Second Republican Debate Highlights Party’s Issues Appealing to Millennials

GOP Debate
Republican presidential candidates are pictured during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011. Pictured left to right: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; businessman Herman Cain; Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.; former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Pool)

With the 2016 presidential election quickly approaching, 23 million people tuned in to CNN on Sept. 16 to watch the second Republican debate. Eleven GOP candidates competed for their party’s presidential nomination by criticizing each other just as much as they criticized the Obama administration. They also debated topics such as Planned Parenthood, health care, international security and immigration policies.

Despite some disagreements on stage, the candidates’ views ranged from conservative to extremely conservative. The GOP message was clear: small government, large military, free market economics and social conservatism.

The content of the debate illustrates a significant problem for the GOP: The Republican Party stands firmly conservative, making it hard for young voters to relate to its leaders. It’s true that both the Democratic and Republican parties have polarized. However, statistics show that millennials (individuals between 18 and 33 years old) are growing more liberal and identifying less with the Republican Party.

If the GOP doesn’t adopt a more moderate platform to meet changing political and cultural trends, not only will it lose millennial votes in the 2016 election, it will also lose its hold on American government. In 2012, Mitt Romney could have won the White House had he simply split the youth vote with President Barack Obama in Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, according to an analysis by Tufts University.

Throughout both 2016 GOP presidential debates, I was shocked at how conservative — and even sometimes politically incorrect — some of the candidates were. As a millennial, I simply cannot identify with the ideologies of the Republican Party.

Research indicates that I am not alone.  Most millennials are politically liberal, tending to lean toward the ideology of the Democratic Party, according to a Pew Research Center study. However, millennials have increasingly shied away from party labels, with half identifying as independent.

Over the past 10 years, millennials have remained more liberal than their counterparts in older generations, especially on social issues. According to the same Pew Research Center study, more than half of millennials are pro-choice, support pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants and favor bigger government.  Sixty-nine percent of millennials support gay marriage. A separate study from polling firm Harstad Strategic Research Inc. found that 69 percent of millennials support more government involvement in addressing climate change.

Even the 17 percent of millennials who identify as Republican are becoming more liberal than the rest of the party’s members, particularly on social issues and immigration. These statistics indicate that despite party identification, our generation identifies more with progressive politics than conservative politics.

In contrast, all of the 2016 GOP candidates showed during the CNN debate that they fell on the opposite end of the spectrum from millennials. The candidates’ general consensus was that there should be stricter immigration laws. They spoke out against abortion and gay marriage. They also thought the government should be smaller, and climate change was not a government priority.

Not only did the candidates speak with strong conservatism, but also some of what they said was not factual. For example, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina attempted to capitalize on the misconceptions surrounding Planned Parenthood by referencing a (non-existent) video showing a “fully formed fetus … that we have to keep alive to harvest its brain.” Later in the debate, businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump asserted that vaccinations are linked to autism, which has not been scientifically proven. U.S Senator Marco Rubio of Florida claimed that cutting carbon emissions would do “absolutely nothing” to fight climate change — but climate experts say U.S leadership in cutting carbon emission would indeed be hugely impactful. If millennials feel they cannot trust the GOP to even speak the truth, they will only move further away from the party.

The disconnect between millennials and the Republican Party is undeniable. Perhaps the party’s target audience is not millennials but baby boomers and Generation X. However, the GOP can only rely on this voting demographic for so long. Millennials are not just young voters; we are the future of this country. If current trends continue, we will move to the left and the Republican Party will move further right. It is time the GOP starts to think seriously about reform. If a political party cannot adapt to the present and think about the future, it is only a matter of time before it becomes a part of the past.

Alexandra Schmidt is a contributing columnist.

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