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?
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.