What's the campaign doing to attract young voters, I asked a McCain official last month. The look on her face was all I needed to know, but her response made it worse. "The campaign has pretty much given up on reaching out young voters," she said. "They have all pretty much bought in to Obama’s message.” Imagine my shock when I heard this. By that logic, I was voting for Obama. Truly shocking! She went on to lament that young people really believed in the Democrat’s positions on global warming, health care, the war in Iraq, and even the economy. This devout McCain supporter was being very honest and sincere with what she said and what seemed to be the common wisdom within the McCain camp.
It took me a few days to really digest what exactly those sentiments meant and what implications they might have on American politics. If we are to believe that young voters have already “bought in” to the positions of the Democratic Party, the GOP is in much deeper trouble than ever imagined. If the Republicans can't win over the youth on at least one of the most important issues of our time, the future of the party is bleak—better yet—non existent. And the Conservative Movement would be done for too.
Fortunately, I don’t buy it and neither should you. Here is why.
What President-elect Obama’s campaign did (brilliantly, I might add) is talk to young voters in their language: technology. He bridged the digital divide with a vivid and robust campaign largely waged on the internet. He had advertisements on various websites, search engine ad words, blogs, facebook groups, and much more. His online campaign was so well organized that he even sent an email out to thank all of his supporters while he was on his way to make his acceptance speech.
Why does any of this matter? First off, if you are asking that question, you are part of the problem. But it matters because technology is a low cost way to get a targeted message out to a lot of people. His ability to do this not only allowed him to capture a lot of votes and volunteers for walking precincts and such, but it also allowed him to build an unparalleled donor base—made up mostly of small donors. Each one of his email messages went out asking for $5 or $10, an amount even a college student is willing to shell out if she believes in the cause.
Obama’s campaign online, made it very difficult for McCain to make up the difference on the ground because the internet support translated into real world volunteers and real money.
But we can’t blame John McCain or the RNC, there is no way they could have seen this coming. Ha! Howard Dean laid the framework for this type of campaign warfare in 2004 when he was running for President. His fortitude in online fundraising and campaigning is largely the reason he is the Chairman of the DNC. This was a well thought out, well implemented campaign strategy that paid dividends. And it will continue to pay dividends for some time.
For the GOP, the time is now to design, refine and implement. I would say it is catch up time, but catching up is no longer good enough—the party will need to find a way to get ahead of the curve. It is not too hard to do, so online marketing, video content, targeted messaging, and some interesting original content and they are off to a start.
More importantly though, don’t write off the youth. There was one Republican during the primary--dull, uncharismatic, and little quirky—that was able to make inroads with youth voters in droves: Ron Paul. At one point during the campaign season Ron Paul achieved the record for online fundraising (which I believe was later shattered by Barack Obama). Much of Ron Paul’s groundswell of support is easily attributed to a strong internet based campaign that was largely targeted towards youth voters.
And while Ron Paul is not by any stretch of the imagination “in line” with the orthodoxy of the Republican Party, many of his limited government, free market ideas resonated with young voters -- which should at least give a little hope into the willingness of my generation to listen to good arguments.