The GOP and the Millennials

Based admittedly on personal bigotry, I have tended to think of the generation known as millennials -- kids born in the '80s and '90s -- as aliens, or maybe zombies. Moreover, methought (vide Jesse Watters' videos), they are air-headed and superficial -- a mile wide and 1/2 inch deep.

But upon reading The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials are Leading America (And How Republicans Can Keep Up) by pollster and political consultant Kristin Soltis Anderson, a millennial herself, I'm beginning to detect a beating heart and even a brain behind some of those smart phones and video games.

Anderson gets going on what some of us find most idiotic about millennials: their addiction to video games.  Where she goes with this, however, is instructive. She highlights the "digital deficit" between Democrats and Republicans. (After all, how old is the kid who fixes your computer, dad?) The Obama team, with its digital, technological and analytics efforts, was miles ahead of the Romney campaign's relatively old-fashioned strategies. The Dems used digital expertise not only for fund-raising and TV ads (by far the largest expenditure), but for advertising in social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter -- even on video games themselves. For example:

Players from states like Ohio and Colorado logging on to a game like Need for Speed: Carbon may have found themselves racing down the highway, only to pass a billboard advertising "voteforchange.com" with Obama's face on it.

You can question the virtue of this sort of pandering, but Anderson is saying, "It works." She gives high marks to Reddit, "the self-proclaimed 'front page of the Internet,''' especially the "Ask Me Anything" subreddit, or AMA. If you think it sounds silly, it didn't to the Obama campaign: Obama himself "popped over" with the offer: "Ask Me Anything."

And then there's Snapchat, which a suddenly cool Rand Paul joined in 2014. So why would a politician bother with Snapchat? Peter Hamby of CNN says:

"Politicians -- at least the smart ones -- aren't just flocking to new platforms because they're trying to be hip, though that's certainly part of the calculation. They're joining them because that's increasingly where the voters are."

Republicans do not have "kick-ass" digital data products that work, says one young GOP nerd. But, as Anderson stresses, "Smart campaigns will make digital a part of every single thing they do."

But digital or hand-written, what should the Republican message to millennials be? Her second group of suggestions are found in the chapter entitled "Saying No to the Dress (but Yes to the Diapers): The New Shape of the American Family." Many of us will have a problem with this section.  Microtargeting "the family" sounds perfect for Republicans, but the millennials’ concept of family might not be ours. Even the words grate: When, for example, did mothers morph into "moms"? 

Polls, according to Anderson, have always shown married couples as favorable to Republicans. But, as she stresses, "couples," as well as marriage itself, are not what they used to be, even as recently as the Romney campaign. Thus, the dilemma: "How can a modern political party or candidate be credibly 'pro-family' and support 'family values' in a way that avoids sounding like a relic from a bygone era?”  Her suggestion is probably right, and we might have to bite the bullet on this one:

Any savvy political figure or party who [sic] wants to be credibly "pro-family' and still in tune with the American electorate should focus far less on creating or promoting a particular definition of family and instead should focus on promoting policies that make it easier for families of all types to be strong and happy.

She states that it is the economy as much or more than the rotten culture that is "decoupling" childbearing and marriage for this generation, and for the acceptance of single parenting. This presents a moral quandary for us of the silent generation; is there anything the Republican Party can suggest that may redeem this ominous situation?  Is there a place for Republican principles in the life of the hapless young man in one of Anderson's focus groups who laments:

The state of the economy is turning us into the slow and steady generation. We're having to wait a lot longer to make the big commitments; buy a car, buy a house, get married, because we don't have the money, and it's not coming in. At least for most of us that have graduated from college, we have student loan debt….  I've been dating my girlfriend for almost five years now…. We live together and everything, but ….

One can almost hear the sigh. He sounds like a schlemiel: He thinks dating and living together are the same thing. Anderson's point, however, is that this guy will vote. Thus, she addresses not same-sex marriage -- a done deal, in her opinion -- but rather salary inequality, paid maternity leave, Senator Mike Lee's tax reform plan, the child-tax credit, and other "pro-family ideas that would fit nicely into a low-tax, reduced-regulation policy maker's agenda." 

She devotes an entire chapter to student debt, now a staggering trillion-plus dollars, in which she demonstrates that this is an area where Democrats have failed and where Republicans can be successful. Tackling student debt, which might in turn reform the gluttony and grandiosity of universities where nothing worthwhile is taught anyway sounds like a terrific place for Republicans to stake a claim, and a juicy way to microtarget the family. Summing up, she says, "The new way to be pro-family in American politics is not to define family but to empower it."

A substantial chunk of Anderson's book is devoted to the phenomenon currently being bandied about in many media forums: the tendency of millennials to gravitate to cities and the opportunity this presents for Republicans. Many of these young people are in better financial shape than the aforementioned age cohort. For example, they can afford lots of sushi, which all millennials crave and adore, according to Anderson, unlike their squeamish elders.  But, as she says, studies have also shown "that declines in family formation and increased financial uncertainty are significant factors that have driven young people away from the housing market." But the phenomenon exists. A 2012 study found that

…after the housing market crash…homes in denser and close-in areas held up better, adding that "emerging evidence points to a preference for mixed-use, compact, amenity-rich, transit-accessible neighborhoods or walkable places."

As everyone knows, Republicans traditionally flunk in urban areas. But then along came Uber, the prototypical Republican dream. "Car-hailing and ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and others are wildly popular among wealthy, young tech-savvy urbanites -- precisely the kind of voters the Republican Party needs," says Anderson. This time the Republicans were on it: "…during the late summer of 2014, the RNC put out an online petition asking people to sign up to 'stand with Uber' in the fight against unions and regulation." Senator Marco Rubio rushed over to Uber headquarters to congratulate them and snag a photo-op -- and maybe a nice plate of hikari-mono.

In a cute section of the book, Anderson builds on a theory of political analyst Dave Wasserman that divides voters according to food preferences. The proxy for Dem vs. GOP: Cracker Barrel vs. Whole Foods. In her description of Whole Foods, she summons up a picture straight from the spoof, "Portlandia."

If you get your Thanksgiving turkey from Whole Foods, there's a scale that essentially rates how happy that bird's life was before it wound up in your oven.

As should be obvious by now, Whole Foods is usually found in the upscale urban areas where upscale urban millennials live, and on the whole Democrats have these areas to themselves. Cracker Barrel, with its "comfort food and cholesterol," is found in more rural areas, perhaps in a sprawling mall, and this is where, since the 1950s, Republicans do better.

Of course, it is the Whole Foods customers, upscale urban residents, that present a huge challenge to Republicans, but also a huge opportunity "to make a case about the perils of regulation and the power of the market." As in taxicabs versus Uber. As in transportation options versus corruption and public monopolies. It is the Left that has ruined cities. Republicans can get to work and start to fix them, by meeting the problems of crime, bloated municipal government, and union power with agility and up-to-date methods.

Anderson suggests, yes, an app, an app for "open data," information on the many ways that their cities are succeeding or failing. "It is a bit of an oversimplification, but young people today expect to be able to do pretty much everything online, usually from an app on their phone." This concept alone should be an opportunity for Republicans to show they are the "party of innovative good governance rather than the status quo." Anderson concludes, "The door for the GOP has reopened.  Now we must choose to walk through it."

This could be fun.