Springfield, Virginia—When I first stumbled across Kirsten Powers’s column  on the Daily Beast arguing that Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) appeals to young people, it struck me as an obviously ridiculous notion. But she had numbers from a poll—which admittedly could just be an outlier—to back it up. “A Zogby/JZ Analytics poll Tuesday showed increased support among voters 18–29 for the Romney ticket, which pollster John Zogby attributed to the Ryan pick,” writes Powers. “President Obama received just 49 percent of the youth vote, versus Romney’s 41 percent. (Obama took home 66 percent of the youth vote against McCain in 2008.)”
So, is it possible that Ryan will actually eat into President Obama’s margins among his strongest age demographic?
Going to a Paul Ryan rally hardly bears out the notion. Ryan spoke Friday afternoon at a high school auditorium in this suburb of Washington, DC, to a crowd that was every bit as old, if a bit more boisterous, as at the typical Romney campaign stop. Notwithstanding all the young volunteers selling T-shirts and signing up voters in the oppressive heat outside, the crowd indoors was mostly gray-haired or bald. The typical young person was a small child, brought here by her grandparents, trying to amuse herself.
Some of the few young adults in attendance said they are not even Romney-Ryan supporters, merely interested spectators. And in terms of diversity—the trademark of the Millennial generation—well, there was almost none. The crowd appeared more than 99 percent white, even though surrounding Fairfax County is 32 percent non-white. (In the rafters behind the speakers, set up for the benefit of the TV cameras and featuring a carefully selected crowd, I counted more African-Americans, three, than in the much larger audience standing in front.)
Republicans certainly seem to think Ryan may help them combat their well-deserved image as a geriatric movement. Former Representative Artur Davis of Alabama, who has recently switched parties and will speak at the Republican National Convention, introduced Ryan and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cucinelli. “A week ago our Democratic friends had the illusion that we were an older party, the party of the last generation,” said Davis, 44. “Now, I’m the oldest man on this stage.” (Kuccinnelli just turned 44, but he is nine months younger than Davis, and Ryan is 42.) Of course, being young and being in touch with youth culture are not the same things. Davis ribbed Ryan about Led Zeppelin’s being his favorite rock band, noting that he himself is “a Genesis man.”
But one thing is true: the young people, whomever they will vote for, say they like Ryan more than Mitt Romney. And one can see why. As Obama’s and Mike Huckabee’s success in 2008 demonstrates, young voters tend to respond more to politicians who come across as authentic and affable. Romney is blatantly phony and has shown flashes of anger.
And while Ryan is staunchly socially conservative, he benefits from being identified with economic issues. That’s an appealing quality to financially pressed young people who are not invested in the Baby Boomers’ culture wars.
“Our economy is fucked up,” says Barry, 27, who refuses to give his last name. Barry, an African-American graduate of Georgetown, voted for Obama in 2008, but now he is selling Romney T-shirts. “The economy isn’t really Obama’s fault,” Barry acknowledges. “But he doesn’t have a plan to fix it. The Ryan plan will lower our debt.” Barry, who got laid off in 2008, is a one-issue voter. He admires Ryan’s gumption for having, “taken a hard stand with the budget.” His over-arching concern is the economy and how it affects him personally. “With Ryan, he’s more focused on what I’m focused on: the economy,” says Barry, who was laid off from Goldman Sachs in 2008. “Republicans’ supply side principles will fix the economy in a way that will work for me. The best would be a Ryan-Romney ticket.”
Historical concerns that have aligned African-American voters with Democrats, such as civil rights, are of no interest to Barry. “Worrying about the issues of other African-Americans doesn’t appeal to me,” says Barry. “If a company doesn’t want to hire black people, I’ll say that’s not right, but I won’t vote for a president to make it right. That’s not really his job.” Similarly, he supports gay marriage but does not consider it a voting issue.
Other young voters shared Barry’s preference for Ryan over Romney, also citing his commitment to economic policy and the supposed constancy of his values. “I like Paul Ryan a lot more than Romney,” says Rick Ewell, 21, a student at George Mason University. “Ryan really knows what he’s talking about on the economy. Romney is always flip-flopping.” Trouble may lie ahead for Romney with voters such as Ewell, though, if he keeps refusing to specify how he will pay for his tax cuts and defense spending increases. Like Ryan, Romney says he will eliminate tax deductions and reduce social spending, but he refuses to say which tax expenditures and social programs he will cut and by how much exactly. Ewell says that information is essential, because he does not want to see government layoffs that will worsen unemployment. Rather he thinks cuts should come from entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. In point of fact, the Romney-Ryan budget will mean massive cuts and layoffs to government employees, from FBI agents to food inspectors. Even though Ryan was sure to hit the hypocritically Keynsian talking point that Northern Virginia stands to lose defense related jobs if the automatic spending cuts from the sequestration bill he voted for go through, it will probably lose far more from other government agencies under his plan.
Even young Obama supporters may find Ryan less distasteful than Romney. “I kind of like Paul Ryan,” admits Aiden McHugh, 23. McHugh is likely to vote for Obama, but he is unemployed so he had nothing better to do and a friend brought him along to the event. His friend, a former Republican Congressional staffer, is not particularly excited by Romney, but is very enthusiastic about Ryan. McHugh supports fiscal responsibility, but thinks that Romney and Ryan’s proposals to cut taxes for the wealthy are counterproductive to that goal. Although he is pro–gay rights McHugh believes social issues are less important than the economy. Like many other young people, he is turned off by Romney’s soulless pandering. “I hate Romney,” says McHugh. “He’s a very negative person. He will do anything to get ahead. It’s almost like he doesn’t have a conscience. I don’t necessarily like Ryan, but I really dislike Romney. Ryan is more personable and genuine. But anyone seems more genuine than Romney.”
Republicans seem to hope that Ryan’s authenticity can be transfused into Romney. “The first two things you get with any candidate,” said Cuccinelli, introducing Ryan, “are character and integrity. Romney has reflected well [on himself] by picking someone with both.” Can picking a running mate with character be a substitute for having your own? If so, it might help Romney with young voters.