On Saturday, for the second year in a row, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul won the Conservative Political Action Conference’s (CPAC) Straw Poll. Receiving 31 percent of the vote, Sen. Paul nearly tripled his nearest competition, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX).
The internals of the poll — which no news organization seems to be discussing — mesh well with a new Pew survey of the Millennial generation to explain Senator Paul’s apparent presidential campaign strategy: to energize and win young voters in much the same way that Barack Obama did in 2008.
It’s a difficult task, getting people in their 20s and 30s to vote for a Republican, but it may be the GOP’s best hope to win a presidential election in the near future. If CPAC is any measure — and it is — Rand Paul seems to be well on the way toward being the choice of younger voters, at least younger conservatives and libertarians.
Reporters covering CPAC regularly noted how many young people were in attendance. I didn’t understand the scale of young person participation until digging into the Straw Poll results: Of those registered with the conference and thus able to vote in the Straw Poll, 42 percent were students. Forty-six percent of CPAC registrants were between the ages of 18 and 25, with another 18 percent being between 26 and 40 years old. This is Rand Paul territory to be sure.
In his CPAC speech, Senator Paul barely mentioned the Republican Party, instead focusing on “lovers of liberty” and on issues like NSA surveillance and indefinite detention without trial, neither (especially the latter) an issue one would expect to be emphasized (or even mentioned) by John McCain or Mitt Romney or the previous generation’s nominees such as Bob Dole. Rand Paul does not represent your father’s GOP.
Other aspects of the CPAC voters which are worth mentioning, and knowing which would have allowed an easy prediction of a Rand Paul victory:,
CPAC was obviously friendly territory for the GOP’s most libertarian likely candidate, and Rand Paul knew it.
A new Pew Research Center survey of attitudes of the Millennial generation suggests that if Republicans can win the presidency by peeling some of the young adult vote away from the Democratic Party then a candidate like Rand Paul would be the person to make it happen.
While Millennials lean more Democratic than Republican, fully half of them are not affiliated with a political party. For each of the other generations (Gen X, Baby Boomer, Silent), that number is between 32 and 39 percent.
Millennials self-identify as more liberal than any other generation, but that is true throughout history: As Winston Churchill put it, “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.” Most 20-somethings are much more heart than brain.
However, Millennials are more socially liberal than politically liberal: They are only 9 percent more liberal than the national average on political issues, but 15 percent more liberal on social issues. And when one party represents all things liberal or all things conservative, it would not be surprising for young voters’ opposition to Republican social issues policies (especially gay marriage) to result in their also defaulting to opposing the GOP by assuming liberal political or economic views that they might not otherwise hold. Therefore, a GOP de-emphasis of social issues — while not walking away from most conservative values but perhaps focusing the debate in the states — is a credible electoral strategy for someone targeting younger voters. That’s just what Rand Paul is doing.
Millennials are strongly in favor of same-sex marriage. So Rand Paul, while not supporting gay marriage, has said that it is an issue that should be left to the states. Following the Supreme Court’s dismantling of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Sen. Paul said, “As a country we can agree to disagree.” He is clearly trying to thread the needle here, on one hand supporting individual states’ laws affirming traditional marriage while also favoring a repeal of DOMA. To constitutional conservatives and libertarians, it is a welcome nuance, along with his suggestion — long championed by libertarians — that “there are ways to make the tax code more neutral, so it doesn’t mention marriage. Then we don’t have to redefine what marriage is; we just don’t have marriage in the tax code.”
Millennials are more open to a path to legalization (whether or not with citizenship) for illegal aliens than are older generations. While Rand Paul sensibly voted against an immigration reform bill that did not adequately secure the border, he explained that “Any immigration reform must expand legal immigration and the work visa program,” a somewhat risky position to stake out among Republican immigration hawks. He also threads this needle by considering a pathway to legalization that excludes citizenship, such as through a new or expanded work visa program.
(This is similar to the “Red Card Solution,” which should get more consideration from Republicans and Democrats alike, except that Democrats are married to the idea of citizenship in order to increase the number of likely Democrat voters.) Again, Senator Paul’s view seems tailor-made, perhaps specifically designed, to appeal to younger voters while maintaining conservative policy goals such as serious border enforcement and economic growth.
Millennials, again like young people throughout the ages, are occasionally muddle-headed, holding certain inconsistent views (and holding them quite strongly, perhaps because they believe F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of intelligence).
For example, they dislike Obamacare but believe the federal government should be involved in getting health insurance for everyone. They support bigger government while believing that Social Security will be bankrupt before they retire (and almost all of those who think it will survive believe that benefits will be less than they are for today’s Social Security recipients.) In 2011, Senator Paul touched this third rail of politics, offering a Social Security reform bill along with Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). He realizes that the voltage in the rail is proportionate to the age of his audience.
Although Senator Paul can get a little wonky or wander into the policy weeds, both his appearance — looking even younger than his young-by-Senate-standards 53 years — and his approach are appealing to younger voters, at least those whose minds are at least slightly open to reason and not simply part of the Cult of Obama and the coming rebirth of the Cult of Clinton.
Still, Millennials will be a tough nut for any Republican to crack. They are programmed throughout school, and especially in college, to be liberals, to think that conservatives and Republicans are not just wrong, but bad. So, while young adults still feel more proud of President Obama than any other generational cohort, it is also among this group that Obama has suffered the biggest decline in popularity. While young adults have a more favorable view of the Democratic Party than of the GOP, the gap is now the narrowest it has been in a decade. They are, as young people tend to be, a study in contradictions.
Rand Paul smells an opportunity, and I think he’s on to something. The Democratic vote advantage among young voters has been overwhelming in the last two presidential elections. If a Republican can get them back to a more typical pattern of the last 40 years (where they roughly split their vote between the parties), even half-way back, it could be enough to swing a presidential election to the GOP.
One of the most telling statistics from the Pew survey of Millennials is that only 19 percent of them say that “most people can be trusted.” The other generations range between 31 percent and 40 percent. Rand Paul’s policy positions almost all revolve around an inherent distrust of the federal government, something that should appeal — even if subconsciously — to many of America’s newest voters, including many who by default consider themselves liberals or Democrats.
Even pundits on Fox News are starting to discuss the Millennial vote, to note that young adults are far more socially liberal than other Americans. Demographics are hard to fight, so the Republican Party needs to determine its approach to this basic fact about millions of voters who are going to be with us for many elections to come.
But the GOP activist base, those who participate in caucuses and primaries, tends to be older. They’re not the same people who were at CPAC, or at least the CPAC crowd tends not to be the majority at those events.
So can a libertarian-leaning Republican like Rand Paul, a strong federalist who explicitly argues for underplaying social issues (while maintaining conservative positions on those issues), who champions civil liberties over the last degree of “security,” and who, while not isolationist, is for a much less aggressive foreign policy, win the party’s nomination and be put in a position to contend for young voters?
Or will the GOP base again nominate a person who will be viewed by Millennials, likely a must-have constituency in any victorious Republican coalition, as just another old white guy, whether a war hero or venture capitalist or a preacher, whom they just don’t understand and who they believe does not understand them?
Rand Paul seems to be staking his political future on the energy and libertarian leanings of youth. Now let’s see if any other Republican has a better idea.