AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
You are going to have to change. That message came earlier this year from a 20-something independent voter taking part in a political focus group. She was talking about the Republican Party. And on the whole, young Republican voters seem to agree the party needs to change its image.
Today, the College Republican National Committee released a report looking into why the GOP fared so badly with voters under 30 in the 2012 election. And the group's National Chair, Alex Smith, joins us in the studio to talk about it. Welcome, Alex.
ALEX SMITH: Thank you so much for having me on.
CORNISH: So the report states that you believe that Republicans can win young voters, but that it will take a significantly different approach. And I want to start one of your prescriptions for what the party should do.
CORNISH: It says: Fix the debt and cut spending, but recognize that messages about big government are the least effective way to win this battle of ideas with young voters. Now, if there's two words we've heard more than anything in the last two years, right, it's big government.
SMITH: Sure. What we found through our focus group research and in our survey work was that big government was just a nebulous term to a younger voter, that a lot of younger voters had a different conception of what that meant and in some cases felt like, for example, big government meant something that was assisting them, some sort of benefit they were receiving from the government.
So when, you know, a Republican candidate or elected official would attack big government just on a whole, as a general proposition, it fared negatively. Instead, however, when you look and you break down the actual concepts of what Republicans mean when we say big government - when we say, you know, that there's too much spending, that there's too much bureaucracy, too many regulations - younger voters, we found, were in accord with where we stand as a party.
So we think we just have to be smarter about the way that we talk about the concepts that make up what we generally term as big government.
CORNISH: Now, another prescription from the report: Capture the brand attributes of intelligence, hard work and responsibility. And I'm going to presume that Mitt Romney's campaign definitely tried to do exactly that. But in focus group surveys, young, winnable Obama voters, they used the words like close-minded, racist, rigid and old fashioned when you did word association with Republican Party. So what went wrong?
SMITH: Younger voters self-selected that they themselves wanted to be seen as intelligent and hard-working and caring and responsible. In terms of the current word associations with the Republican Party which weren't favorable to us, we think, you know, to us, that shows the disconnect between how younger voters see themselves, where we think we can be seen as a party in the future and how they currently see us.
CORNISH: But did that surprise you to hear those word associations with the Republican brand name?
SMITH: It was more, I think, hurtful to me as a lifelong Republican, because all of the attributes that were described, you know, rich and uncaring and close minded, those are things that I don't consider myself. All the people that I work with in College Republicans I know certainly don't view themselves that way.
But at the same time, I think that there's an absolute opportunity for us to regain ground as a party by capturing those brand attributes of intelligence and hard-working and responsibility.
CORNISH: So you've actually been talking with a variety of Republican groups. You presented these findings, and I don't know if you can give us a hint. Are these congressional leaders or political operatives? I mean, what have you been doing today?
SMITH: Well, earlier today, we had a private briefing with some of the major Republican leaders around town. And...
CORNISH: What was the hardest message for them to swallow?
SMITH: I think the brand attributes that you mentioned earlier, that younger voters saw us as intolerant and all the other negative words that were associated with the party. I think everyone in the room recognized that there's work to be done, and that everyone was receptive to the message going forward that the youth vote is important to Republicans, that it can't be written off.
CORNISH: Do you get the sense that it has been, I mean, even within the party, that there's a sense of like, oh, they just - they're pro-Obama or they're, you know...
SMITH: I wouldn't say that institutionally there's been some sort of neglect of the youth vote. What I will say is that there's been a general, I think, idea if you're a Republican voter that young kids are all liberal, which on the surface of any survey, that appears to be sure. What we decided to do is instead of measuring younger voters, we decide to understand them and talk to them. And I think that the fact that if the electorate had started at age 30, Governor Romney would be president today.
The youth vote was the deciding factor...
CORNISH: Because Romney won more of the voters over 30.
SMITH: Exactly. So we have to put up a fight as a party, and this report is a start.
CORNISH: Alex Smith is national chair of the College Republican National Committee which released a report today titled "Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation." Alex Smith, thank you for coming in.
SMITH: Thank you very much.
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