At CPAC, GOP Makes Push For Young Voters

Winning over young voters is one of the biggest challenges facing conservatives. At this year's CPAC, there's an extra push to counter the advantage Democrats have enjoyed with voters under 30 in the past two presidential elections.

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People at CPAC may well be talking today about a change of heart by Senator Rob Portman. The Ohio Republican said yesterday that he's reversed his position on gay marriage. He supports it now, after learning his son is gay. Gay marriage is one of those issues that enjoys strong support among younger voters, voters who have favored Democrats in recent elections. NPR's Don Gonyea reports on conservative efforts to win back voters under 30.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Wander the huge exhibit hall at CPAC, and right in the middle there's a crowded booth with arcade-style basketball hoops and an economic message for young people.

So, where are we? What is this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is millennial madness. We're Generation Opportunity. We're an organization that believes - we advocate for 18 to 29-year-olds. We advocate for economic opportunities for them.

GONYEA: And there's swag.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We've got T-shirts. We've got little stress balls that are March madness basketballs.

GONYEA: Two students from the University of West Florida just finished up shooting hoops. Hannah Bowen is a junior.

This is your first CPAC?

HANNAH BOWEN: Yes.

GONYEA: What's your reaction?

BOWEN: It's very impressive. It's good to know that there is support out there for our political standpoint. I had no idea that there would be such a turnout for it. I'm very excited.

GONYEA: Bowen and her friend, 20-year-old Derek Woods, are conservatives, but each says they feel little real connection to today's Republican Party.

DEREK WOODS: I'm not very happy. I think they've overlooked our generation as a whole, and they've overlooked diversity, like we need to embrace diversity a lot more. And we can still hold onto our traditional values, but you still need to realize the society that we live in.

GONYEA: It's a message CPAC organizers insist they hear, and it's one addressed onstage yesterday by Senator Rand Paul, who said stale GOP policies won't attract what he calls the Facebook generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR RAND PAUL: They doubt Social Security will be there for them. They worry about jobs and money and rent and student loans. They want leaders that won't feed them a lot of crap or sell them short.

GONYEA: Later in the afternoon, there was a CPAC panel discussion aimed at young voters. Social issues are often cited as the big point of conflict between those under 30 and older Republicans. But Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life said you have to separate discussion of same-sex marriage and abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

KRISTAN HAWKINS: These are very important issues that need to be taken on their own. You can't lump these issues together. And a lot of our group leaders have different views on gay marriage and legalizing drugs. We all agree that abortion is a fundamental human rights violation.

GONYEA: Evan Feinberg was also on the panel. He's with the group Generation Opportunity. He says downplay the social issues entirely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

EVAN FEINBERG: We can focus on government spending. For instance, we're going to unabashedly advocate for young people when it comes to government spending. Every dollar that's being spent is being stolen from us to give to an older, wealthier generation.

GONYEA: That view is shared by panelist Francesca Chambers, an editor at the conservative, youth-oriented website called Red Alert Politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS: I reject the notion that young people don't identify as conservatism, or they think that conservatism is a dirty word. I don't think that that's true at all. What they didn't like about the Republican Party had a lot more to do with some of the social issues - gay marriage.

GONYEA: Following the panel, Chambers continued the discussion out into the hallway. Talking to a small group of CPAC attendees, she said the party and conservatives are missing a lot of opportunities. She then offered an unexpected example.

CHAMBERS: Do you actually recognize that most TV shows are actually more conservative? Do you guys watch "Modern Family"?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah.

CHAMBERS: OK. Have you not noticed that it's actually a very conservative TV show? For instance, they do have, like, the gay couple, but the gay couple are married and they have a kid, which is a very conservative thing. They are pro-family. Like, the whole thing is about family, the family structure, which is a very conservative value.

GONYEA: It's a definition of conservative that a lot of Republicans won't buy, but for young voters, Chambers says you have to speak their language and get them to look at a world they know through different eyes. Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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