How Republicans Won't Win Young Voters

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When the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to ban abortions starting 20 weeks after fertilization last week, it meant absolutely nothing for the future of federal abortion legislation. Senators won't pass or even take up the bill, and President Barack Obama would veto it if they did.

Yet the vote did say a lot about the future of the Republican Party, which, far from backing off the conservative social views that are costing it support among women and young voters, has apparently decided to double down on them.

But perhaps the GOP feels it can win over younger voters without actually moderating its policies. Alex Seitz-Wald of Salon reports that a topic at a recent conservative conference in Washington was, "How do you make abortion funny?" He quotes a participant in a breakout panel at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference. "You can engage with sarcasm, it's hard with the abortion issue, but you have to," said Students for Life president Kristan Hawkins. "Unfortunately we have to, because this is the generation that we've been dealt."

Ms. Hawkins, we're sorry you were dealt a bad generational hand. Heck, while we're laughing at abortion let's put immigration reform on Instagram! Start Snapchatting our opposition to same-sex marriage!

Young people may be lazy, narcissistic and entitled (though I kind of doubt it). But we're not dumb. We understand the connection -- or lack of one -- between the medium and the message. Dress social conservatism up in social media, and I bet most of us will still see the conservatism peeking through the social. Proclaim on Twitter that marriage is between a man and a woman, and 70 percent of us are still going to disagree. Make jokes about abortion in any social medium you like, and we'll probably just get angry.

The real missed opportunity here for Republicans is that young people actually aren't so set in our views on abortion. Earlier this month, the College Republican National Committee came out with a thorough and self-aware compilation of research and analysis: "Grand Old Party for A Brand New Generation." The section on abortion was especially striking. A March 2013 survey done by CRNC found that 37 percent of voters age 18 through 29 thought abortion should be illegal with certain exceptions, and another 14 percent said it should be illegal across-the-board. The report also cites a Harvard Institute of Politics survey done in the fall of 2012 that said 27 percent of Americans 18 to 29 think abortion should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest or to save a woman's life. Another 8 percent said it should be permitted only to save a woman's life while 15 percent were in favor of a total ban. So, both polls found about half of young people leaning in a pro-life direction. Yet, the College Republicans report notes:

Unfortunately for the GOP, the Republican Party has been painted - both by Democrats and by unhelpful voices in our own ranks - as holding the most extreme anti-abortion position (that it should be prohibited in all cases). Furthermore, the issue of protecting life has been conflated with issues around the definition of rape, funding for Planned Parenthood, and even contraception.

The report doesn't necessarily recommend silence on the matter -- or moving away from a pro-life stance -- but rather "to be mindful of ways that the issue of abortion branches (or can be distorted by opponents) into other policy areas where the GOP does not enjoy the same level of support."

Of course, as Slate's Amanda Marcotte notes, such "branching" wasn't forced on the GOP. It happened because Republicans have fought against contraception subsidies, while Mitt Romney threatened to cut off Planned Parenthood's federal funding. In addition, Republican candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, and more recently Representative Trent Franks, made offensively dumb statements that reflect badly on the entire party.

Which is why another tidbit from the report is especially relevant. The College Republicans survey asked young voters how they hoped people viewed them. They found the conclusion surprising: "The results did not suggest this is a generation that wants to be seen as cool, or adventurous, or creative. Instead, they want to be thought of as smart."

Intelligence. What a concept. While young people view Democrats as open-minded -- and Republicans as closed -- the same proportion (14 percent) consider each party intelligent. Yes, that's appallingly low. But it still suggests that Republicans might gain some traction by coming across to young people as more intelligent.

Trying to make abortion funny is not the way to start.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net