Once Strident, College Republicans Now Seek Moderate Tone For the GOP

TIME speaks with the Chair of the College National Republicans about Obamacare, "big government," an immigration tone shift, and gay marriage.

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Students listen as former U.S. Sen Rick Santorum speaks at the College Convention 2012 in Concord, N.H., on Jan. 5, 2012.

For decades, College Republicans positioned themselves on the hard edge of Grand Old Party politics. The members attended seminars bouncing around voter suppression strategies, and sent out aggressive fundraising letters like, “the Democrats don’t have any concern about hurting you, your family or America. Their sole concern is revenge — vengeance — retribution.” Jack Abramoff, when he served as chairman in the early 1980s said, “It is not our job to seek peaceful coexistence with the left. Our job is to remove them from power permanently.” Conservative publicist Craig Shirley, a former College Republican, told the Washington Post that the CRNC is “like passion mixed with Clearasil.”

While the pimples remain, the fervor has begun to turn to self-reflection. After President Obama garnered 5 million more votes than Mitt Romney among those under the age of 30, but 2 million fewer among those above 30, the organization has begun to call on the GOP to adopt a more moderate, youth-friendly tone. The College Republican National Committee’s new report, titled, “A Grand Old Party for a New Generation,” advocates fundamental changes in the party’s approach to the economy, Hispanics, and social issues like gay marriage.

Just don’t call it Republican-Lite. The measures are in line with the party’s adult professionals. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told Politico the CRNC’s “deep dive into what politically motivates Millennials, just like our Growth and Opportunity Project, are great steps for our party to engage with more voters and win more elections.” The once-activist arm of the Republican party, a breeding ground for the next generation of conservative consultants and politicians, has joined the long-term effort to distance itself from the grassroots’ occasionally controversial rhetoric.

TIME spoke this week with Alex Smith, the National Chair of the CRNC, to discuss the study’s findings. At the age of 24, Smith is a part of the “Millennial” generation, and doesn’t use the word. A slightly-edited transcript follows below:

What did you find in your study?

The big thing that our study focused was…our brand is broken, and that young people don’t view our brand positively. What do they want to view a national party as? And thinking about this question we actually ended up asking young voters in surveys and in our focus groups how they want themselves to be viewed. Thinking behind of course that a younger voter is going to want to elect or support a party that they view positively like they view themselves. And I think that the prevailing wisedom out there is that they were all going to choose “cool,” which was an option for them to choose. They only chose that to the tune of about 5%. In general they wanted to be seen as “hardworking,” as “responsible”, as “competent,” and I think that those are brand attributes of the Republican party we can absolutely capture going forward with younger voters.

What policies do you think are contributing to that image that you think has turned off young potential Republican voters?

One of the most interesting parts in the work that we did was looking at this concept of big government. That’s been a Republican catchphrase for the last, well, however many last elections I can remember. And Republicans have always railed on big government, saying we need to fight against big government. We as Republicans know what we mean when we say “big government,” but it translates to younger voters much differently than I think we realize. “Big government” to a young person could mean a federal wealth subsidy to fund their education. So they view it as an attack on them personally, instead of an attack on the size and scope of government. That being said, if you break down that issue, and you really look at the core parts of it that we mean, younger voters agree with us that we’re spending too much. They know that big on entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are broken, they are going to insolvent by the time we get to use them, and they think that government is doing too much that should be left to the private sector.

Do you think that Obamacare is a selling point for young people or do you think that it is a negative?

Our survey found that it was popular among young people, that being said, they also realize that the legislation itself costs a lot, we’re going to have to spend a lot to implement it, and the implemention is actually pretty messy. Not to mention the fact that it is funded on the backs of the young people. I think that the main issue with ACA and young people’s perception of it is really that it—and I’m speaking generally here—it’s one of those areas where I think we as Republicans need to come up with solution-oriented ideas. Instead of just standing against something, we need to be for something.

Because one of the things we saw over and over again in our survey were, particularly on the economic issues,  is that even if young people weren’t satisfied where they were or where their friends were in this economy, they give the President for trying. To me that suggests that he was offering something and we weren’t offering an alternative. We were just standing against whatever he was offering.

What bills on the floor sponsored by Republicans should young people be excited about?

I think—just generally speaking—the report talks about how issues like spending, education, and health care and jobs, where younger people have demonstrably said that it affects them and they care about it, we need to offer specific solutions about how we can help younger voters and help big broken institutions. And not be afraid to stand up for the little guy in those situations.

Have you spoken with the Party leadership?

Yes. We had a private briefing. [Some] Party leaders were out of town on Monday when the report was released. I’m not going to get into who was there, but I will say the reaction to the report was overwhelmingly positive. People welcomed the research that was put forth by the organization; they were happy we had invested time and resources into investigating the youth vote and how we can win them in the future. And they think that the solutions that we offer are workable. That these are things that we can take back. This has not only been the sentiment among the party leaders with whom we met on Monday, but also the chapter and state leaders on the College Republican end. They think these are real solutions they can take back to their campuses.

Would you agree that this report is different than College Republicans’ previous reports?

I would just say that going forward, this report encourages reaching out broadly in different segments on campuses and that’s what we are going to be focused on doing going forward…College campuses have never been a hospitable place for the Republican Party or the conservative movement. To the extent that we were aggressive it is in recognition of that. I would say that the only difference here is that we’re going to be aggressive at going after a broader spectrum of college students to join our cause.

On gay marriage:

For gay marriage, what we wanted to find out through our work is whether or not this is a threshold issue for younger voters…And we found that it is not a deal breaker, but it is by a small margin. So going forward, what we have to do is to embrace diversity that is already within our ranks. For example, former Vice President Dick Cheney was to the left of President Obama just a few months ago on the issue. And we also have to include the language of acceptance and tolerance as we go forward in speaking about this issue. As [Republican National] Chairman [Reince] Priebus said when he announced the Growth and Opportunity Project, that is this part of an issue about dignity and respect and that has to become a part of our vocabulary going forward.

Would young voters be more accepting of Republican candidates if they endorsed gay marriage?

I ‘d say that there is a diversity of thought among young people on this issue and on other social issues. Where we obviously think we can find more common ground among young people is on economic issues…The data shows that younger voters are more apt to agree with us on economic issue, and that is where we can start.

On Hispanic voters:

On the issue of Hispanic voters, we recognize that the youth vote as a segment of the electorate is increasingly becoming non-white. In looking on how we are going to talk to younger voters of all kinds of backgrounds, we want to look at the issue of immigration as it relates to Hispanics and their view of us as a party. In doing so, what we found we found that we have to be careful in how we label people in situations when it comes to legislation and when it comes to our rhetoric. That we need to specifically identify who we are talking about and to whom is targeted when we talk about immigration as a topic.

Is it purely a matter of rhetoric or is it also a matter of policy?

I think for right now the report recommends that we avoid these general labels and talk more about finding common ground with people of different backgrounds. For example, on the issue of entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship ranks incredibly high among the young participants that we interviewed for our surveys and for our focus groups. Particularly with the minority participants of these focus groups. The majority of these participants want to start their own business some day. They have a dream that they want to see realized. And we need to show them that we are going to be the party that is going to remove regulatory hurdles at the beginning, and to support them along the way.

Did you discuss the Senate’s immigration bill in your report?

We didn’t get into specific legislation when it came to illegal immigration, rather the report recommends avoiding generalizing when it comes to different groups of immigrants and how we are going to address the issue rhetorically going forward.

So it’s a tone shift?

Yes.

Final thoughts?

The one thing I really want our party to understand going forward, which as I mentioned in earlier talks with party leaders they do, the one thing I would really like to emphasize is that the youth is only growing. And that we can’t simply write off the youth vote as being liberal, and our demographic that gets conservative as they get older. Of course, voters in their thirties was the only demographic to improve for the President in this election cycle. We need to at least put up a fight when it comes to younger voters, and I think this report gives us the tools to be able to do that…we find that younger voters are actually more conservative on issues that I think is generally thought.

26 comments
vstillwell
vstillwell

Why do Republicans think their stance on gay marriage is the reason why they're loosing national elections? I never hear anyone talking about gay marriage. Ever. The only ones who talk about gay marriage are the party hardliners. Frankly, most of us just want this issue to go away so we can focus on the real issues like, you know, the economy, schools and all of that fun stuff. It's just idiotic to think that if Republicans become all rainbowish, they'll win national elections. I'm glad the gay community can get married. Good for them! But this is not a election winner. 

On another note: I'm tired of hearing Republicans gripe about broken government institutions. They've spent thirty years tearing down our institutions. What do they expect? Seriously, will these people ever stop and think that maybe they're just as much a part of the problem as the ones they blame? 

DebbieHanrahan
DebbieHanrahan

LOL  Hope springs eternal.  The party leaders don't give a hoot what GOP college students think.  The evidence is in the party's official platform, GOP GOV statements and policies.  IF the GOP truly cared their platform and policies would have already changed.  What have we seen?  The same old stuff just with new names. 

MrTemecula
MrTemecula

New packaging, same crap. Republicans first mention is brand so you know this is not going to be about policy but about emphasis. Once you get pass the smooth ad pitch, it's still the same OLD GOP...just like how your grandpa likes it.

MarcusTaylor
MarcusTaylor

If you are a "College Student", then you should be aware of "History". History shows that a Republican Administration was in office when the Savings & Loan crisis happened.  History shows that a Republican Administration was in office when the Iran-Contra-Guns-for-Hostages fiasco happened.  History shows that a Republican Administration was in office when the Housing Crisis-Almost a Depression Banking Scandal happened. History also shows that a Republican Administration signed into law the biggest Tax increase in the history of the United States.

So explain to me once again how some College students became republicans (who want to cut pell grants) and why?

sunnydaysam
sunnydaysam

The GOP has lost young people, Hispanics and women (look at the last election results for proof). What else is left? The GOP is going the way of the Whigs. 

BobJan
BobJan

same ole GOP, half truths galore. Remember "The Death Panels". LOL Palin and Bachmann, what a pair. A pair of nuts with all their lies and scare tactics. None of this article is of any importance. If the article had been about Democrats it wouldn't matter either. The truth of the matter is that "America is doomed" to be led by a Congress that is "bought and paid for". Until that problem is solved it's all unfixable. It'll just be one election after the other with someone saying "vote for me" and "I'll fix it" this time around. They'll fix it alright for the billionaire donors, that's who. Their main focus is to "divide and conquer". Gerrymandering is used for a reason by both parties and it's to keep the power flowing. Until that's fixed we do not live in a democracy. Quit thinking you live in the freest country in the world. It's only as free as they want it to be and that's not much. Taxpayers pay for corporations to move their companies overseas. WHY????? Because the corporations write the tax codes that favor that. Billionaires buy the Congress to write the tax code for their own personal agenda. WHY??? Because they give the politicians money for their campaign. Make the politicians be accountable for what they've accomplished, not what they're going to accomplish which never happens anyway.  Republicans don't want Obamacare. WHY????? They say it's too expensive. Hospitals say their charges to people with insurance is excessive because people that "have no insurance" use the emergency room as a doctors office. What's the Republican remedy to help with the heal care costs for the nation. NOTHING. But those Republican politicians all over the nation won't give theirs up to lighten the load on taxes. Wake up people. You're being duped and you know it. Stop it. Stop it immediately. There are 535 robots in Congress and they do what their "masters" tell them to do.

GreenFields
GreenFields

Young people tend to like the excitement of action and the courage of progress. Republicans represent non-action and fear of the unknown. It's as simple as that. They don't realize just how damaging an impression they've left on young voters, by being the party of "No" these past five years. That's a long time for a young person. If you came of voting age during President Obama's first term, The Republicans have almost entirely cemented themselves in your head as the party holding us back, halting the progress of our society. They've become the party of The Doldrums and that's frustrating for ambitious and energetic young people.

jmac
jmac

"They know that big on entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are broken. . . "

Social Security is not broken.  That's a lie.  It simply needs to be tweaked, as it's been tweaked many times before (34?)  It's a successful government program that just needs the hand of Reagan to tweak it (yes, he did).    Until Republicans (of any age) get serious about our economy and what happened to our economy, their party is broken.   The George W. Bush voodoo economics (his dad's term) doesn't work,  and right now W.  Bush's economic mindset reigns supreme.  

A "tone shift" on immigration.  Please.  It's not the tone that's the problem - it's wanting cheap labor at no cost.  Tell it to agriculture or big business if you want to stop immigration; don't make me puke with it's a "tone" problem.  



drudown
drudown

The fact that a GOP college student "operative" is focusing on unprovable, unsubstantiated and misleading "objections" to Obamacare tends to show how "perfect" they are for the "job", e.g., Obamacare makes access to Health Care more affordable (see, e.g., "implementation" in CA) and thus drives down COSTS across the board. How can she credibly contend that "implementation" is "messy" and "expensive"? The only aspect that can be aptly summarized as such is the GOP opposition in states  where their own constituents suffer on account of such opposition (see, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/06/opinion/the-split-between-the-states.html?ref=editorials ).

Sadly, here the declarant fails to take ownership that the "youth of tomorrow" are "paying" for the modern GOP's "no new taxes, ever" policy...perhaps she should try thinking for herself or at least explaining why, exactly, young people "really don't want help with student loans" or "affordable Health Care" without paying lip service to GOP talking points.

Please. We're all ears. 

cent-fan
cent-fan

"In doing so, what we found we found that we have to be careful in how we label people in situations when it comes to legislation and when it comes to our rhetoric. That we need to specifically identify who we are talking about and to whom is targeted when we talk about immigration as a topic."

  I wonder how they "label" the people they're talking about to all the low information blue collars and 'burbanites that flock to the message?  They ever consider the wooden shoe wearing tulip sniffing windmill riding Hollanders swimming to Bar Harbor without a sponsor?  Different problem?

roknsteve
roknsteve

Oh boy, candy on Friday that could last all weekend.  What do I love about Republicans?  They say the funniest things. " And they can't simply write off the youth vote as being to liberal", is something I'd love to hear a conservative say.  I dare you!   

carotexas
carotexas

For gay marriage, what we wanted to find out through our work is whether or not this is a threshold issue for younger voters…And we found that it is not a deal breaker, but it is by a small margin.

I cannot tell if the above is a deal breaker or not.





Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

The non-answer to "What bills on the floor sponsored by Republicans should young people be excited about?" tells me all I need to know.

They know they have a problem and they also know that they can't address it in any real way. 

As for "tone" for every republican who softens their rhetoric there will be a TPer explaining why they don't want African Americans to vote.  Even when a "rising star" like Rubio tries to move even a little on immigration reform the push back is so strong he threatens to vote against his own bill.

This is the republican party they cultivated and this is the republican party they need to live with. 



vstillwell
vstillwell

@MrTemecula Exactly. If they could only use Twitter more effectively, they would be unstoppable. I've been hearing this junk since 2008. First, it was their crappy ground game. Now it's their cranky attitudes. It's always something other than that load of crap they keep trying to feed us. 

GreenFields
GreenFields

@drudown Young voters are getting the clear message that Republicans are no longer interested in investing in our future. They fight for the here and now and seem unconcerned with the America their choices will leave the rest of us.

GreenFields
GreenFields

@cent-fan Both major parties have a labeling problem, I must say. They also both have a problem with picking golden groups that they give special privileges to, at the expense of other groups. With Republicans, the bogeymen are liberal minded people and non-whites. With Democrats, white Americans of European descent are thrown under the bus, in an attempt to secure an "us against them" collective voting block of non-whites. Both are wrong. Voters should be drawn-in by ideas, not by feeling like their skin color belongs or doesn't belong. 

GreenFields
GreenFields

@carotexas I think they meant that it wasn't a total deal breaker, yet but that the fact that it wasn't a total deal breaker is hanging by a thread of a margin; all it takes is for some young people to change their minds or another batch of more tolerant young people to become voters and then it will be a deal breaker. 

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

Sounds like a voice of confidence, no?

GreenFields
GreenFields

@Paul,nnto The extremism on both sides is a problem, although Republicans have taken extremism to...the most extreme lengths. To the point of ridiculousness, even. And they've actively drummed-up racism as an acceptable response to their base's fear of a changing demographic.

But Democrats have helped them along, with their own extremism -- and I'm saying this as someone who has often voted across the board "Democrat" and following careful consideration of each of their policies. My gripe with my party is that they assume I agree with a majority of their representatives' assertions that all European-American history  and influence is false, insignificant and should be totally replaced with the perspectives of other ethnic groups. Academia is a place where this rejection of white culture is generally acceptable (I've spent quite a bit of time in different institutions and noticed this pattern of acceptance) , simply because it was an is a culture that developed from the majority group in power over centuries. But good or bad, it is a part of who we are and liberal "values", as some colleges claim they support, does not mean treating people as has-beens, based solely on their skin color and ethnic heritage. American history and culture is not a zero-sum game.

TyPollard
TyPollard

@Paul,nnto 

Twenty years of tweaking paranoid peoples' fears is difficult to undo. For some, impossible.

GreenFields
GreenFields

@carotexas You can only claim to be the party of liberty and freedom, while limiting the relationship commitments consenting adults can make between themselves, for so long, before you start to sound hypocritical. 

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

20? You are a generous grader Mr Pollard.

sunnydaysam
sunnydaysam

@TyPollard @Paul,nnto My 'cut off'' was when the GOP left rational thought and dedicated everything to defeating anything Obama, to the detriment of all of us and our National Security. 

TyPollard
TyPollard

@Paul,nnto 

My cut off is when they abandoned all pretense of governing and resorted to exclusively fear mongering except for laws that benefit the wealthy.