July 29, 2008

Young Republicans search for campaign role

During the fall of his senior year at Winthrop University, Greg Rogers found time between classes to hand out bumper stickers, circulate voter registration forms and even sponsor a George W. Bush house party at his Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.

That November, Rogers got his first taste of political success: The Fort Mill native likes to think he played a small role in helping Bush win South Carolina by 17 points.

"Regardless what people think of President Bush, his campaign teams, they had it together," said Rogers, reflecting on Bush's 2004 victory over Democrat John Kerry. "When I sent an e-mail, somebody would call me up. It really made me feel connected to what he was trying to do."

Four years later, Rogers is still waiting for some love from John McCain. Or at least a phone call.

As voting day approaches, the 28-year-old says he has not been asked by anyone to volunteer for McCain's presidential campaign, despite the fact that Rogers now serves as chairman of the York County Young Republicans, a group he founded earlier this year.

"They definitely haven't reached out to the younger generation as strongly as I hoped they would," said Rogers, who lives in Fort Mill's Baxter Village. "It's a big mistake. You've got to create something that people want to be a part of. I'm just not getting that feeling this go-round."

Young adults turn to Democrats

Rogers' frustrations connect to a broader source of concern confronting the GOP. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that voters younger than 30 are now more than twice as likely to identify themselves as Democrats.

Last week, a 29-year-old GOP political strategist named David All attracted attention for criticizing his own party's leaders in a Post story. "The Republicans are sort of talking down to Gen-Nexters, not bringing them in," All said. "I think the Republican Party is staring down a very long, dark, quiet night."

Eddie Scarry, chairman of the College Republicans at Winthrop University, thinks back to Democratic nominee Barack Obama's visit to Winthrop during the S.C. primary.

McCain "probably should have taken a leaf out of Obama's book and put more focus on the younger crowd," said Scarry. "Obama made more stops around schools, like high schools and colleges. When you've actually heard him speak, that just sort of sits in your mind."

The McCain campaign points to a number of outreach efforts, such as expanded features on social networking sites Facebook and MySpace and a channel on YouTube. Supporters also emphasize McCain's outspoken stances on climate change and renewable energy, two issues important to young people on which the Arizona senator has broken from other Republicans.

"The reason why so many people our age don't get involved in politics is because it can be so partisan sometimes," said Christian Hine, a 31-year-old Republican from Fort Mill. "They don't like being told what to think. That's something McCain presents. It's more about finding solutions."

As for reaching out to volunteers, the McCain campaign is wisely focusing its resources on battleground states such as North Carolina, said Patrick Haddon, chairman of the S.C. Federation of Young Republicans.

Not just about McCain or Obama?

The gap actually emerged well before Obama and McCain secured their respective nominations. In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry carried voters younger than 30 by 9 points. The war in Iraq has a lot to do with what's happening, said Democrat Kevin Baxter, a rising senior at Winthrop University.

"The war is probably the single biggest issue," said Baxter, 23. "I would like to see a time machine take us back to not go to Iraq in the first place. It's just a general revulsion to the way things are being handled."

There was a time when Republicans didn't struggle with the under-30 crowd.

Ronald Reagan courted young voters well enough to take 59 percent of their vote in 1984. By the time Bill Clinton arrived in 1992, voters younger than 30 spread their support evenly between the two parties.

But in every election since then, Democrats have narrowed the margin. This year, The Post and ABC reported that 44 percent of those under 30 call themselves Democrats, while 18 percent label themselves as Republicans.

That's why Scarry, the College Republicans leader, doesn't put the blame on McCain. "College students are typically liberal anyway," he said.

Related content