Reagan's Youth Appeal

After CNN and YouTube organized a fairly silly and yet seriously liberal presidential debate for the Democratic presidential candidates this summer, GOP contenders developed cold feet about placing their ambitions at the feet of these groups. When only two GOP candidates accepted invitations for a proposed CNN/YouTube debate in September, the event was called off. In response, a set of conservative bloggers started a website called Savethedebate.com, urging that "Republicans cannot afford to write off the Internet" and risk "denigrating" the youth vote and the way they communicate. Five GOP candidates have now agreed; the new date is November 28.

These bloggers are fine conservatives, but no one should be under the illusion that writing off one website is "writing off the Internet." That said, GOP candidates do not have the Democrats' luxury of ignoring hostile media outlets like FOX as if they did not exist. But hopefully the Republicans' reluctance to sign up may have convinced CNN to avoid the usual bombardment of questions from the left. CNN executive David Bohrman insisted that conservatives will get their Internet video questions in for the proposed GOP debate, but conservatives are understandably wary. They didn't exactly get serious questions in to the Democrats in their YouTube turn, certainly not in the way to match the body blows Republicans will surely receive from liberals at their event.

Media bias aside, there is also no question that Republicans have a lot of work to do with the youth vote, and if mastering new technologies is part of that work, then it should be embraced with gusto. Consider how much better Republicans could be doing with new voters right now, and how important capturing young voters can be in creating a lifelong political bond. Think back to the Reagan Revolution. For a man constantly questioned as too old a man to be president, Ronald Reagan did a terrific job of winning young voters to his cause, and keeping them for the long haul.

Gallup election-year surveys showed the Democrats winning by larger margins among younger voters (under 30s) throughout the '60s and '70s, and into 1980. But along came Reagan, and all that changed. In 1984 and 1988, younger voters swung heavily into the GOP column, picking Reagan over Mondale by 20 points and George H.W. Bush over Dukakis by 26.

This might come as a surprise to many because the media only celebrate the youth vote when it's a liberal vote. Did you know that, in 1984, the youngest voters were Reagan's greatest asset? In a pre-election poll taken for Time magazine, voters aged 18 to 24 said they were backing or leaning toward Reagan by a margin of 45 points - 63 percent to 18 - a lead nearly ten points wider than in any other age bracket. Recent Pew surveys show that even after 20 long years, these Reagan Youth voters remain the strongest supporters of GOP candidates. While other age groups show a strong identification with the Democrats, Republicans still match the Democrats among fortysomethings.

Since 2002, the Republicans have trailed badly among younger voters, Karl Rove's alleged genius notwithstanding, CNN exit polls after the 2000 election showed George W. Bush trailed Al Gore by only two points, 46 percent to 48. But since then, young voters have swung dramatically and solidly toward the Democrats. CNN exit polls in 2004 showed that John Kerry beat Bush only among voters under 30 (by a 54 to 45 percent margin). In the 2006 elections, young voters gave Democrats a whopping advantage of 60 to 38 percent, far more than any other age group.

What was the Reagan magic with the young? Two crucial factors were patriotism and optimism, two themes that clearly distinguished him from the Carter-Mondale-Dukakis malaise message. Reagan boldly stated that government was the problem, not the solution. But that message was stated positively, as a tribute to all that We the People could do in all of our "private sector" strivings. Internationally, Reagan did not merely state that America was great because it was expansive and prosperous; our country was great because its founding ideas of liberty and representative democracy were great.

These messages are still awaiting any Republican contender eager to inspire the young in an era when liberals have cast America in a harshly negative light, as oppressing our citizenry and the world while fighting an allegedly nonexistent terrorist threat. Republicans would do well not just to re-visit these ideas but then also to learn how to deliver them to the young. It was good to see conservatives and CNN/YouTube resolve their differences.