The 90-page College Republicans report, "Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation," doesn't sugarcoat the Republican Party's difficulties with young voters. Many of its findings, in fact, are similar to the "autopsy report" the Republican National Committee released earlier this year. The report outlines problems with digital outreach and the brand, compiled from two national surveys and several focus groups in California, Ohio, and Florida. It concludes that the GOP is seen as "rich, lacking in diversity, and being old-fashioned."
Like the national party, College Republicans are trying to ramp up grassroots and digital activities. The group is giving its members Facebook gift cards to promote online outreach to students across campuses, while also encouraging chapter presidents to increase their face-to-face interactions with students through new events and organizing on the ground.
All of that can help, and inviting a more diverse array of students who believe in the "big tent" approach to party politics might improve membership. But the biggest elephant in the room has always been the national party's policies. And that's where it gets tricky.
GOP opposition to abortion rights, marriage equality, and immigration reform is making it hard for College Republicans to reach young voters. Romney faced a similar challenge with both women and young people and attempted to solve the problem with an economic message. He tried to convince working mothers and younger voters that Obama's economic plan was hurting them and that his would improve their lives. But the diversion strategy didn't work with either group. In addition to losing young voters, Romney also lost the female vote nationally, 45 percent to Obama's 54 percent.
Despite that failure, College Republicans are essentially using the same strategy: Don't talk about the sensitive issues.
Take same-sex marriage. Polls show that young people — and the rest of Americans — are increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage and gay rights. While Democrats have by and large embraced this position, an overwhelming majority of Republicans have not, and younger voters noticed. But the College Republicans report notes, "A large majority of respondents were open to voting for a candidate they disagree with on this issue." That is seen as an opening to talk about the economy, and to bring young people into the fold to work for policy changes over the long haul.
And it will be a long haul, judging by what happened to this week to Stephanie Petelos, chairwoman of the College Republican Federation of Alabama. After she expressed support for same-sex marriage, leaders of the Alabama Republican Party criticized her and threatened to remove her from state party leadership. This sort of reaction could have a chilling effect, Petelos told the Alabama Political Reporter: "I think a lot of people would be actively for it if they didn't live in fear of backlash from party leaders."