The College National Republican Committee goes where the Republican National Committee wouldn't dare in its 2012 election autopsy — they admit that it's not just the party's positions on gay marriage and abortion that repel young voters. It's the economic policy, too. The most eye-catching part of the College Republicans' analysis is that focus groups were "brutal," saying the GOP was "closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned." But Mitt Romney's presidential campaign didn't center on 1950s values or birtherism or banning gay marriage. The report points out that the GOP's core economic message is not all that popular either.
Sure, young people like the idea of reforming the tax code — something some Republicans want to do. But young people want to reform the code so rich people pay more taxes, College Republicans found, "as they perceived that the wealthy were able to take advantage of loopholes to ensure they paid less in taxes than young (and not particularly wealthy) people do." What about the conservative case that cutting rich people's taxes help everyone? Young people don't buy it. "The challenge for Republicans is to connect lower (or simpler) taxes to economic growth, a link that is not currently strong in the minds of many young voters," the report says. A Spring 2012 Harvard Institute of Politics survey found that only 39 percent agreed that "cutting taxes is an effective way to increase economic growth."
And young voters don't get excited when candidates bash "big government." The report says "big government" is not much of a motivator, even though young voters support cutting spending. They don't believe that cutting government will grow jobs. And they don't want to shrink big government just for the sake of shrinking it. And young voters are picky about what gets shrunk:
Overwhelmingly, respondents in the focus groups thought the problem was not just that too much money was being spent, but rather that it was being spent on the wrong things. (The groups were clear that they felt education deserved more, not less, funding.) Indeed, a large number of respondents pointed to the defense budget as the place where cuts should start.
The RNC's autopsy suggested the party sound more populist. Some conservatives have argued the party needs to go further, and the College Republicans report offers some evidence for that. In 2012, the entire Republican National Convention was focused on the theme "You built that" — an obscure Twitter joke about the time President Obama said companies' successes were partly due to community investment ("You didn't build that"). Using a Twitter joke was a great way to get young people to pay attention to the party's message. Now they have to figure out how to make that message on young people find appealing.