During President Obama’s State of the Union address this week, 14 members of the College Republicans at Ohio State University gathered in a meeting room at their student union on campus in Columbus, Ohio.
The president’s speech, which they watched on a giant flat screen TV, was punctuated with groans, rebuttal, criticisms and sarcasm from this young audience. These students worked hard, to no avail, to deliver the much prized battleground state of Ohio to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Not only did the GOP lose the state in last year’s presidential election, but it also faces a big challenge when appealing to young voters.
In the past two presidential elections, voters under 30 have gone big for Obama. Young voters are much more likely than their elders to identify as Democrats, to have positive views of government and to favor same-sex marriage.
Time For Change?
NPR attended their viewing of the State of the Union address, opening up a conversation by asking if the students think the Republican Party needs to change.
“I don’t want us to panic,” Drew Stroemple, a political science and economics major, said. “We do need serious changes in terms of the way we reach out to different demographics and in terms of the way we message.
“But we had a tough environment in 2008, and in 2012, I think we forgot just how difficult it is to beat an incumbent because the Democrats learned that lesson in 2004. Sometimes you’re gonna have tough losses, but it doesn’t mean you change your views.”
It’s worth noting that this club is called College Republicans. Not the “College Conservatives” or the “College Tea Party.” They are proud Republicans who identify with their party as an institution. And as such they often echoed what you hear from the Republican National Committee.
But as the conversation continued, generational differences did reveal themselves.
Take political science and history major, Sam Zeidema, 20, who calls himself “a real conservative.” On social issues, though, he is out of sync with some of the GOP’s positions, such as its stance against same-sex marriage.
Zeidema, chairman of the College Republicans group, says he doesn’t feel strongly about the issue either way — and so he is not going to campaign for or against it.
“I am not one that’s going to go out and advocate for or against the issue because I hear both sides. I understand both sides, and, I guess, it’s just hard because it doesn’t affect me personally,” he said.
There was no dissent voiced on this point among this group.
The Next Generation
There was also a strong sense in the room that the Republican Party can revive itself by attracting new, youthful leadership. They say that’s what Democrats did with Barack Obama.
One prime candidate is Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who delivered the official GOP response to the president this week.
On the matter of Rubio’s awkward on-camera drink of water, there was forgiveness in this room. They laughed, yes, but also cheered when Rubio finished his speech.
Immediately after listening to the response, the talk turned to the senator’s potential.
“He’s definitely sending the party in the right direction,” college senior Shanae Brown said.
Others stressed the depth of the GOP bench when it comes to new, young leaders.
The area where these Republicans showed the most frustration with the party is in messaging.
“We don’t know how to brand our message and we are getting outworked on that, and I think that’s our major issue,” Lucas Denney, 21, said.
Some of the students say that is especially true when it comes to social media, a critical tool for reaching young voters.
“That was the biggest problem. … I would go on Twitter and I would see Obama promoted. I would go on YouTube, there’s an Obama ad. I would go on Pandora and there’s an Obama ad,” Dan Morgano said, adding “[I] never heard anything from Romney when I was online.”
There is another big thing these college Republicans seem to be banking on when it comes to the GOP and their generation: When they do get out of school and get jobs and mortgages, taxes and government spending will suddenly become greater worries.
They say that’s when the Republicans will have a chance at winning over a generation that has been very elusive for the party.