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It's been almost two weeks since Republicans crushed the 2014 midterm elections and so far, the world hasn't come crashing down around us. We won't know until next year exactly what the GOP will do once it controls the entire legislative branch of government, but for now it seems unlikely that the apocalypse Democrats predicted in thousands of campaign fundraising emails will actually occur. And as the high of victory wears off for the Grand Ol' Party, young conservatives are waking up from their post-election benders to realize that the 2016 presidential campaign is already in full swing. And that's when the real test begins.
Overall, the 2014 midterms were a much-needed morale boost for Republicans, who have spent the past two years rending its garments over the party's total meltdown in 2012. But the victory was also a hollow one, at least as far as demographics are concerned. It's not hard for the GOP to win an election when the only people who show up to vote are old, white conservatives. Turnout is usually low in midterm elections, particularly among young voters—generally, voters over 60 outnumber those under age 30 by a two-to-one ratio. Exit polls show the gap was even more pronounced this year, with 37 percent of the electorate made up of seniors (age 60 and older), compared to 12 percent of voters who were under 30. According to data from CIRCLE, which conducts research on young Americans, that means less than one-in-four eligible voters between ages 18 and 29 cast ballots last week. In short, if you were young you probably didn't vote, and likely didn't care.Obviously, those numbers are bad for Democrats, who relied on strong youth voter turnout in the past two presidential elections. But they are also troubling for the GOP, which has been making a major effort to attract voters who aren't old white men.It wasn't for lack of trying. Both Democrats and Republicans—and nearly all mainstream magazines and television networks and websites and marketers—spent tons of time and money trying to get young people interested in the election. But despite the stunts and celebrities, the election just wasn't very interesting.Cosmopolitan sent a party bus full of male models down to North Carolina to lure college students into doing their civic duty. Lena Dunham, shilling for Planned Parenthood, made a ridiculous video claiming that voting is "better than ecstasy" for boosting your self-esteem. Even President Barack Obama resorted to shameless social media flattery to get America's youths to the polls. On the Republican side, the national party committee spent two years building up its "campus captains" program, training eager young conservatives to spew conservative talking points and "strategically turn out voters" at colleges around the country. Clearly, none of this worked very well.
As they cry into their cold-pressed juices, Democrats are consoling each other with the idea that turnout generally skyrockets during presidential elections, and that when Obama's youthful coalition shows up to vote again, it will be for a Democrat. It's true that under-30s who did turn out for the midterm elections tended to vote more liberal. Exit poll data compiled by CIRCLE found that voters under age 30 voted for Democratic House candidates by a 54 percent to 43 percent margin, and that voters also favored Democrats in competitive Senate races, including in North Carolina and Georgia, although the numbers were down from a 17-point margin in 2010. According to Matt Canter, deputy executive director for Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, turnout actually increased in states where Democrats invested resources. But the reality is, Democrats still haven't proved they can get turn out young Obama voters when Obama himself is not on the ballot."Democrats did everything we could this election cycle to maintain their majority in the US Senate," Canter said in an email to VICE. "Regardless of the great campaigns they ran or the ground game they built, the fundamentals of the political landscape and historic national wave posed too difficult a challenge to overcome."While Republicans hardly did a better job in turning out young voters, the party nevertheless sees an opportunity going into 2016. "Last week's results showed what our modeling had been tracking all along," Republican National Committee spokesperson Raffi Williams. "That millennials are sick of the failed Democrat agenda and want limited government policies that will allow them to achieve their American Dream." It's true that Republicans did make gains among young voters in a few key states, including Florida, Alaska, and North Carolina. And while the numbers were by no means a slam dunk, it's may be a sign that the party's efforts to reach out to young people are working, albeit slowly.
"One of the things that have caused us problems as a party is that we've shown up once every four years," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in an interview with VICE just before the election. "So one of the things we're doing is that we're going where young people are—going to campuses and other areas, organizing campus captains to recruit and organize youth voters."It was also helpful that the 2014 crop of Republican candidates was markedly less batshit insane than its been in recent years, a development that can largely be attributed to the GOP Establishment's effective silencing of the Tea Party during the primaries. As a result, Democratic attempts to make their opponents look like backward zealots mostly backfired, opening up a window, however tiny, for Republicans to salvage their reputation with voters, young and otherwise, who hold more liberal views on things like gay marriage, abortion, and drug policies.The idea that the GOP has problems with social issues is "overblown," Priebus said, "when people like Todd Akin say things that are biologically stupid." But, he said, "young people are far more economically driven than they are on social issues. And that puts us in a better position as a party.""The environment is clearly in our favor," he said. "If we look at what's happening, we're seeing the president adopting policies that aren't working for young people." Plus, he added, "there's a libertarian streak that's running through young people. And the Republican Party is poised to capitalize on this, if we're smart."Recent polls back up some of these claims—to a point. A survey by the Harvard Institute of Politics released late last month found that the Democrats' grip on young people has loosened in the last four years, as Obama's approval rating has sunk among voters in the under-30 age demographic (and everyone else). On the economy, the number one issue among young voters, 60 percent of young people surveyed disapproved of Obama's record. On the issue of healthcare, as well, only 37 percent of those surveyed approved of the president's health care law. The numbers are similar on foreign policy and immigration, two issues where Democrats have tended to hold an advantage under Obama.While it's impossible to draw conclusions about what all this means for 2016, when Obama won't be on the ballot, it does show that Democrats may not have the lock on youth voters that many assumed.The poll "shows that young Americans care deeply about their country and are politically up-for-grabs," Harvard Institute of Politics Director Maggie Williams said in a statement. "Millennials could be a critical swing vote."With young voters in play, what was already shaping up to be a wild 2016 presidential campaign could get a lot more interesting. While the data doesn't mean that young people are leaning Republican, it does suggest that, in the absence of the Tea Party, and the Hope and Change of Obama's historic campaign, young voters' political views get a lot more complicated. For a generation that grew up while the nation fought a bullshit war, came of age during the 2008-09 economic collapse, has an average student loan debt of nearly $30,000, and recently found out that the US government is spying on their emails and phone records, no politician looks particularly good. If a candidate can change that, that candidate can likely become president. And there's a chance that candidate will be a Republican.