Kerry Donnelly is a 21-year-old New Yorker, and she's thrilled about voting in her first Presidential election…for John McCain. The college senior identifies more with the policies of the 72-year-old senator than with the change promised by his younger Democratic counterpart. And, despite all the excitement generated by the young followers of Obama Nation, she's not alone.
"People don't realize the Republican Party is very appealing to young people," says Donnelly. "The Republican Party is not just one demographic, it's not old white men."
This summer, Donnelly drove across the country through only red congressional districts, from Sarasota, Fla., to the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul. With her were Christie Jackson, 22, and Jeremy Harrell, 22, two fellow recruits from the College Republican National Committee (CRNC), which paid for the trip and set the group's marching orders. Their mission: to boldly go forth and show that Democrats do not have a monopoly on the youth vote, or enthusiasm for such Gen Y touchstones as alternative energy or the Internet.
During their two-and-a-half-month journey to the RNC, the trio worked with other young Republicans on congressional campaigns and chronicled their experiences in a blog, WhereIsTheRed.com. The site incorporates many of the new Web tools that Republicans are criticized for not understanding, such as Flickr, Yahoo's (YHOO) popular photo sharing site; Google's (GOOG) YouTube video site; and even Twitter, an online social network where users communicate via short mobile text messages. WhereIsTheRed even incorporates some unique tech tools, such as a GPS tracker than automatically sends the group's location to an interactive online map.
Up to Date
"People think that John McCain is too old and outdated," says Jackson. "But the fact that there are young Republicans who are up to date on technology shows that there are Republican ideas that are not outdated."
Much has been made of the 25-year age gap between Democratic nominee Barack Obama, 47, and McCain, and their respective appeal, or lack thereof, among younger and older voters. While Obama's campaign has made ample use of Web-based social media to drive participation and contributions, McCain has admitted that he is a computer "illiterate" who "has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance I can get."
The candidates' respective knowledge and emphasis on the Web has affected their online support. While Obama has developed a supporter base (BusinessWeek.com, 6/26/08) of nearly 2 million on the leading U.S. social networks, MySpace and Facebook, McCain has fewer than 330,000 supporters across the sites. McCain's YouTube videos have received 14 million views compared with Obama's 60 million, according to TechPresident, a nonpartisan site that tracks the Presidential candidates' online presence.
That all seems to add up to a solid lead among youth voters for Obama. Indeed, he had a 23-percentage-point lead over McCain among likely voters aged 18 to 24 in an August poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics. More than 50% of young voters said they would support Obama, compared with 32% for McCain (13% were undecided). The poll also found that there is a gap between the enthusiasm supporters express for the respective candidates: More than 4 in 5 young voters say they are excited to vote for Obama, while only 56% say they are excited about voting for McCain.
This seems to reinforce the perception that young voters have been peeling away from the Republican cause since Ronald Reagan left the scene in the 1980s. Some observers go so far as to predict that a McCain victory depends on Generation Y shirking its civic duty and showing, once again, that younger voters are less likely than older voters to show up (BusinessWeek.com, 8/25/08) at the polls in November.
Nonetheless, Jackson and Harrell, recent college graduates of Clemson and Miami universities, and Donnelly, a senior at Fordham University, insist that many young Republicans are not showing up in the polls or in portrayals by the media. And they believe that this year could see a repeat of 2004, when young voters were nearly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. In the last Presidential election, nearly a third of 18-to-24-year-old voters and 35% of 18-to-29-year-old voters called themselves Republicans, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE). Democrats had 39% of the 18-to-24-year-old vote, and 37% of voters 18 to 29.
"Young people cannot be easily classified as Republican, Democrat, or Independent," said CIRCLE in a report issued at the time.
No Red Hybrid
Certainly, there was no lack of enthusiasm as Donnelly, Jackson, and Harrell set out on their cross-country journey June 23 from a Bennigan's Grill & Tavern in Sarasota. The adventure had already begun earlier in the day; the CRNC had attempted to reserve a hybrid SUV in the party's signature color, but there was no red SUV when the trio arrived at the airport's Budget Rent-A-Car. Instead, they settled for a silver Ford Explorer with less MPG, a significantly larger insurance charge (owing to the age of the drivers), and a slightly smaller trunk.
Jackson was forced to send back several dresses to her parents' house, and Harrell left behind one of his suits. "It was a disaster," she recalls.
The group's Web efforts fared much better. Using Twitter, they continually updated their audience on efforts in various "battleground" districts in which incumbent Republicans faced serious competition from Democratic challengers. They wrote about conversations with young conservative volunteers with whom they knocked on doors and mailed out flyers on behalf of incumbents such as Orlando Representative Ric Keller. Throughout the day, they also posted videos of their experiences on YouTube filmed by accompanying videographer and CRNC member Chris Caraballo.
Harrell's blog entry for June 25 noted: "Today we visited the district of Congressman Adam Putnam, endearingly coined 'Red' by President Bush for his red hair. We acquired some nifty 'Adam's Army' volunteer shirts that we are all sporting here at the office. Look out for the pictures in the rearview mirror and be jealous."
Privileged White Suburbanites?
The trio stopped briefly in Denver to try to woo swing voters. Most Denver Democrats were friendly, they said, though they did field a few insults for supporting McCain. Predictably, there were harsher words from commenters to the Web site, including some who couldn't understand why young people would vote Republican. At the Democratic convention, one attendee accused the group of being privileged white suburban kids who were too racist to vote for a minority.
Harrell, who is Hispanic, felt personally offended. "They said I was a sellout who probably made over $100,000 a year," says Harrell, who will start his first job next week working for Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). "They think that Republicans are all snobby rich people or evangelicals."
About 14,000 miles and more than $2,500 in gas bills later, the trio rolled into St. Paul. It was something of a relief to be at the largest gathering of Republicans in the nation.
It's the Economy
Throughout their trip, the young Republicans say, voters cited the same reasons for their support of the Republican party: the economy and gas prices (BusinessWeek.com, 8/29/08). "The issues don't vary much state to state," says Jackson. "Nine times out of 10 people say jobs, the economy, and gas prices."
The trio agrees, even though none has received a first full-time paycheck. They worry that, without a strong break on government spending, high federal taxes will sap their ability to pay off college loans or quickly achieve financial independence from their parents. They also believe that they, not the government, should decide how to spend their new income.
"I definitely think that responsible spending is probably most important," says Donnelly. "We are all starting to get on our feet now, and it is important to see that the little money that I am making after I graduate is not thrown away on projects."