How millennials and Gen Z are remaking the GOP

Young Republicans are trying to pull their party into the future

Ariel Hill-Davis likes to jokingly refer to herself as a “geriatric millennial.” She’s a Republican, but as a self-proclaimed “hardcore moderate” she’s been called a RINO (Republican in name only) pretty much since the moment she entered the political sphere in 2008.

Through her work with Republican Women for Progress, Hill-Davis, who lives in Washington, D.C., is hoping to reshape the party to appeal to a broader swath of people, including millennial women like herself. “Because I’m a moderate, I’m going to have to fight for space in the Republican Party.” It’s sometimes a lonely fight, but one worth engaging in, because she wants to see her principles of fiscal conservatism engaged on traditionally liberal issues from climate change to criminal justice reform.

Millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, became the largest living adult generation in 2019. Their sheer numbers (72.1 million compared to baby boomers who make up 71.6 million of the population) make them a political force to be reckoned with, although youth voter turnout has traditionally been low — according to Brookings, in the 2016 election roughly half of eligible voters under 40 turned out while 70% of voters over 55 did. But that is shifting.

Millennial voter turnout nearly doubled between 2014 and 2018, and 2020 saw record numbers of young voters turning out in favor of President Joe Biden. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, millennials and Gen Z will dominate the electorate by 2036.

“Millennials and Generation Z appear to be far more Democratic leaning than their predecessors were at the same age,” the report noted. “Even if today’s youngest generations do grow more conservative as they age, it’s not at all clear they would end up as conservative as older generations are today.”

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The next generation of voters is also more racially and ethnically diverse, and more prone to delaying traditions like marriage, according to Kristen Soltis Anderson, a millennial Republican who began researching young voters as a graduate student in the run-up to the 2008 election, when former President Barack Obama managed to capture the support of young people across the nation.

Soltis Anderson, 37, said that being conservative was a rarity in her generation: “I found myself fielding this question of ‘Kristin, how can you be Republican? You seem so nice and normal,’ from many of my friends. And that alarmed me.”

She decided to focus her thesis at Johns Hopkins, where she was completing her master’s in government, on why young people weren’t gravitating to the GOP, and eventually wrote a book titled “The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (And How Republicans Can Keep Up).”

Soltis Anderson found that many of the old assumptions about young people becoming more conservative as they aged no longer held true. Instead, millennials have been largely shaped by life experiences, with many entering the job market as the economy crashed in 2008.

One Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2012 found that 82% of respondents said finding a job was harder for young adults than it was for their parents’ generation. Many no longer believe their quality of life will be better than their parents’, a realization that has made some question a system that promises if each generation works hard they’ll be able to achieve the American dream.

Addressing climate change was an issue that particularly concerned the people Soltis Anderson interviewed, and even the most politically centrist wanted to see the GOP coming up with policies and solutions rather than ignoring the issue.

John Olds, a 22-year-old Republican and one of the founders of Gen Z Grow Our Platform, a nonprofit made up of young people who want the Republican Party to respond to the concerns of their generation, says, “We created an organization that’s aimed at preparing the party to better appeal to young people. But it was done out of frustration.”

The recent graduate of George Washington University wants to see Republicans focus on issues that are of importance to him and his peers. He believes there are ways to talk about racial justice, climate change and COVID-19 that are “principled but also appeal to young people.”

Part of the disconnect, Olds says, is that the priorities of 70-year-olds and 22-year-olds are very different. Many of his peers are saddled with student debt, trying to figure out how they’ll make a living and support a family, while older politicians have already done all those things. “We shouldn’t tell young conservatives they need to wait their turn; we need to get them in the room and get them working towards building a better party now,” Olds says.

It was once a given that Americans would gradually shift to conservatism as they aged. But millennials are now reaching their 40s, and there’s no sign it will play out that way for their generation.

Soltis Anderson is already seeing the Republican Party changing in response to that reality. For example, Republican lawmakers proposed planting a trillion trees by 2050 while still maintaining the oil and gas industry. While those aren’t bold measures by progressive standards, talking about carbon capture or boosting nuclear power is a sign that there’s more willingness to engage. She also pointed to the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill passed during the Trump administration that eased federal prison sentences.

This may be a winning strategy because younger voters’ party allegiances are not yet set in stone, and Soltis Anderson says neither party has done a great job of appealing to this group.

“A very slim slice of millennials and Generation Z identify outright as Republicans. But at the same time, there’s not a full-fledged embrace of the Democratic Party. Young people are much more interested in issues than parties,” Soltis Anderson says.

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While millennials are more progressive and more accepting of government involvement than past generations, they are also not quite as partisan. Layla Zaidane, president of the Millennial Action Project, a nonpartisan organization that works with millennial politicians, says “given all of the ways in which institutions have disappointed and let down millennials and Gen Z, I think we’re more reluctant to identify with even a political party.” (Forty-four percent of millennials identify as independents, according to one survey.)

Zaidane sees generational alliances being a far more powerful tool than partisan ones. For example, her organization helped millennial lawmakers in Kansas form a bipartisan future caucus and created legislation making home ownership more accessible to young people.

“We mobilize young elected officials around a very simple idea, which is that the next generation can build a more functional democracy,” Zaidane says.

In the meantime, Republicans like Hill-Davis are trying to pull their party into the future. She laughs that people don’t know what to make of her — she’s conservative but sports blue hair, spends time volunteering for Planned Parenthood and is vehemently pro-choice.

“We reject all of the nativism, the racism, the xenophobia. We really see a modernized, big tent as being a good healthy spot for the Republican Party,” she says.

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Like many millennials and Gen Z, above all else, Hill-Davis wants elected officials who “want to govern, have tough conversations and figure out how to come up with solutions for the increasingly complex issues that are facing our country.” She doesn’t want to cede that ground to Democrats and feels that conservatism has a place in conversations about climate change.

Rather than focusing on culture wars, Hill-Davis wants a party that embraces fiscal responsibility and small government.

“We’ve been in the trenches for the last five years. We are not going to get a functional Republican Party overnight,” Hill-Davis says. It will take time to create the type of party she wants. It’s a long-term battle, one that she’s not ready to give up on yet.

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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