Young conservatives weigh in on the Republican Party's youth vote strategy ahead of a big night in Tuscaloosa 🐘
While the Republican Party may be taking steps to include younger voices, young conservatives aren’t all on the same page about the efficacy of their outreach.
After Democrats won the youth vote in the 2022 midterms by a 28-point margin, young Republicans were the first to call out the GOP’s youth vote problem. Since then, these leaders have advocated for the Republican National Committee and the party at large to do a better job of engaging with and addressing the issues most important to young voters ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
It looks like the GOP is listening to young conservatives’ pleas. The RNC launched a youth advisory council to bring younger voices into the fold more formally. The first Republican debate of the 2024 cycle was co-hosted in partnership with Young America’s Foundation (YAF) (founded to engage young conservatives and led by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker). And tonight’s fourth GOP debate is being hosted at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, offering students the opportunity to get up close and personal with four leading GOP candidates — former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Notably, former President Donald Trump will be skipping the debate, which some say is a missed opportunity for the frontrunner Republican candidate to speak directly to some of his youngest supporters.
But while the party may be taking steps to include younger voices, young Republicans aren’t all on the same page about the efficacy of the party’s youth voter outreach. Some leaders say there is still more the RNC can do to prioritize the issues that matter to them most and to ensure their votes are encouraged. Others say the party should be working to win over younger voters in swing states, instead of crutching on support from young people in deep-red districts.
From where I’m sitting, while a youth advisory council is a good idea in theory, in practice, when state Republican lawmakers are working to limit college voting options and there’s a leading GOP candidate who’s proposed raising the voting age for most young people, efforts to champion youth voice only scratch the surface. Beyond that, until issues like climate change, the economy, and mental health are addressed by the leading candidates, there’s a whole swath of young conservatives who will be looking for more.
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Ahead of tonight’s debate, I checked in with a number of young conservatives in and out of Alabama. Here’s some of what they had to say:
📞 Brilyn Hollyhand, 17, Editor in Chief of ‘The Truth Gazette’ and Co-Chair of the Republican National Committee’s youth advisory council
“The whole point [of this debate] is to make sure we get as much exposure to the candidates for college students,” Hollyhand said in a phone call. He said he’s advocated for a debate on a college campus since the inception of the RNC’s youth advisory council.
Asked what he’s looking for tonight, Hollyhand said: “I am looking for a candidate who can put forward a structure, an organized plan for where the country is going to go…Whether that’s former President Trump, who we’re not hearing from, or the candidates we are hearing from, I’m looking for the plan instead of talking about the past.”
He added that when it comes to Trump, “this is a unique opportunity that he’s missing.” Hollyhand said he’s advocated for Trump to be on Instagram to engage more with younger voters rather than Truth Social. “Our generation’s not on Truth Social,” Hollyhand said.
📞 Christian Calvert, 21, president of Young Americans for Freedom (the campus chapters of the Young America’s Foundation) at University of Alabama
“I’m looking forward to seeing the candidates go into more depth on the issues,” Calvert said in a phone call, adding that his top two issues are “abortion” and “the transgender movement and the implications of that on women’s sports and society in general.”
Calvert said his top candidate is DeSantis, adding that the Florida governor has, “Donald Trump’s policies without the personal baggage.”
Asked about the GOP’s youth voter engagement work, Calvert said initiatives like tonight and the debate co-hosted with YAF in August are great.
Yet, he said, “I think a lot of the language they use could be more relatable. Calling things woke is more of a joke or a meme to us.”
Asked the biggest misconception about young Republicans, Calvert, who said he’s more of a conservative than a Republican and that, “they’re not the same,” said:
“The biggest misconception is that we’re out to get people. Really we just want to live our lives and not worry about our children being influenced.”
He said his biggest piece of advice for the eventual Republican nominee when it comes to young voters is:
“Don’t talk down to them… We are young, but we’re also adults…Let us have a seat at the table. Don’t just pay lip service that you want to hear from young people, actually reach out to them.”
📞 Kieghan Nangle, 21, social media and PR coordinate for Turning Point USA at University of Alabama
“I’m most looking forward to the questions the moderators come up with. Since it is on a college campus, I’m really intrigued to hear how the candidates are going to gear their answers toward my generation,” Nangle, who’s top choice for the Republican nomination is Trump, said in a phone call.
"Whoever the Republican candidate is is going to have to work really hard to be super down to earth with my generation, to get on the same level with us mentally and not just talking down to us. To meet us where we’re at.”
Nangle said the eventual nominee needs to “think about breaking down their strategy” to reach younger voters.
“We’re a scrolling generation, scrolling very quickly. We’re constantly hit with headline after headline. People just look at a headline and think that’s the whole story and it’s not,” she said.
Asked if the eventual nominee should be on TikTok, Nangle said:
“That’s a hard question because it’s a struggle with my generation. Countless people unfortunately get their news from TikTok.”
📞 Joe Mitchell, 26, former Iowa state Representative and Founder of Run GenZ, a group that recruits, trains, and mentors young conservatives to run for state and local office
“The reality is setting in that Trump is going to be the nominee. And if there was any chance that Trump wasn’t going to be the nominee, he would be on the debate stage right now,” Mitchell said in a phone call, adding that at this point the debates are “repetitive.”
Mitchell is skeptical about the RNC’s youth voter outreach, he told The Up and Up.
“Clearly they’re having [the debate] on a college campus to try to show engagement with the youth, but they’re doing it in Alabama where we’re gonna win. Strategically placing it in Alabama is stupid,” he said about the location of tonight’s debate — adding that it would make more sense to host it in a swing state like Georgia, Arizona, or Wisconsin.
📲 Karly Matthews, 25, Vice President of Communications for American Conservation Coalition (ACC), a youth-led conservative environmental organization
“70% of young Republicans are concerned about the quality of our natural environment. Especially at a debate hosted at a university, Republican presidential candidates must demonstrate that conservation is inherently conservative,” Matthews said in a text message, citing Gallup polling on Republicans’ worries about the environment.
Youth vote in the news 🗞
For more on how young Republicans at the University of Alabama are feeling, check out Sabrina Rodriguez’s piece, ‘Young conservatives want the Republican Party to make space for them’ for The Washington Post.