(CNN) — The Republican Party brand has become tarnished among young adults. Once the party of Reagan, who won the youth vote by 19 points in his reelection campaign, we’ve slowly lost our connection with the young. The GOP, which was once a proud reference to the “Grand Old Party,” has certainly lost some of its grandeur.
If recent elections are any indication, then perception has become reality. President Barack Obama won 5 million more votes than Gov. Mitt Romney among voters under the age of 30 in the 2012 presidential election. Despite Romney’s significant edge in other age groups, the youth vote proved decisive. Moreover, this was actually an improvement from 2008, when Obama won the youth vote by a 2-to-1 margin.
The Republican Party has won the youth vote before and can absolutely win it again. But it will take significant work to refine our message, and improve how and where we communicate.
To that end, the College Republican National Committee on Monday released a detailed report — based on data collected from numerous focus groups and polls — to find out what went wrong in 2012. But, more importantly, we are more interested in how to win in the future.
The report reveals that Republicans have a lot of work to do to repair their image among young adults. Our focus groups revealed that young, “winnable” Obama voters tended to associate the GOP with words like “close-minded,” “old-fashioned” and even “racist.”
Yet despite the admittedly dismal present situation, the report also highlights incredible opportunities for improvement. In no way is this a eulogy for the GOP; rather, this is a loud and clear wake-up call for change. Fortunately for us, the timing couldn’t be better; while Republicans face a daunting brand problem, young voters still aren’t enamored of Democrats in general or President Obama in particular.
Instead, what we found is that young adults clearly identify, and are often experiencing, the problems created by Democratic leadership. They see a stagnant economy that stymies their ability to get married, purchase a home and start a family. They agree that Washington is spending too much money, in no small part because they understand they are the ones who will have to pay the bill. They also realize that institutional entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security are on an unsustainable path. Indeed, the finances of these programs has grown so obviously dire that when asked what makes their generation unique, one respondent said, “[we're] probably not going to get Social Security.”
Each of these issues represents an enormous opportunity for the GOP. What this survey really highlighted is that we can’t be the party that will pat you on the back when you rise to the top of a big business, but won’t offer you a hand to help you get there.
So we need to change our sales pitch. Fortunately, our ideas are already grounded in concepts that appeal across generations: the notion of a free market, where effort is connected with reward and equality is discussed in terms of opportunity, not outcome. Now we just need to give those themes a humanizing context. For example, rather than talking about the perils of big government, it’s up to us to show how Washington’s spending habits are squeezing investment and innovation out of the country’s small businesses.
In short, it’s time to give our principles some perspective. We need to show how Republicans can be the party that supports bottom-up, opportunity promoting, people-led growth, rather than stimulus driven, top down, government-run solutions. That’s a winning message among young people, and it’s how College Republicans plan on reintroducing the Grand Old Party to a brand new generation.
Editor’s note: Alex Smith is the national chair of the College Republican National Committee. The writer’s views are her own.