The State Central Committee of the Republican Party of Iowa picked a new party chairman yesterday. The winner was Matt Strawn, a former Congressional staffer best known as part of the group that owns the Iowa Barnstormers arena football team.
I've written more at Bleeding Heartland about the challenges facing Strawn as he takes over the divided Republican Party of Iowa, so I won't go into too much detail about Iowa politics here.
I thought the MyDD community would be interested in Strawn's promise to use technology to improve Republicans' standing with younger voters:
Strawn, 35, noted that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama beat Republican John McCain by 2-1 among young adults in Iowa. He said part of the problem is Republicans have failed to use modern communications methods, such as Twitter and Facebook. People are left with the impression that the party either doesn't know how to use those channels or doesn't care to, he said. "Either way, we're sending a terrible message." [...]
Strawn said at a press conference that he would reach out to all age groups as he seeks to build up party registrations, raise money and recruit strong candidates for office. He vowed to regain the majorities in both houses of the Legislature, win back the governorship and make gains in Congress.
He said Republicans could do all those things without watering down the party's conservative priorities. "If we communicate our beliefs, we can win elections," he said.
There's no question that the Republican Party lost young voters by large margins in 2006 and 2008, and not just in Iowa. This map created by Mike Connery shows that if only voters aged 18-29 had cast ballots for president, John McCain would have won fewer than ten states.
Republicans should be asking themselves why young voters are rejecting their candidates in such large numbers. It wasn't always this way. When I was growing up in the 1980s, the Republican Party did quite well with the 18-30 age group, including college students. In fact, my age cohort is still relatively strong for Republicans. (A chart in this post shows the presidential vote among young Americans for the past 30 years.)
Strawn's answer is that the GOP's failure to fully exploit new technology is "sending a terrible message" to young voters. He won over State Central Committee members in part thanks to a technologically savvy online campaign (a blog with occasional YouTube video postings).
I sincerely hope that Republicans continue to believe that their recent election losses are rooted in communication problems. I think the Republicans' ideology is what turns off young voters. The tendency for Republicans to campaign on "culture war" issues exacerbates this problem, highlighting the topics that make the party seem out of touch to younger voters.
Some Republicans want their candidates to emphasize economic issues more and downplay divisive social issues. Shortly after the election, Doug Gross discussed the Republican Party's problems on Iowa Public Television. Gross worked for Republican Governors Bob Ray and Terry Branstad in the 1970s and 1980s, and he was the Republican nominee for governor against Tom Vilsack in 2002. Gross had this advice for Republican candidates:
What we really have to do is speak to the fundamental issues that Iowans care about which is I'm working hard every day, in many cases a couple of jobs, my wife works as well, we take care of our kids and yet the government is going to increase our taxes, they're going to increase spending and they're going to give that to somebody who is not working. That kind of message will win for republicans among the people we have and we've gotten away from that.
Ah yes, the glory days, when Republicans could win by running against "tax and spend" Democrats who supposedly took money away from hard-working Americans and gave it to "welfare queens" and other unemployed ne'er-do-wells.
I am not convinced that this is a winning message anymore. Nationwide exit polling from the most recent election showed that a majority of voters believe government should do more, not less. The same exit poll found Barack Obama won even though most people believed Republican claims that he would raise taxes.
Moreover, rising unemployment is not just an issue for lower-income or blue-collar workers. Layoffs are also hitting groups that have trended toward the Democratic Party in the last decade: suburban dwellers, white-collar professionals and college-educated whites generally. Even in affluent neighborhoods, just about everyone knows someone who has been laid off in the past six months. Government assistance to the unemployed may be more popular now than it was in the 1980s.
Losing your job means losing your health insurance for many Americans, which is particularly scary for those who have "pre-existing conditions." More and more people are delaying routine preventive care and treatment for chronic conditions in this tough economy. Other families have been devastated after a private insurance company denied coverage for expensive, medically necessary procedures.
I believe that the problems with our health care system are another reason that Republican "small government" rhetoric has less salience now than it did 20 years ago.
As I've written before, Republican prospects for a comeback may have less to do with new GOP leadership than with how well the Democrats govern. If Democrats do well, they will keep winning elections. If they screw up, the Republicans may rebound no matter what party leaders do at the RNC or in contested states like Iowa.
On the other hand, if Republicans want to do more than sit back and wait for Democrats to self-destruct, they will need to acknowledge that their problems go beyond communication skills. Many conservative beliefs are outside the American mainstream. I don't think the Republican Party can twitter and YouTube its way out of the hole they're in, especially when it comes to younger voters.