John McCain is, by his own admission, computer illiterate. Those boxes of motherboards, microprocessors, sound cards, video cards, disc drives and hard drives baffle him. E-mail? Barely a clue. Facebook? Don’t even bother. Nevertheless, with just over two months until Election Day, McCain, technological deficiencies and all, is eyeing the votes of the estimated 50 million Twittering, text messaging, iPod-toting young voters in this country. In doing so, McCain’s “straight talking” campaign faces a daunting challenge: selling the senior senator from Arizona, a man born before the advent of cable television, VCRs and cell phones, to a technologically dependent generation with whom he has practically nothing in common.
It’s an almost universally accepted fact that John McCain, who would be the oldest first-term President in US history, will not win a majority of the youth vote. Barack Obama has enjoyed impressive support from young people since entering the race, and the chances of those throngs of voters inexplicably switching their allegiance are about as good as McCain creating his own Second Life avatar. Numerous polls and surveys show Obama ahead by at least twenty percentage points or more among young voters, a lead the McCain campaign cannot expect to overcome by November.
On the other hand, they don’t have to. McCain simply needs to chip away enough at Obama’s lead among the young–or simply discourage young first-time voters from making a trip to the polls–to make a potentially close election more winnable. However, for Republicans another fear lurks beyond the loss of young Americans this November. As any advertiser knows, if you brand successfully among the young, you create potential customers for life. In politics, the same concept has historically proven to be true. If the GOP fails to bring a new generation into their ranks this election season, they may continue to lose the votes of that generation for years, even decades, to come, dooming the Republican Party to minority status well into the future.
Worse yet, for the McCain campaign and Republican Party veterans, the numbers do not look promising this year. Since forming his presidential exploratory committee in November 2006, the senator has consistently trailed his competitors–both Republican and Democratic–in youth support. Throughout the primaries, youth polls and surveys consistently showed McCain’s support lagging behind that of his competitors. Since clinching the nomination in early March, it’s only gotten worse. After all, he now faces a candidate who really excites young Americans, Barack Obama.
Of course, when it comes to the youth vote in this election, any Republican nominee would begin the race at a significant disadvantage. Young people are clearly skewing to the left this election year, identifying more with the Democratic Party and embracing more liberal positions on so-called wedge issues by sizeable majorities. They’ve supported more lenient approaches to dealing with illegal immigrants, agreed that all citizens should have healthcare (even if the government has to provide it to those who can’t afford it) and supported either same-sex marriage or civil unions for homosexual couples. Meanwhile, John McCain has wavered on immigration, his healthcare plan has been described as “total “laissez-faire liberty” and he opposes both same-sex marriage and allowing gay couples to adopt.
Above all else, it’s McCain’s age–and how voters perceive his age–that works against him. In late August, McCain will turn 72, making him a quarter century older than Obama. A Pew Research Center for People and the Press survey in February found that “old” was the first word the majority of respondents offered when asked about John McCain. When asked about Obama, “inexperienced” topped the list. A New York Times/CBS News poll from March 2007 reported that less than 1 percent of respondents believed the “best age for a president of the United States” was “in their 70s.”
The odds are clearly stacked against McCain’s mission to woo young voters. However, various youth organizers for the Republican candidate–officially working for the campaign as well as with “independent” McCain groups–want to tell a different story. For them, polling numbers aren’t everything; in fact they’re nothing that some genuine grit, determination and optimism can’t overcome.
“Let me just start by saying that it would not be unheard of for a Republican candidate to win the youth vote,” says Justin York, a grassroots youth organizer for McCain in Florida and an incoming junior at the University of Central Florida (UCF). York points out that Ronald Reagan, nearly McCain’s age in 1984, won the majority of youth voters in his reelection bid and George H.W. Bush, at the age of 64, also captured the majority of youth voters four years later. And if York’s organizing efforts in Florida pay off, perhaps McCain can repeat their successes.
A self-described “Theodore Roosevelt conservative,” York works for the Knights for McCain, a student-run organizing group started in August 2007 (The Knight is UCF’s mascot). Independent of the McCain campaign’s official Students for McCain network, the group works closely with UCF’s College Republicans chapter, and first helped promote McCain in the lead-up to the Florida primary. York himself built contacts with numerous other Florida McCain on-campus activists and took pride in the senator’s decisive primary victory. Still, he’s willing to acknowledge the hurdles he and his fellow organizers face in selling their peers on John McCain.
The 2008 election is perceived as the Democrats’ to lose; Obama is young and charismatic; and Obama says he’ll address the bitter partisanship that has marred Washington politics for as long as most young people can remember. For all these reasons, York suggests, many young people have eagerly embraced Obama’s campaign. “We’re not going to win the cosmetic battle,” he readily admits. And while offering McCain’s positions on issues like the Iraq war or healthcare may be important, York believes the key to generating youth support is highlighting those intangibles that Republicans have long considered their territory–“values” and “character.”
McCain’s distinguished military record and long tenure as a civil servant will be important talking points for McCain youth organizers in the coming months. It’s these traits that they believe will separate him from Obama in the minds of young people. “We’re going to talk about character and try to make that contrast with Senator Obama who many people think is a shaman [and]… a mystic leader who’s going to transform our politics, when the most noticeable thing about him is that he voted 130 times ‘Present’ in the Illinois legislature,” York argues. “[Obama] is a man with a thin record, and a man of few accomplishments, who is running to be President of the United States against a genuine war hero and a man who actually put his political career on the line as recently as last year for his country.”
Over 3,000 miles away, Geoff Smock, the Washington State Students for McCain chair, agrees that Obama’s appeal to young people will prove difficult for McCain and the Republican Party to overturn. “There are understandable reasons for people my age supporting Senator Obama to the degree they do,” Smock, an incoming senior at Pacific Lutheran University, concedes. “He’s very eloquent, and I think he appeals to [young people’s] general sense of optimism and ideals.”
Smock, who worked as an organizer for the Bush/Cheney campaign in 2004, believes, like York, that presenting McCain’s “record” and “character” will be important in narrowing the gap between the two candidates’ youth support. “If we can get young people to focus on his record closely,” Smock contends, “they’ll see routinely he has worked for the prosperity of the US.”
With numerous polls showing the economy weighing heavily on the minds of young Americans, the best strategy for gaining ground on Obama and bringing young people into the GOP may be, Smock thinks, to sell his peers on McCain’s proposals to let workers pay into private retirement savings accounts and to make health insurance more portable and transferable between jobs. “The top thing I would say is how he’s going to reform economic institutions to work for us,” Smock insists. “We need to convince young people that he has a plan to do this.”
But banking on Gen-Nexters to help deliver a narrow victory will be hard unless youthful enthusiasm for Obama isn’t somehow blunted. On this front the signs are not encouraging. Between February 1 and July 31, Obama held thirty-two campaign events in college towns; McCain held three. The McCain campaign has yet to publicly announce an official youth outreach or youth vote campaign director. On the other hand, Obama has hired former Rock the Vote political director Hans Reimer. Not surprisingly, young Republicans have complained about the McCain campaign’s poor efforts at the grassroots level and failure to make use of existing networks. “They definitely haven’t reached out to the younger generation as strongly as I hoped they would,” an organizer for the Young Republicans in South Carolina recently told a local newspaper. “It’s a big mistake. You’ve got to create something that people want to be a part of. I’m just not getting that feeling this go-round.” A young conservative political strategist named David All concurred, remarking to the Washington Post that “Republicans are sort of talking down to Gen-Nexters, not bringing them in.” In the same Post story, a McCain campaign spokesman insisted that the campaign is firmly committed to courting the youth. “We view the youth vote as very competitive, and we will campaign aggressively,” he promised.
If McCain does narrow the youth gap, it won’t be the result of his own campaigning efforts. Most of his youth organizing is led by the Students for McCain network, which has statewide chapters stretching from New Hampshire and New York to Oklahoma and Florida and on college campuses like the University of Texas at Austin, University of Michigan and James Madison University in Virginia. As the presumptive Republican candidate, McCain can also count on the support of the College Republicans and Young Republicans national organizations working on his behalf.
What every one of these McCain youth organizers understands is that the stakes are high. Numerous national polls show McCain and Obama statistically tied or separated by single digits. Whether McCain can chip away at Obama’s commanding lead among those fifty million or so young voters could mean the difference between the slimmest of victories or a significant loss. “I think it’s going to be very close and I think we need every vote we can get,” Smock says. “If we can get that many more youth votes out for Senator McCain, and we can convince them he has the best politics for America’s future prosperity, then that could be decisive.”
In the minds of some Republicans, the stakes are even higher. Much has been said about the “pendulum” of political power in Washington swinging back to the Democratic side after decades of Republican control. The 2006 midterm elections, which gave Democrats control over the House and Senate, were the first signal of this swing; several Congressional by-elections to fill seats since then have only confirmed the Democrats’ strength. “The Republican brand is in the trash can,” Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), a former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, lamented in May.
The prospect of seeing the Republican brand go the way of the SUV clearly weighs on the minds of York and Smock. Smock believes it will take no less than an exhaustive organizing effort to ensure the future competitiveness of the GOP. “We have to work every day, every minute of the day, to convince young Americans that we offer the best policies for America, for America’s future and for them.”
It’s this fear–of losing the votes of this emerging voting population, of a return to the political wilderness–that may provoke the roughest, dirtiest campaign of our lifetime.