William Kristol argues that Trump’s unpopularity among the young constitutes a reason to abandon him, so that fresh faces and young voices may embody conservatism. The surprisingly strong performance of Jeremy Corbyn—long thought a socialist relic—in the recent UK election would seem to add urgency to Kristol’s argument. There may be many good reasons to oppose Trump, but this is not one of them. Conservatism’s problems with the young predate Trump, and the young have not shown much interest in the allegedly fresh Republican faces that ran for president in 2016. Progress doesn’t start with distancing ourselves from Trump. Progress starts with recognizing that nothing is working.
Trump in 2016 was not an especially weak general election performer among young votes. Despite a slogan (“Make America Great Again”) that targeted oldster nostalgia and irritated young nonwhites whose ancestors were either in some other country or barred from voting in this one when America was allegedly great—and despite his stranger-than-fiction gaffes and scandals, Trump did almost exactly as well as Romney had among young voters. It was the Democrats who slightly lost ground among the young. Trump lost the young decisively, but the problem had been at least as bad when the Republican establishment had the candidate it wanted.
A more interesting picture emerged in the primaries. Trump was challenged by two young, dynamic, hyperarticulate conservatives. It is interesting to see how these two men in their forties did with the young, compared to the seventy-year-old Trump and the even older Bernie Sanders.
Ted Cruz’s primary voters were fairly stable across age lines. Despite being almost a quarter-century younger than Trump, Cruz consistently lost young voters (and every other age group) to the older man.
Even more interesting is the comparison of Cruz to Bernie Sanders. Cruz is almost thirty years younger than Sanders—a huge advantage in the fresh-face department. And both are confrontational conviction politicians who like making speeches and have few legislative accomplishments. But in truth, the rhetorical styles of Sanders and Cruz could not be more different. Sanders talks about people’s real economic problems. If you wonder how you will pay for college, or how you will get health care if you get laid off, Sanders has answers. Taken together, Sanders’s many promises are financially ruinous (nor does that exhaust the problems with Bernie). But Sanders speaks the language of everyday economic anxiety.
By contrast, Cruz’s speaking style is abstract and utterly disconnected from average, unpolitical America. His Iowa Caucus victory speech was a dreadful performance, but the conception was even worse than the execution. Observant evangelical Christians heard biblical references. Small-government conservatives heard about the glorious Constitution. Everybody else heard somebody who didn’t particularly care about their problems. I never met a basically apolitical voter who could explain Cruz’s agenda. By contrast, almost everybody could tell you that Bernie was for free college and government-guaranteed health care. The relevance gap was much more important than the birth year.
The case of Marco Rubio is a little different. There were some states in which Trump’s performance among young Republican voters was worse than his overall state average. And yet, even in South Carolina, where Rubio had the support of many of the state’s most popular Republican politicians, Trump still beat Rubio among the young. You see this pattern over and over in the 2016 Republican primary exit polls. Trump isn’t always particularly popular among young Republican primary voters, but he is usually at least as popular as anyone else.
Florida, Rubio’s home state, might be the best example. Rubio did proportionately better among the young and Trump did proportionately better among the old—but Trump still beat Rubio among young voters. Meanwhile, in the Florida Democratic primary, Sanders won sixty-five percent of the young voters despite losing the state decisively overall, and despite being an elderly garden gnome from Vermont. Young Floridians voted for the old socialist and the old game show host over the young Reaganite, because the older guys had messages that resonated.
I don’t know what the answer is. My guess is that winning a larger share of younger voters will have to involve major changes in conservative policy priorities, rhetoric, and media strategy. The problem isn’t (just) Trump—and the solution isn’t an unlined face saying the same old thing.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.