The numbers tell the story: According to the 2008 exit polls, Democrat Barack Obama claimed a decisive 66 percent of the under-30 vote. He won 95 percent of under-30 blacks and 76 percent of under-30 Latinos. The only age demographic Republican John McCain actually won was the 65-and-over bracket, folks who won't be around for many more election cycles.
If Republicans can't broaden their base beyond older, Southern whites, they'll struggle to stay nationally viable no matter what the national undercurrents.
This the party knows. The problem is what to do about it. Younger voters tend to be more supportive of gay marriage. Hispanics, easily the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group, are turned off by the GOP's hardline anti—illegal immigration stance, which can at times border on xenophobia. Yet the party can hardly moderate its stances on these policies without turning off the base, which has grown increasingly vitriolic during the first eight months of the Obama administration. That vitriol, and the Democrats' inability to cobble together a health-care package, might have contributed to the president's lagging poll numbers, but it's hardly produced zero-sum gains. This is not a party ascendant.
And that brings us here, to the Gaylord Palms Hotel and Convention Center in Kissimmee on Aug. 22, for the GOP's first-of-its-kind outreach to younger voters, which it labeled "Drive the Discussion Exchange '09." This was not, however, to be a discussion on driving policy — that is, there was no talk of making the party's message more youth-friendly. Rather, it was a discussion of tactics (Twitter!), and at worst, the kind of clueless condescension ("Here's a guy from that TV show you kids watch; he's famous, and a Republican!") that makes it hard to believe that any of it will amount to anything.
Fundamentally, the problem isn't that the message isn't getting out. It's that the message has failed. But no one at the Gaylord Palms this afternoon is about to acknowledge that. Instead, we get Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer and Gov. Charlie Crist telling us that we're the future, so we should involve ourselves in politics. (Crist gets some relatively tepid applause, but his appearance doesn't go over so well with the few dozen folks sporting Marco Rubio for Senate bumper stickers on their shirts.)
And then we get Jonathan Krohn. If you want to know everything wrong with the GOP's youth outreach, it's embodied in the fact that Jonathan Krohn was tapped to kick off this event.
First, let's back up and examine some atmospheric issues — like the fact that of the couple hundred attendees at the GOP's youth conference, by my count less than half are what you'd actually consider "youthful." Or that, despite the party's perpetual discussion about outreach, there are just a handful of non-white faces in the crowd. Or that Greer thought he could ingratiate himself to the "young people," as he says at least a dozen times, by changing from a suit into a Tommy Bahama shirt and jeans by the day's end, which his staff assured him was sufficiently cool.
Jonathan Krohn, the day's first speaker, is a 14-year-old home-schooled "political analyst" from Atlanta who wrote a book called Define Conservatism (think of a shorter Sean Hannity). He's something of a celebrity on the right-wing circuit, boasting appearances at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, as well as a few radio talk shows. Not to take anything away from Krohn; he's a gifted public speaker for his age, though he tends to overenunciate. But for Greer to introduce this adolescent as someone who has "very good ideas of where our party and this nation should be" bespeaks the Republicans' overarching problem. Krohn may be a smart kid, but he's a kid. He knows little of the world and little of the realities of politics beyond what he hears on Fox News and the GOP noise machine. And he has very little to add to any serious conversation.
Yet here he is, the star of the show: "The great thing about the Republican Party," he begins, "is that it always has something going for it. The American people are what make up the Republican Party, the American spirit is what makes up the Republican Party, and America in general is the Republican Party."
Conservatism is about the "rights of the individual, and the right to keep those rights," he continues. And continues. And continues, for about five minutes, a time made only slightly more interesting by the fact that this pint-sized pundit's mom was set up at a table a few feet away hawking his book.
Next up is Carrie Prejean, the beauty queen who was tempted by Satan — in the person of Perez Hilton, whom she refers to as "the stupid judge" — asking her about gay marriage at this year's Miss USA contest in April. She lost that contest and blamed it on her opposition to gay marriage, which made her a favorite among the James Dobson set. After that, you may recall, semi-naked photos of her emerged on the Internet, and eventually she was stripped of her Miss California crown over contract violations.
"I'm sure most of you have heard about my story, or at least the media's version of my story," she begins, before correcting herself — "the liberal media's version of my story. I am here today just to encourage all of you. I feel like these are my people. I feel this is a huge hug."
From there, Prejean trudges through some mundane observations on standing your ground in the face of "liberal activists." "I just hope that my story encourages you and empowers you to not be afraid to stand up for your beliefs," she says. Here she is on gay marriage: "Ever since I was little, I believed I was going to marry a boy. I didn't think there was anything wrong with that."
The crowd cheers.
A few minutes later, we're herded into an adjoining conference room, where the Republican National Committee's new media director, ex-talk-show host and Microsoft employee Todd Herman, implores everyone to get online. "If you have a Twitter account, can you begin to use it for activism?" he asks.
He warns — repeatedly, obsessively — that liberals are taking cues from Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, and says that conservatives are being out-organized on the web. So, he suggests, conservatives should start their own blogs and link to favorable news stories, so as to draw attention from search engines like Google. He also promises — though he provides no details — that the RNC will be launching a new web platform in coming months.
As Herman describes it, RNC chairman Michael Steele told him to "take the lid off" the party's online capabilities, and he's not about the let the Democrats control the web any more: "I'm hip to what they're doing," he says. "I've been hip for a long time. We're no longer going to ignore it."
After a bit on how to create a viral video — "Be funny!" — the crowd largely adjourns. A panel discussion on wooing the youth vote — which is dominated by the filibustering wisdom of 14-year-old Krohn — is sparsely attended and effectively pointless. A few candidates for various municipal offices tell us that Facebook and Twitter are so very important to their campaigns, and so on.
The crowd fills in again for the afternoon's keynote speech, by 1970s Olympian-turned-reality-TV-star Bruce Jenner, now of Keeping Up With the Kardashians fame. The speech is only loosely political. Jenner, a decathlete who won the 1976 gold medal in Montreal, is now a motivational speaker. He delivers an hourlong recitation of what is clearly familiar territory — his rise to athletic prominence, overcoming hurdles both figurative and literal — that center around the idea that you should work harder.
"Always believe in the power of you," he instructs.
Introducing Jenner, Greer mentions that the RNC is so intrigued by this event, it wants the state party to help take these things nationwide. The Democrats can only hope that firstname.lastname@example.org