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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Is the national GOP in trouble with younger voters?

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 6:59 a.m. MDT

In this August 2012 file photo, young Republican singing the national anthem before the arrival of then-Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. at a campaign rally in Lakewood, Colo. (Jack Dempsey, Associated Press) In this August 2012 file photo, young Republican singing the national anthem before the arrival of then-Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. at a campaign rally in Lakewood, Colo. (Jack Dempsey, Associated Press)

National College Republicans recently issued a report, "Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation," about the future of the GOP and millennial voters (those born 1980 to 2000). Relying on extensive polling and focus groups, the document presents a "dismal present situation," noting President Barack Obama's strong youth support in 2012 and the generational challenges faced by the GOP. As wizened curmudgeons, we have deluded ourselves into thinking we might have insights into behavior of voters less than half our age.

So are national Republicans in trouble with younger voters and what can they do about it?

Pignanelli: "Just because I'm younger, doesn't make you wiser." — Mary Gaohlee Thao

Our younger citizens view the GOP as a group of people who are worse than … LaVarr (a true nightmare!). Without a course correction, the party of Lincoln will evolve into 21st century Whigs.

In 1980, I served as co-chairman of the Utah College Democrats and watched with horror as millions of my fellow "tweeners" (late baby boomers) fell in love with an elderly B-movie actor. Gov. Ronald Reagan captured a majority of the youth vote because his sunny optimistic style offered hope and empathy with concerns of those entering the workplace. My colleagues were frustrated that Democrat leaders could only respond with 1960s rhetoric and whimsical longing for a society that had long passed. Modern Republicans face a similar dilemma.

While most younger Americans may share the concerns of Republicans (i.e. government overreach, deficit spending, abortion, etc.), the rhetoric is too harsh and narrow-minded for their ears. Furthermore, under-30 voters are appalled by GOP positions on immigration, gay rights, contraception, etc. Thus, a Rush Limbaugh, Jim DeMint style guarantees that Republicans will maintain control in parts of the South and West, but never again capture the U.S. Senate or presidency. But if they follow the lead of Gov. Chris Christie, Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Gov. Bobby Jindal, etc., the elections of 1980, 1984 and 1988 could be repeated.

Webb: Republicans are almost always in trouble with younger voters, so nothing has changed. Like Winston Churchill said, "Anyone who isn't a liberal by age 20 has no heart. Anyone who isn't a conservative by age 40 has no brain" (and Frank is well over 40).

I grew up in the '60s — the era of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, rebellion and war protests (I didn't indulge much) — when the generation gap was greater than perhaps any time in modern history. Our "greatest generation" parents knew we were all going straight to hell in a hand basket. Then we got older and voted in Ronald Reagan, the most conservative president in our lifetimes.

But I hope young people today are smarter than my baby boom generation. Despite loving Reagan, my generation (and succeeding generations as well) succumbed to the utopian promise that government can take care of everyone from cradle to grave (end poverty, educate the masses, keep the oceans from rising and save the planet) — and not by sufficient taxation to pay those enormous expenses, but by borrowing, borrowing, borrowing (40 cents of every dollar spent).

Thus, my generation has enjoyed generous government services, and we will get our Social Security and Medicare — but we didn't pay for them. We are leaving our children and grandchildren a $17 trillion (and growing) debt, with another $50 trillion or so in unfunded liabilities. I'm not proud of that legacy.

I hope young people will see how previous generations have encumbered their future and they will take a different course. I hope they will use advanced technology, social media networking and tolerant attitudes to retrench, with more self-reliance, less lavish lifestyles and a return to basics. They must demand less of government or face a Greece-style collapse. Young people are smart. A lot smarter than I was at their age. I have faith they will succeed.

Utah is a deeply red state, so do our young voters really have issues with their parents' party?

Pignanelli: Utah's younger voters follow the lead of their parents. But Obama will soon be a historical relic, and Republican principles will have to stand alone without a handy bogeyman. Research results from Utah pollsters indicate our younger Utahns share the same libertarian streak with fellow millennials. This dynamic will soon play out in local inter-party contests.

Webb: Utah Democrats have been waiting for 30 years for the pendulum to swing in their direction. They will wait another 30 unless Republicans self-destruct from within, by allowing the right wing to dictate policy and run the state. Utah's young people will become good Republicans as long as the party sticks to its foundation of limited government and low taxes, along with mainstream, pro-growth, problem-solving policies that result in excellent education and great jobs.

Is there potential benefit for Utah Democrats in all this?

Pignanelli: The report also concluded: "It is not that young voters are enamored of the Democratic Party. They simply dislike the Republican Party more." Equally revealing, most respondents could identify Republican thought leaders with ease, but were stymied when asked about Democrats other than Hillary Clinton. In Utah — and across the country — not being Republican is a short-term strategy. Democrats must articulate thoughtful solutions … soon.

Webb: It will take a number of years, but Democrats badly need to cultivate bench strength in Utah — mainstream problem-solvers who are not highly ideological. Congressman Jim Matheson and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams are good models.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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