Millennial voters

How to Fix the Republican Party’s Millennial Problem

Bonnie Siegel – Founder, PoliticalBranding Associates

The 2016 Presidential campaign and the preceding Primaries lead us into a new political landscape where the political rules of the game will be forever different.

Candidates are not necessarily defined by their party anymore –instead, we witnessed populist movements rise on both sides and only those with a strong brand identity were given attention. We cannot view the 2016 Primary as a fluke, but rather the beginning of a new normal in politics where candidates with strong, solid brand identity and messaging flourished and rose to the top. Whether you agree with them or not, their voices were heard above party platforms.

Trump, Cruz, and Sanders stood out as brands that persevered beyond their respective parties. Now, voters are seeking candidates with a strong message, an even stronger brand image and the opportunity to rally behind a leader irrespective of the party they represent. This is a new normal for politics where party issues and values have less to do with voter’s attention and more with the personal appeal and brand personality of the candidates themselves.

To complicate this new phenomenon even more, the political arena is faced with the daunting task of appealing to a population that has statistically shown less interest in politics than previous generations: the Millennials. Here is where we must begin to pay serious attention.

Millennials are America’s largest generation and are expected to be the majority of U.S. voters by 2020. They have proven that they are the generation that looks for a cause to rally behind and, unlike previous generations, they’re not finding it in either party. In fact, Pew Research shows that half of millennials now describe themselves as politically independent. This in itself will prove difficult to navigate. In addition, those aligning as Independents lean more left when the time comes to vote.

The political agnostic millennial voter is a major concern for both parties but particularly for Republicans. While, more millennials are identifying as independent, the same research reveals that they have liberal views on many political and social issues. Therefore, at the polling booth, millennial voters naturally swing towards Democratic Party messaging with its “liberal” and “progressive” values over the Republican Party’s comparatively unsexy promise of “conservative” and “disciplined” government.

Herein lies the power of messaging, political branding and the secret to the Republicans’ future success with millennials: Change not what you are saying, but how you say it!

We must begin to translate and change the conversation for Republicans if they are to be relevant with millennials because the truth is, conservative-leaning millennials aren’t mythical beasts.

While many millennials have liberal views on controversial issues such as same-sex marriage and drug laws, there are many conservative values that align with their worldview. As a matter of fact, chances are if the millennials understood the basis for Republican economic policies, they may even end up having that “Aha!” moment.

Would it not be exciting to have a job, grow their economic success, and put more of their hard earned dollars into their own personal journey? Millennials are all about causes, but even that level of empathy, starts with their own lives. It’s simply a matter of getting the Republican Party to tap into them with a clearer message and refreshed brand identity.

Before we unpack the intricacies of the Republican Party as it pertains to millennials, we must first understand the core values and belief systems that make up this generation. Only then can we offer a way forward for the party.

Who Is the Millennial Voter?

In the corporate world, much has been said and written about millennials: How they believe in brands that stand for more than the bottom line and allow them to participate; how they gravitate to brands that improve their own personal brand and build upon their self-worth; and how brands have had to rethink their communication strategy to accommodate a generation that has grown numb to advertising. In the political context, though, there are some additional truths about millennials that really influence how campaign messages are received.

1. Conservative-leaning: According to the Millennial Impact Report, millennials are actually more conservative in their beliefs than many realize, particularly on issues regarding their economic prospects.

2. Self-centered: This term is not to be used negatively but rather in the sense that millennials are looking to change in personally gratifying ways – perhaps in ways that improve their own brand image. This is the social media generation of Facebook and Instagram where they’re constantly sharing what THEY think or what THEY are doing. Millennials also believe the world should be viewed through their eyes. This is one of the few generations that were heavily affected by the financial crisis in 2008. Their career prospects were diminished and they’re angry at dealing with the consequences set in play by the generations preceding them. We saw this same anger manifest in the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote when 75% of voters aged 18-24 voted to remain. The anger spilled out into the streets as millennials simply couldn’t understand why anyone could hold a point of view contrary to their own.

3. Distrust of government: The millennials’ trust in Federal Government and institutions such as Congress and the Presidency has been declining since 2012, according to the Harvard Institute of Politics. To this point, they haven’t seen a government deliver the solutions to the country’s problems that creates a better life for them. More sadly, they have been raised to believe that the job of the government is to fix people’s individual lives. This has reinforced their feelings of distrust and hampers any message from either political party, but more acutely, the Republicans. Millennials instinctively think getting a bigger, more liberal government in place would do a better job. They’ve been conditioned to adopt this view. They have not considered that it is not a bigger or better government that would give them what they want, but smaller and less invasive.

Rethinking How Republicans Reach Millennials

In the context of millennials, the Republican Party has a deep branding problem. Regardless of what they know about the Democratic Party, people associate the values of “progressive” and “liberal” as a “Democratic” value. In contrast, Republicans have long been labeled as “conservative”, “disciplined”, and “constitutional”. Let’s be honest, which one sounds more appealing to young people: liberal and progressive, or conservative and disciplined? Knowing what we know about millennials and their beliefs – their desire for a fair opportunity, for change, for what they believe is theirs – you can begin to see how these tired Republican labels don’t resonate with today’s youth, and how the Democrats have branded language that works to their advantage.

The circumstances that have shaped who millennials are have pushed them to the left. With opportunities taken away from them, they have aligned with the Democrats, who cleverly branded themselves as a party who takes care of the individuals who can’t take care of themselves. The adverse effect of this is that Republicans have been branded as rich, selfish, and mean-spirited.

Yet, the reality is that the Democratic promises aren’t altogether that effective. In fact, the last 50 years of government entitlement programs have yet to help those they were set out to help. Instead, we created a country of the “haves” and the “dependents” and that is not the American Dream.

Here lies the clearest opportunity to explain that smaller government personal entrepreneurship manifests itself in Republican conservative thinking and that opportunity is there for the taking.

Harnessing the Power of Messaging

If the progressive and liberal mindset is not as inclusionary as many millennials had hoped and the idea of Republican principles isn’t such a bad thing, then why is the Republican Party still not sticking with millennials?

The answer is in the power and subtlety of messaging.

What matters is the message that presently brands these two parties and how it is delivered. Despite the fact that Republican values and the policies that they campaign on may actually benefit millennials more in the long run, the message is simply not resonating.

The Republican Party needs to find a way to move away from these labels in favor of something that better represents what it stands for, while offering millennials and future generations a vision for the future.

What Republicans need to change is the dialogue. The Republican Brand is suffering and a full-fledged paradigm shift is needed. The question now becomes: How do we empower them to shift their thinking?

Winning the Future by Throwing Out Assumptions

Republicans have long relied on the assumption that as young people grow up, have families, and buy a house. It is assumed that they will naturally gravitate towards the Right as they learn about how taxes and policies directly affect them.

Yet, millennials are actually having fewer children – in fact, they are opting for pets before kids – they’re getting married later and renting longer. Overall, millennials are not maturing as fast as previous generations, meaning that Republicans can no longer hope that they will eventually just “come around”. The Republicans must take affirmative action and reach millennials with a message that resonates and create more reliable descriptors than we presently have.

Millennials are searching for a cause to rally behind that offers the solutions to this country’s problems. The growing trend of millennials identifying more as Independents suggest that neither party is offering them what they need. Because of this, it is crucial to understand that language and messaging matter.

The Democrats are seemingly more attractive to a millennial’s overall thinking. If the Republican Party continues with business as usual, failing to tap into the potential and promise of Republican offerings that can only found in conservative-leaning values, the millennials will never get onboard. The disconnect will continue and the party will suffer.

Alternatively, if Republicans acknowledge that the millennial generation has their own political reality with meaningful opportunity to contribute to the future of this country, we can begin to change the conversation together.

To start, we must focus on college campuses. A real investment in this arena may drive great results. It is time t to redefine party lines by educating and motivating young voters on the realities of the economy, the benefits of smaller government, and the opportunities awarded to those embracing individual entrepreneurship and lower taxes. We must remember to highlight the negative powers of dependency versus the power of the prospering individual because of our capitalist system of governance.

The Republican Party doesn’t need to undergo a ‘revolution’ but it sincerely needs a major evolution.

It’s time to generate messaging that drives values appealing to millennials. This will take focused effort on an improved brand identity. It needs an identity that gives it a refreshed platform to be heard, understood and rallied behind. Examples need to be offered and identified for them to get onboard. Remember that this is the generation that does not understand the “loss of freedom” or the loss of liberty as they have never lived without it. Understandably, millennials see no vision for the future and no way for them to participate and promote what it is that Republicans stand for.

For a generation that is driven by cause and draws heavily on their social conscience in decision-making, doing nothing is a recipe for the Republican Party’s political extinction.