial worry -- the high cost of a college education. Unfortunately, all but 25 House Republicans voted against the bill, despite its co-sponsorship by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Millennials also are experiencing higher levels of unemployment than any other generation. They expect the federal government to take an active role in fixing that problem and support redistributing income if necessary. But the almost-unanimous Republican opposition to the “recovery” act helped convince millennials that only one party actually understood their problems and was prepared to act in accordance with their beliefs.

Polls consistently show millennials are more committed to environmental protection than any generation in American history, willing to sacrifice economic growth or endure higher prices in order to save the planet. Given the millennials’ overwhelming concern with the environment, House Minority Leader John Boehner’s comments recently that carbon dioxide isn’t a real threat because “we all breathe it out” and, besides, “cows give out a lot of gas too,” went beyond inanity into the realm of political suicide.

The only tentative Republican gesture to millennial power to date is the GOP’s sudden fascination with a new social network platform, Twitter. By choosing Twitter -- with its limitations on content -- to connect to millennials, Republicans are actually demonstrating how little they know about this generation’s commitment to engaging in the content-rich challenges of rebuilding the nation’s civic institutions and national unification.

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Republicans will need to find a new message and much better messengers than their last presidential ticket or their current congressional leaders if they want to truly connect with today’s young voters. Failure to do so will leave Republicans, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, locked in the dogmas of their quiet past, unable to think and therefore act anew.


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