2014 Bradley Symposium: Remarks by Kristen Soltis Anderson

Published July 29, 2014

“America’s Prospects: Promise and Peril”

The Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C.

June 18, 2014

Speaker: Kristen Soltis Anderson, pollster & columnist for The Daily Beast

Soltis Anderson
Kristen Soltis Anderson

Kristen Soltis Anderson: Well, thank you very much for having me here today. Thank you to Yuval for inviting me to sit on this very distinguished panel. So, I’m here to talk a little bit about the Millennial generation. Awakened in their political consciousness by 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the smart phone revolution, the rise of social media, the collapse of the global economy and the failure of the promise of hope and change, the Millennial generation has arrived in American politics. Made up of those born between 1980 and about the year 2000, Millennials are showing up to the polls, they’re organizing for causes and they’re even getting elected to office themselves.

So, every generation is defined in part by the events of their early adulthood, and Millennials are no exception. They’re coming of age in an era that’s marked by rapid technological transformation, demographic transformation and economic upheaval that are influencing how they live, who they love, what they believe and whatthey value. And for us as conservatives, understanding what those values look like is essential to envisioning what the future of conservatism may be.

In politics, the conventional wisdom is that the young are somewhat irrelevant. You either hear that they don’t turn out, or you hear that, “Well, they’re always more liberal anyways, so why bother.” But the research tells a slightly more complicated story.

The Millennial generation is an enormous generation. The Census Bureau estimates there are about 80 million of them in the United States. And in 2012 there were more Millennials who showed up to the polls than voters over the age of 65. And that’s with a large chunk of Millennial generation still not yet eligible to vote. Millennials made up almost 1 out of every 5 voters in the 2012 election and by 2020 they will make up  a third of all Americans eligible to vote.  And they’re not going anyway. Research shows that voting is somewhat habit forming, once  you’ve registered, you find out where your polling  place is, you get the hang of it, you tend to vote again and again in future elections. And your partisan preferences can become more locked in over time.

Someone who was born in 1998 who turns just in time for the 2016 presidential election, will, based on today’s average life expectancy, continue to cast ballots until the presidential election of 2076. That’s a lot of votes. And those votes shouldn’t be taken for granted.

One of the biggest myths I find myself debunking comes from a quote that people often attribute to Winston Churchill. The quote is, “If you’re young and conservative, you have no heart. If you’re old and liberal, you have no brain.”

And people will point to exit polls from a variety of different presidential elections, particularly in the last decade to note that Republicans do quite well with the old and that Democrats do quite well with the young. That if you are older you are more likely, nowadays, to say that you are conservative.

But as comforting as it might be to conservatives to say that we can just sit back and relax and not worry too much about losing young voters, because they’re all going to buy homes and have families and get married and pay taxes and eventually get old and come around to us, it’s simply untrue for a variety of factors, not the least of which is that many of those things, buying homes, starting families, are less likely to be choices that Millennials are making at the same rates as their parents or grandparents.

Let’s also look at some other recent elections. Consider, in the Year 2000, if I had asked you for your age on that day, as you walked into a polling place, it would have given me almost no information about who you were about to cast a ballot for. The exit polls that year showed that George W. Bush actually lost the senior citizen vote to Al Gore by 4 points, while only losing young voters by 2.

Republicans have actually outright won young voters in the past. George H.W. Bush won young voters in 1988. Ronald Reagan won young people, by 19 points, in his re-election in 1984. And in both of those elections they did just about as well with the young as they did with the old. So, research also shows that those who came of political age during the Reagan era are still, to this day, slightly more likely to identify as Republicans and conservatives, than both those older and younger than them. You can think about it a little bit like soda preferences.  If you grew up in a household that as a Pepsi household, you probably still reach for Pepsi. If you grew up in a Coke household, you probably still reach for Coke. Politics is not so terribly different, and that’s why reaching out to young people is a critical investment in the future.

So, it’s true that generational divides have played an unusual large role in politics over the last few years, in a way that seemingly has put conservatives and Millennials at odds. But there is no reason to believe that today’s young people are a lost generation, and in fact I believe there’s every reason to think they are a generation worth fighting for. In order for us to think about what next generation conservatism could be, it’s helpful to know a little bit about what this generation looks like itself.

So first, as has been mentioned already, this is an incredibly diverse generation. In the 2012 election, about 87 percent of those voters over the age of 65 told exit pollsters that they were white. For the Millennial generation for those under the age of 30, it was only 67 percent white. Mitt Romney actually won young voters who were white but he lost young non-white voters by such astounding margins that he lost the youth vote collectively overall by 23 points.

And again, as has been mentioned, the fastest growing group amongst the young are Hispanic Americans in states like New Mexico, California, Colorado, Texas, Florida. So, when we think about the importance of engaging and reaching out to those of all ages and races and backgrounds and talking to them about the importance of conservative ideas, it’s important  to note how all of these things intertwine.

You can’t reach out to young people without reaching out to a diverse population. You can’t expand your reach to non-whites without having to reach the next generation. You cannot separate these out as isolated trends. So, it’s no secret that Republicans have struggled with voters who are not white, in recent elections and that our poor performance with these voters has also coincided with growing diversity in the electorate, which has magnified the challenges Republicans have faced at the ballot box.

But there are opportunities for conservatism, with young voters of all races, if conservatives choose to take them. Take, for instance, a Pew Research study from 2009 that surveyed thousands of young, Hispanic Americans, aged 16 to 25. They found that four out of five young Latinos believe they can get ahead in life if they work hard. And 89 percent, a higher proportion than for their non-Latino counterparts, say that having high career aspirations is very important in their lives.

In 2012, I did a survey of young voters that found that nearly half of all of young people say they hope to start their own business one day. Among young African-Americans that number jumped to 58 percent, and among Latinos it was two out of three.

But these voters are also running into roadblocks when it comes to moving up in America and achieving the American Dream. Nearly four out of ten young Hispanics report that a friend or relative has been the target of discrimination, which is a higher number than their parents or grandparents report. Pew estimates that some 17 percent of Latino youth drop out of high school, a significantly higher proportion than for black or white students. And that while the disparity in dropout rates goes away when you look primarily at second generation Latino youth, those second generation students are only half as likely as their white counterparts to complete a bachelor’s degree. It’s not that it’s not an ambition of theirs; rather, 90 percent of young Hispanics say that getting a college degree is important to getting ahead, but half say they don’t plan to pursue a degree, most citing that they can’t because they need to provide financially for their families.

So, here we have this large, growing group of young Americans who place enormous value on hard work, on education and who are facing an economy that increasingly is constraining their opportunities and an education system that is failing them.

Ideas for reforming our schools, rethinking how we can provide affordable higher education and skills training and growing our economy give conservatives an opportunity to say, “We get it. We’re with you. This is broken and we have ideas to fix it.”

The idea that we should set high goals for ourselves, work incredibly hard to try to achieve them, this is woven right into the fabric of what we as conservatives stand for, and it’s what a new generation of Americans stands for as well. Conservatives care deeply about the value of hard work and Millennials do, too.

So, diversity is one factor that defines this generation and what they’re expecting out of politics and policy. But there are other cultural factors that play as well. Take, for instance, the changing makeup of Millennial families. While viewed as an important step in entering adulthood–while previously viewed as an important step in entering adulthood, marriage today is now viewed by Millennials more as something you do later, as a capstone moment, once you’re financially secure, in a fulfilling career, you’ve moved out of Mom and Dad’s basement and you’re settled into adulthood, which each themselves are feeling harder and harder as milestones for Millennials to attain.

Millennials are delaying marriage later and later in life. The average age of first marriage for women has increased more in the last 20 years than in the 90 years that preceded it. In 1972, according to the General Social Survey, 72 percent of American adults were married, in 2012 the picture has changed and many have not chosen to be married at all, with only 46 percent of adults reporting that they’re married.

This idea of a husband and a wife getting married and having two or three kids, at a somewhat early age as a definition of family life, is an exception not the rule amongst Millennial families. And Millennials rules are also changing within their families. Men are shouldering more of the childcare duties, women are taking on more and more outside of the home. Put frankly, more women are bringing home the bacon and more men are literally bringing home the bacon.

We live in an America today where you can find recipes in both Garden and Gun and GQ magazines. An ESPN survey in 2011 actually found that 31 percent of men were the primary grocery shoppers in their households, up from 14 percent in 1985. And meanwhile, four out of ten households nowadays have a female breadwinner.

But this is not just some cheery sitcom version of a bunch of young Cheryl Sandbergs leaning in while their husband’s sit at home in the kitchen whipping up something they saw on Top Chef last week. For many poor and working class families, this domestic role shifting is a requirement to get by, an outcome of a tough economy where working class men can’t find work and where more women are balancing work and raising children as single parents. For some Millennials this modern family is a choice but for others it is a necessity.

Millennials aren’t, therefore, very interested in having anyone define for them what family should or shouldn’t look like, but they do know that we’re better off when we make and life up to commitments to those in our lives that we love. They want to do the best that they can, given their own economic realities, whether that means caring for spouses, parents, grandparents, partners, children, for them being pro-family doesn’t necessarily mean being pro a type of family, it means being able to do more for and with their families, whoever defined. Whether that means making sure kids have good healthcare and education, having more time to spend with their loved ones, having more workplace flexibility and growing wages so they can provide.

As a conservative movement that believes the family is essential for providing the care and stability that we need for society to flourish, we want to promote strong families. We know that the love and support that a family provides cannot be replaced by a government program. And while the media often pushes this narrative that conservatives and young people couldn’t be further apart on the issue of family, I think there are critical ways forward that focus first and foremost on helping people care for the ones that they love and living out the committees that they’ve made.

Millennials deeply value caring for others and conservatives do, too. So, when Millennials are looking at issues of race, gender or family, they’re looking at them in ways that are very different than older generations. But they’re also earning, spending and saving in new ways as well. Millennials are having a tough time finding work and when they do, they tend to be job hoppers, a rising trend that has made things like pension programs and the current employer based system of healthcare something of a poor fit for their lifestyles. For those who are able to find employment, many sadly don’t view their job as being on a career path, it’s just a job to pay the bills for the moment, not something that’s leading them anywhere.

The old employment model doesn’t particularly suit young people. Less than 10 percent of workers aged 25 to 35, were members of labor unions last year, and policies that protect  incumbency and status quo in jobs, like tenure or last in, first out hiring and firing are directly at odds with giving young people a shot. While the financial crisis was one of the formative moments in their young lives, Millennials have no decided to take a relatively conservative approach to their own personal finances, avoiding the stock market and anything they deem as financially risky, while placing a high value on savings. That is, when they can save. And nonetheless, a Wells Fargo Millennial study from last week showed that 40 percent of Millennials feel overwhelmed by debt. But they don’t blame mortgages and they don’t blame car payments. Millennials are renters, not buyers.

The U.S. Census Bureau, in April, announced that for the first quarter of 2014 homeownership among those under the age of 35 was at its lowest level since they began collecting the data in 1982. The idea that buying a home is a great investment is just not something that Millennials believe, and they often aren’t earning enough to save up to become homeowners anyways. When it comes to getting around, they’re avoiding taking on debt as well, opting for public transportation or zip car rather than paying for    that new car smell. As more and more young people are flocking to cities with decent public transit or areas with a bike friendly commute, they’re finding cars a luxury rather than a necessity.

I have to say, in all of my research this next fact was the most surprising thing I read. A researcher at the University of Michigan found that fewer young adults these days are even bothering to get a driver’s license, with only 80 percent of 20 to 24 year olds having a driver’s license, compared to 92 in 1983. So, while older generations were buying homes and cars and expecting rush hour traffic jams as a part of their lives, Millennials are tele-working from their couches, they’re scanning the web for jobs from their local Starbucks and using the free wi­fi. They’re trying to set flexible hours or work freelance. They’re biking into the office or they’re taking the bus or subway, while they zip car to IKEA on the weekends to furnish their new apartments, all the while worrying about the pressure that student loans and the fear that tomorrow could mean another bubble burst, another stock market crash wiping out everything all over again.

The implications here for conservatives are enormous, both in terms of challenges and opportunities. First there’s the element that Millennials really have learned to distrust big institutions, whether it’s politicians, government, the media, large corporations, political parties, banks. Being viewed as the   movement that protects the big guys versus the little guys, is deadly to whichever side wears that label.

And though conservatives no stranger to railing against big government and the media, the perception that the right protects big business is a very dangerous one. At the same time, the opportunities available to the right are huge. The Millennial aversion to reckless spending and needless risk in their own lives should mesh perfectly with how a truly conservative party governs and handles taxpayer dollars. For young voters, who know that their entitlements are not going to be there, and are hungry to save for themselves and to be responsible with their own money, allowing them to keep and save more of what they earn is simply a no-brainer.

We should be working to make labor markets more flexible, more nimble and more adapted to how Millennials wants to work by reforming outdated regulations and programs that are built more to suit the old model of working nine to five, in a union job, in the same place for most of one’s career.

Even in areas like transportation at a local level, where they’re supporting the right of firms like Uber, to disrupt local taxi cab cartels and monopolies, or working to overhaul some of our nation’s remarkably disappointing public transit systems, it’s conservatives who have a chance to stand on the side of modernization and Millennials in the face of cronyism, waste and ineptitude. Millennials value intelligent, responsible solutions to problems and conservatives do, too.

So, after the 2012 election I did a research study for The College Republican National Committee. They approached me to figure out how can we talk to our peers, how can we win the next generation. So, I traveled all over the country doing focus groups of Millennials who had cast a ballot for Obama but expressed an openness to potentially one day voting Republican. We talked a bit about how they’re getting their political news, conservatives often cringe at this, but over a quarter of young people say they get their political news from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Links and clips that have been vetted by friends and shard in social media are one of the few trusted sources of news that young people have, because they don’t trust many media organizations, they trust their friends and family to vet things for them.

But in these groups we also talked about policy and ideas. And what we heard was that many young voters don’t think that either party really has the ideas that will solve the problems that are facing them. They had nicer things to say about the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, to be sure, but they couldn’t pinpoint much of what either side was doing to address the problems that they felt their generation was facing.

So, from that research we knew that the way to reach out to young people wasn’t going to  be through some snappy slogan, the right few words carefully crafted into a YouTube video, it wasn’t going to be about getting elected officials to all hop on to Tumblr or Instagram or use the right hashtags. Those things would be great, of course, but this was going to come down to values.

What are conservative values, what are Millennial values, where do they overlap and how can we prove to the next generation that these values are what we stand for? So we followed up our focus groups with a survey. Before we let any of our respondents know that this was a political survey, we asked a simple question. What two or three words do you most wish your friends would use to describe you? If you’ve read any of these trend pieces about Millennials you’ll recognize a lot of these words as ones you’ve probably read: Cool, tolerant, unique, optimistic, open-minded, these were among the many options that our respondents could choose from. But you know what Millennials want other people to think about them? They didn’t pick cool.

They didn’t pick tolerant, they didn’t pick open- minded or unique. Those would be nice, sure. But the top responses that they gave, they want to thought of as: Hard working, intelligent, caring and responsible.

Does that sound familiar? I hope so, because it’s what conservatives stand for. We can absolutely own these values, by promoting the idea that we value hard work and opportunity over cronyism and immobility, by promoting ideas that help us care for each other and lift each other up rather than waiting for some faceless, far off ineffective bureaucracy to step in, by promoting ideas that help people grow their minds, develop their skills, to prioritize innovation and intelligence and flexibility that takes seriously the charge to govern competently and responsibly.

We have our work cut out for us. I can’t sugarcoat how hard it will be to earn the trust of a generation that right now doesn’t feel that our movement represents their future. But we can’t ignore how absolutely essential this fight is for us and for our future, not just for the future of winning elections, but the future of the country and the ideas that can be implemented once those elections are won.

Eighty million Americans are wondering who has what it takes to provide leadership that is intelligent, responsible, caring and hard working, I believe we have that answer.

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