Despite record CNN audiences for its three hours of continuous political debate among the Republican presidential primary candidates last week, the GOP failed once again to engage the Millennial voters it will need to be successful in the 2016 general election. Instead, the whole thing was more likely to remind Millennials of the raucous 2000 version of the movie, “Meet the Parents.” Just as in that comic sendoff of what can go wrong when cultures and generations clash, the evening featured non-stop attacks on the Millennial generation’s heroes and its beliefs. Unfortunately, this version had no Hollywood style reconciliation or even glimmer of understanding at its conclusion.
All the candidates delighted in attacking President Obama, perhaps forgetting not only that he won’t be on the ballot in 2016, but also that he remains a hero to the majority of Millennials. In July 2015, Pew found that 55 percent of that generation approved of the President’s job performance. Not only that, this support was built upon the generation’s preference for some of the very issues that the candidates on Thursday night went out of their way to oppose.
Seventy percent of Millennials favor same sex marriage; Mike Huckabee has based his entire candidacy in opposition to the idea and no other candidate was brave enough Wednesday night to say they agreed that same sex couples should be permitted to marry legally. Sixty-eight percent of Millennials are in favor of legalizing marijuana; no candidate was willing to come close to saying the idea might have merit; Rand Paul’s insistence on a state’s rights approach to (medical) legalization choices was as close as the field came. Instead, Jeb Bush in the best Boomer presidential candidate tradition apologized for using the stuff when he was young, chalking it up to youthful indiscretion, and Governor Chris Christie asserted that maintaining pot’s illegality was so important as President he would go against traditional Republican deference to state’s rights and assert federal law supremacy over state law to prosecute offenders. Like old people out of touch with what is happening in the world around them, the candidates kept on talking about repealing ObamaCare; meanwhile, fifty-two percent of Millennials approve of the program.
If that weren’t bad enough, the candidates spent an inordinate amount of time bashing the parents of many Millennials, not a smart approach because Millennials, unlike previous generations, actually revere their parents. One out of five Millennials has an immigrant parent. Every candidate on the stage wanted to seal the border so no more immigrants could get into the United States without documentation. Of greater concern, most candidates also signed on to deporting undocumented immigrants who are already here. The ones who didn’t go that far were the only candidates who gained or kept their support among a focus group of Fusion TV’s target audience, Millennials. Four of Donald Trump’s ten supporters in the Florida-based group deserted him, with two going to Carly Fiorina, and one each to Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. To the Millennials watching, those candidates appeared to be the only ones at the dinner table talking a modicum of sense.
The Millennial generation favors “win-win” solutions that avoid direct and, especially military, confrontations with America’s global opponents, something which all those in the debate outside of Rand Paul either didn’t care about or didn’t know. Beginning with Lindsay Graham’s appeal to the assertion of unilateral American military power in the undercard debate, all the candidates pushed for a much more bellicose international approach by America. Their differences were over how quickly they would rip up the agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons, not how to celebrate the outcome of a settlement negotiated in concert with our allies and enemies. No one thought to ask the generation most likely to be sent into future combat what it thought. When Pew did so in July they found a plurality of Millennials (43%/39%) supported the agreement.
It was left to the two blustery participants from the Northeast, Christie and Trump to contribute a moment of concern for the welfare of Millennials to the proceedings. Governor Christie’s best moment of the night was when he pointed out that most of the audience really didn’t care about the careers of the two CEOs on the stage. Instead, he suggested, the candidates should be “more interested in the construction worker making $55,000 a year who can’t figure out how to pay for his kid’s college education.” Here, Christie had an avenue to connect with Millennials on their unique views on money, happiness, and their disdain for banks and financial companies in general, that we wrote about last year. That, unfortunately for the GOP, was the only mention in the three hours of debate about the number one issue—the high price of college tuition—on the minds of Millennials’ parents and the generation itself.
And when Trump came out four square for a progressive taxation scheme, in line with Millennials strong belief in economic equality and fairness, Ben Carson, playing the role of the dinner guest who interjects a random thought to the conversation when they aren’t sleeping through it, called the idea socialism. In fact, Millennials think more positively about the abstract concept of socialism than they do of capitalism.
All of America laughed at the antics of the crazy prospective in-laws in “Meet the Parents” out of both a sense of déjà vu and relief that at least their own family contretemps weren’t as bad as the events portrayed in that movie. Laughter was also the only positive reaction the Republican debate engendered among Millennials. They were as relieved the debate was over as they were when their first meeting with their future in-laws ended, but they had an even clearer sense of just how out of touch this set of aspiring presidential candidates were with their concerns and ideas. Hopefully, some day in the future one or two of the participants will have the chance to lead the Republican Party to an understanding of the American future Millennials are destined to create. But for now, there is little hope that realization will come soon enough to provide a happy ending for the GOP in 2016.