Tea Party Weighs How To Win Over Young Voters

The 2008 election put an exclamation point on a millennial trend: young voters increasingly leaning left. At the Tea Party convention in Nashville, conservatives are focusing on how to right that phenomenon.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. Im Renee Montagne.

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And Im Linda Wertheimer.

The Tea Party protests began just last year and the movement is already holding its first national convention. The event in Nashville has drawn criticism from some conservative activists because of its steep $549 registration fee. Still, organizers say its sold old. Sarah Palin speaks Saturday night.

NPRs Don Gonyea reports on an attempt to bring young people into the conservative movement. Its a big challenge, considering that President Obama won two-thirds of the votes cast by people under age 30.

DON GONYEA: It was a not-so secret weapon of the Obama campaign: young voters. And Jeremy Bird of Organizing for America, the post-election offshoot of the Obama campaign, says they arent letting up.

Mr. JEREMY BIRD (Deputy Director, Organizing for America): Were going to continue to register new voters. Were going to continue to engage those young people who came out for the first time in 2008 and make sure that they know that their vote counted, that it made a difference, and that its going to make a difference again in 2010.

GONYEA: The Obama campaign was groundbreaking in its use of the Internet and social media to engage young voters. Republicans say they watched in both awe and frustration. At the Tea Party Convention, Jordan Marks of the group Americans for Freedom is conducting todays workshop on the youth vote.

So lessons to be learned from the Obama campaign?

Mr. JORDAN MARKS (Executive Director, Americans for Freedom): I personally went and interviewed young Democrats that had spent a lot of time on his campaign to figure out what they had done differently.

GONYEA: But beyond the Internet, conservatives say their basic message is now getting more traction. As president, Barack Obama now has a record and conservatives say theres reason for young voters to start to scrutinize what hes accomplished.

Twenty-six-year-old Ashley Sewell of the group Smart Girl Politics says recent college graduates are facing a brutal job market. She says 20-somethigns are worried and that provides an opening.

Ms. ASHLEY SEWELL (Smart Girl Politics): I think so, primarily because the conservative movement has really started to gain some traction. And I think that were starting to gain some legitimacy in the conversation.

GONYEA: Professor Peter Levine runs a nonpartisan program at Tufts University specializing in politics and young people.

Professor PETER LEVINE (Director, CIRCLE; Civic Studies, Tufts University): So I don't think the fact that they would be enthusiastic about Barack Obama in 2008 would guarantee that they would continue to feel that way. Theyre faced with a lot of things, including a very high unemployment rate. And it would be easy for them to change their mind about the effectiveness of government.

GONYEA: And he points to some recent good news for Republicans. In the gubernatorial election in Virginia last November, Republican Bob McDonnell not only won, he won among voters under 30 as well.

Still, Levine cautions on social issues young voters are more liberal than the nation as a whole. He says if conservatives focus too much on things like opposition to same-sex marriage, for example, it will work against them.

Prof. LEVINE: I think you stay away from issues that look like they involve any kind of intolerance, because young people, surveys show are quite tolerant, especially towards gays, racial minorities and immigrants. So I think you try not to look like youre intolerant.

GONYEA: In Nashville, Jordan Marks says you have to find creative ways to connect. Heres what he did when California announced a new rule taking effect next year, mandating tighter energy consumption standards on new big screen TVs.

Mr. MARKS: Well, I went and approached all the gamers associations on all the college campus in California. We had our groups out there with them. And they were passionate. And they saw their issue before them. They saw government reaching out and affecting their lives. Its much easier for them to say, huh, let me think about this and let me look at what else is going on.

GONYEA: Marks says its still about message and targeting that message on a micro level. And while no one predicts a big swing in the youth vote away from Democrats anytime soon, conservative activists say if they can simply narrow that huge margin President Obama racked up, it could be enough to make the difference in some close elections.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Nashville.

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