Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior editor at National Review, and a leading conservative pundit. The views expressed here are his own.
June 11 (Bloomberg) — Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, won among voters over the age of 30, but lost younger voters by 23 points. That statistic has gotten a lot of attention from Republicans, especially since they have now lost young voters in three presidential elections in a row. They worry that voting Democratic could be habit-forming for this generation.
The party leadership’s post-election “autopsy” offered a superficial take on its challenge with young voters: It’s just social issues, and particularly Republican opposition to same-sex marriage, that have turned them off. The College Republican National Committee has just released a detailed report on young voters that goes considerably beyond this conventional wisdom.
It’s true that most polls find strong support for same-sex marriage among young people. The report, mainly written by Winston Group pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, tries to gauge how important the issue is in driving their votes. It finds that 26 percent of young voters favor same-sex marriage and wouldn’t vote for a candidate who opposes it even if they agreed with that candidate on most other issues. Some of those voters, maybe most of them, must lean toward the Democrats on issues other than same-sex marriage. So Republicans are losing some young voters on this issue, but it may not be central to the party’s troubles.
And young people aren’t socially liberal when it comes to abortion. In the College Republicans’ March survey, 51 percent of them believed abortion should be banned altogether or with exceptions in unusual circumstances. They aren’t all that liberal on immigration, either. About 65 percent of young voters favored deporting illegal immigrants, enforcing the law before offering them legal status, or offering them legal status but not citizenship — all positions to the right of the immigration bill now being debated in the Senate. Young voters also consider climate change a low-priority issue.
They are deeply concerned, on the other hand, about economic issues. And Republicans have a lot of work to do on them. A majority of young voters think the party’s economic policies played a big role in the recession. They don’t follow Republican politicians in thinking that higher taxes on the rich are higher taxes on small business. Although they tend to agree with Republicans about the future of entitlement programs for the elderly, they are much more worried about the here-and-now. (The report cites a survey showing 20 percent of young people had delayed marriage because of the economy.) They consider student-loan debt a major obstacle to their goals.
And they give President Barack Obama credit for trying to help the economy, reduce their debt burden, and fix health care. Among those young voters who approve of Obama’s job performance, “trying” was the No. 1 word they used about him — as in, he has been trying to improve things.