A Coming Young-Voter Storm for the GOP
BY JOHN BRABENDER
Over the past several decades, we’ve consulted for hundreds of Republican candidates – House member, senators, governors, would-be-presidents. We’ve always thought of ourselves as people who, despite the constant unpredictability of a typical political campaign, stay calm and never panic, even when provoked by having the officials in Iowa, for example, erroneously fail to declare our client the winner on caucus night.
For the first time, however, we are starting to panic. For months we’ve been analyzing the voting and political patterns of younger voters, and we think there is a storm, maybe even the perfect storm, headed Republicans’ way. And we seem oblivious.
It’s clear we are seeing an increased engagement and participation of younger voters and soon to be voters – so called millennials and Generation Z. In the past, Republicans could afford to ignore this voting segment because they were generally apathetic and participated in small numbers. We assumed we would gain their support once they began to pay taxes. This time it’s different.
Their apathy seems to be fading, and their participation increasing. In fact, some studies have put their midterm turnout at a 4 percent to 10 percent increase nationwide, and at historic levels in some of the most targeted states. And just like the 2016 presidential election, they voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. Now the kicker, in 2020 millennials will be the largest voting bloc, overtaking baby boomers for the first time.
A second problem is that the Republican Party has yet to fully grasp the way in which cultural and news content is consumed by younger voters. Millennials and Generation Z are leading the cord-cutting revolution and are choosing to use streaming services to watch what they want, when they want, wherever they want – exclusively on laptops, tablets, smartphones, and gaming consoles. It’s estimated by the next presidential election as many as 40 percent of these younger viewers won’t even own a traditional TV.
Why is this a such a concern for the GOP? Because these native digital generations have become their own programming director and are not following the viewing patterns of previous generations. Instead of formulating their ideological points-of-view from traditional news and political programs, they are turning to more entertainment and comedy-style shows -- a space where there is almost no conservative voice, and where “Republican” is often the punch line.
The “Daily Show” with Jon Stewart was acknowledged as the first of this kind, and polling revealed this faux-news, left-leaning show was actually the top location for younger voters to get their “real” news. Today, similar political content dressed up as entertainment and comedy is rapidly expanding to all the locations that reach younger voters.
Obvious examples are late night talk with Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel. Endless "SNL" skits. HBO has Bill Maher, John Oliver, and airs episodes of the liberal podcast troupe from Pod Save America. Showtime has its anti-Trump “The Cartoon President.” Netflix has created multiple shows providing a political forum for liberals ranging from Chelsea Handler to Michelle Wolf. We do have Fox News, but like most of cable news, its audience skews much older, with a median viewing age of 65.
The Republican Party cannot afford to lose an entire generation, but without preemptive actions that’s exactly what’s happening. First, Republicans need to understand that younger voters today start to develop their political ideology much earlier than previous generations, closer to age 15 than 25. We can’t afford to let them go years being endlessly exposed to a cartoonish version of our brand without an alternative message.
Second, the GOP must embrace a message beyond tax cuts, a hard line on immigration, and increased military spending for a strong national defense. Contrasting solutions to challenges like affordable student loans, criminal justice reform, addiction treatment, school safety, family leave, and climate change need to play a much bigger role in the Republican agenda. The message must be delivered in a way that is more entertaining, more authentic, more inspirational, more supportive of diversity, and less harsh and negative.
Finally, instead of just criticizing Hollywood, we must become more adept at using creative content to successfully blend culture, entertainment and politics — something the left has elevated to an artform. That means investing in the development of quality programming, identifying and financing conservative filmmakers, documentarians, musicians, and writers, establishing new content platforms, and dramatically boosting the share of voices in the spaces where younger voters digitally reside.
There will be some Republicans who will contend we can simply wait out the coming storm. That’s exactly what the Democrats, liberals, and Hollywood are hoping we continue to do.
John Brabender chief strategic and creative officer at BrabenderCox, a Republican media consulting firm. His past clients include Vice President Mike Pence, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and a significant number of senators, governors, and House members.