Why GOP Pandering to Young Voters Backfires

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Marco Rubio gave the Republican response to the State of the Union address for two reasons.

First, Rubio’s Cuban, and the GOP wants to court Latinos.

Second, Rubio’s relatively young, and the GOP wants to stop the bleeding when it comes to young voters.

But there’s a fundamental problem with the Republican approach, and it stems from the GOP’s least favorite discipline: behavioral science.

Young People Are Naturally Skeptical

You hear about scams that target older folks all the time. If you’re like me, you’re tempted to blame it on media sensationalism. After all, ripping off a retiree on Social Security pisses us off a lot more than stories of scamming a 24-year-old single guy.

But 80 percent of scam victims are over 65. It’s not sensationalism by the media to drive up ratings. And it’s not senility. It’s the human brain and aging.


In a study, researchers found that older people are far less able to detect a scammer than younger people are. Follow-up investigations using functional MRIs that watch the brain while it’s working revealed that a part of the brain that signals danger declines as we age.

From “Why Old People Get Scammed” in Science Magazine:

In the study, appearing online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the“untrustworthy” faces were perceived as significantly more trustworthy by the older subjects than by the younger ones. The researchers then performed the same test on a different set of volunteers, this time imaging their brains during the process, to look for differences in brain activity between the age groups. In the younger subjects, when asked to judge whether the faces were trustworthy, the anterior insula became active; the activity increased at the sight of an untrustworthy face. The older people, however, showed little or no activation.

Aging depresses our bullshit detectors. And the Republicans better come to grips, because their message isn’t selling among people with strong BS detectors—people under 30. Like it or not, they are tomorrow’s voter.

Pandering might work with the elderly, but it becomes less effective as you move down the age scale.

Young People Are Cynical Idealists

Instead of pandering with Marco Rubio and amnesty, why not take John Mackey’s advice? That advice is simple: find your purpose.

Mackey is the co-founder of Whole Foods Markets. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian equally uncomfortable with the big brother government as with crony capitalism. His employees are young and cynical, but at the same time visionary and idealistic.

Mackey offers five big questions to help organizations their purpose:

  • Why do we exist?
  • Why do we need to exist?
  • What is the contribution we want to make?
  • Why is the world better because we are here?
  • Would we be missed if we disappeared?

Republicans should focus on that last question: would we be missed if we disappeared? They should ask people under 30 who call themselves fiscal conservatives, “would you miss the GOP if it disappeared tomorrow?”

More and more, the answer in my head is “not really.” (Frankly, I have almost the same response when applying the question to the tea party movement, and we need to fix that, too, or stop existing.)

If the Republican Party doesn’t provide a viable alternative to planned economies and regulated lives, another party will fill the void.

Let’s be honest: America and the ideals of liberty and free market capitalism need a vibrant, purposeful political engine more than they need a network of grassroots activists. And nature abhors a vacuum.

Imitating Reagan Isn’t Enough

Cynical idealists respond to people who demonstrate a clear sense of purpose and a commitment to making life better. Young people flocked to Reagan (as compared to many other Republican candidates), both as governor of California and as President of the United States. They may not have agreed with him, but they recognized a shared worldview: trust, but verified.

Trying to recreate the Reagan Era is as futile and counterproductive as trying to rebuild the Berlin Wall. But we can learn something from Regan’s vision.

Reagan simultaneously cast a jaundiced eye on our institutions and systems while maintaining in his mind’s eye the shining city on the hill. He was a cynical idealist, and it worked. The cynical idealist made the world better – for a time.

Science confirms that saying the right things but doing the politically expedient might endear you to the oldest voters, but it makes the youngest puke.

As long as the GOP believes pandering to the young will cure its problems, more and more people will come to realize we wouldn’t really miss the party if it disappears tomorrow.

Update: Rush Limbaugh agrees

Mackey, John; Sisodia, Rajendra (2012-12-25). Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business (Kindle Locations 886-887). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.

3 reasons why young voters might make a right turn (and how we missed an opportunity with them)

Reading Time: 3 minutes

How many new voters has the tea party movement created?  There’s reason to hope that first time voters will begin shifting to the right in 2010. There’s also reason for us on the right to worry.

About 8 million people turned 18 since the 2008 election.  While the left undoubtedly brainwashed many of them before they reached voting age, many others avoided indoctrination through good parenting, good thinking, or simply not paying attention to the left’s message.

1.  The latest batch of voters heard a competing message for the past 2 years.  The Tea Party message, unlike traditional Republican messages, presents first-time voters with a choice, not an echo.  The GOP, on the other hand, tried to inspire people by holding up whatever Democrats advanced and announcing, “We’ll do it slower and cheaper.”

2.  At the same time, young people have become more skeptical than ever about government promises.  Six in ten Americans doubt they’ll ever see a penny from Social Security. These skeptics align well with the Tea Party movement, assuming we spoke to them in the right channels with the right language at the right times.

3.  Still on the positive side, the left’s message has become stale and flat since 2008. Barack Obama’s failure as a leader has opened young people’s eyes to the limitations of the person who occupies the White House and of government to solve problems. 

But did they vote? And how?

The Tea Party movement spent its first year talking to people who had dropped out of the political arena. Most of the people I met at early events leaned conservative—they simply hadn’t been roused to action until Stimulus.  For these folks—and there are many—tri-cornered hats and fife-and-drum teams stir passion.

Do archaic symbols of the 18th century inspire young adults?  I’d be surprised.  They simply haven’t received cultural or educational exposure to American history.  College students get a collective F in their knowledge of US History.  They were as young as nine-years-old when Muslim terrorists attacked America on September 12, 2001.  They get their news over game chat channels and cable networks that specialize in entertainment, not news.

So what has the Tea Party done to engage the kids?

When we talk to people who were in middle school when Americans landed in Afghanistan, our message should be consistent and honest:

“Look, we all know that Social Security likely won’t be there when you retire.  We all know that, in addition to student loans, the government has saddled you with $50,000 in debt.  And we know that federal regulations make it more difficult for you to choose your own career. Face it: your options in life are limited . 

“But there’s a solution. Some of us want to give you back your fundamental rights to pursue happiness.  We need your help. If it sounds like we’re saying, ‘Hey, we effed it all up—can you fix it?’ we are.” 

Despite our gains on November 2, we have work to do.  We need to open channels that reach young voters. Those channels will change all the time, so this won’t be a one-time effort.

A progressive blog claims that youth vote was down 60 percent in 2010 from 2008. The reason? Millennials are disenchanted with Barack Obama. (Join the club, kids.)   

Now, we can bloviate about young people needing to “get it,” or we can design effective and entertaining education strategies. 

What you do you think?