WILLIAMS: How the GOP can capture the youth vote next year

In the current political upheaval in the Middle East the high percentage of young people in the region is being cited as key to the overthrow of a rigid, outdated authoritarian rule.

American political leaders might want to take a peek at the youth movement at home and its potential to shake up old bones and old agendas here in the very near future.

ADVERTISEMENT
Nearly one-quarter of the U.S. population is under the age of 18. In fact, more than 20 percent is under 15. And if the population graph extends out to “Millenials,” people younger than 30, then more than 40 percent of the population fits the category of young people.

By contrast, just 13 percent of Americans are 65 and older. And while Americans older than 50, the Baby Boomers, are rapidly adding to the over-65 group, the entire population of people older than 50 is just 30 percent. That leaves very young people as a demographic colossus of America. But so far they have not flexed their muscles to rattle the pillars of American politics.

In the first two months of the new Congress the budget debate that has dominated the agenda is skewed to the older crowd. The only mention of young people comes when politicians warn against burdening the young with huge budget deficits. But that nod to the young is never matched by commitments to cut entitlement programs, like Social Security and Medicare, that principally benefit the over-50 crowd.

Instead, GOP freshmen in the House, fueled by support from the seniors who dominate the Tea Party, have been busy cutting discretionary spending on Head Start, grants for higher education and job training programs.

A December Pew poll found Baby Boomers, born in the years after World War II, are “pretty glum,” with 80 percent saying they are dissatisfied with “the way things are going in the country today.” Young people, ages 18-30, told Pew they, too, worry about the direction of the country. But with only 60 percent of younger Americans saying they are dissatisfied, they are optimists in comparison with their seniors. The very pessimistic seniors are the voters who supported Republicans over Democrats in the midterm elections by 53 percent to 45 percent.

While Americans at both ends of the demographic scale say boosting the economy is a top priority, they have different approaches to that revitalization.  Seniors are focused on their immediate cost of living, while younger Americans are more worried about a tight job market’s long-term impact on their ability to buy a home or save for retirement. And they have more reason to worry: The February unemployment rate for Americans under 25 was 17.7 percent, including 9.5 percent for college graduates under 25.

That is why polls show the number one priority for young Americans is increased federal spending to get employers to hire more workers. Young people also want more dollars dedicated to education, another point of difference with older voters.

That is where President Obama comes into play and so far he stands apart from Republicans and Democrats in appealing to the youth vote.

During the first two years of his presidency, Obama has overhauled federal student loan programs, budgeted $30 billion in the stimulus to make college more affordable and, as part of the new healthcare law, has given young people the right to stay on their parents’ insurance plan up to the age of 26.

Yet, in a curious twist of political fate, congressional Republicans are now positioned to win over young voters heading to 2014.

A recent study out of the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of voters ages 18-29 identifying as Democrats shrunk from 62 percent in 2008 to 54 percent by the end of 2009, while those identifying as Republicans increased from 30 percent to 40 percent. And Republicans also have younger politicians.

There are 32 members of the House who are 40 or under. Of those, 22 are Republicans and 10 are Democrats. The 10 youngest congressmen, from 29-year-old Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois to 35-year-old Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, are all Republicans. At 35, Colorado’s Jared Polis is the youngest Democratic representative. The three youngest senators — 39-year-old Mike Lee of Utah, 39-year-old Marco Rubio of Florida and 42-year-old Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — are all Republicans.

The failure of young Obama supporters to vote in the midterms has put a youthful face on the GOP. President Reagan attracted young voters by offering a “Morning in America” vision of optimism. Now there is another opportunity for Republicans to reach out to the young again if they can define a pro-youth agenda.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.