Nelson is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
It was three months before the 2014 midterms, and Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson had asked a question: “What are things about Republicans that you’re not as crazy about?”
She’d posed it in a cramped Columbus, Ohio, conference room to eight women, each between 18 and 29 years old, together representing a range of political ideologies. The College Republican National Committee, the Washington-based umbrella organization of the 1,800 College Republican chapters nationwide, had commissioned the focus group in order to assess how the GOP could improve its messaging in the battleground state. And one of the women, Sam, answered that question like this:
“Their core values that they hold on to.”
She continued: “Their view on women in the workplace, just general views on stuff like birth control and abortion and general women’s rights that they advocate so strongly against.”
It was a blunt, sobering blow to the leadership of the College Republicans, a group of paid staffers who were active in chapters on their college campuses and who, since graduating, have gone on to run the national headquarters. Alex Smith, who joined Catholic University chapter on “day one of welcome week” and is now chair of the national organization, was already well aware of the prevailing caricature of the GOP as the party of old, rich, white men. But in focus groups in Columbus and across the country, she saw that when the moderator simply mentioned the word Republican, there was an “instant, visceral reaction,” she says. “It’s an immediate hostility.” The responses—Sam’s and so many women’s—underscored how much work she had yet to do.
But that was 2014. If Republicans had a long way to go then, Donald Trump’s inescapable misogyny in 2016 has further alienated women. Multiple news reports have shown that the Republican nominee has a long history of casual sexism: he routinely calls women he doesn’t agree with ugly, has said women who are sexually harassed should simply quit their jobs and bragged about sexually assaulting women in a 2005 Access Hollywood tape. At least 10 women have accused him of the sexual assault he describes on that tape. (Trump has denied these allegations.)
Against that backdrop—not to mention his going up against the first woman nominated by a major party—Smith and her compatriots at the CRNC have a considerable task: Making the Republican party not just inoffensive, but cool for more young women.
At the small, frills-free CRNC office in downtown Washington, D.C., all CRNC staffers are in their twenties. Smith, at 27, is the oldest member of the team. It feels like they’re siblings. They go to Nationals games and happy hour together, text constantly. When I arrive for my interview with Smith one recent Wednesday, two staffers hug me. They seem genuinely happy to see me.
This is a big part of their strategy: From the national headquarters down to the college chapters, the more fun, cool women you’d want to sing “Say My Name” with at drunk-karaoke who also openly and proudly identify as Republicans, the better. They want to show GOP skeptics, We’re just like you. They want to mobilize relatability.
In August, they launched their 2016 field program, which has members of College Republicans chapters fanning out across their home campuses across the country to engage their peers. They won’t go dorm room-to-dorm room, exactly. “If we came to the door and we said, ‘Hey, we’re with College Republicans! Here’s our pocket Constitution! We’d like to talk to you about the upcoming election!’ we’d probably get the door slammed in our face,” Smith laughs.
Instead, they’re making friends with campus leaders through intramural sports and philanthropy with Greek life. In their pilot program, during the midterm elections, Smith says the key was “becoming involved in their community, showing that we wanted to be stewards” of their community. “Once they established a relationship with us, the political conversations got easier.”
Policy-wise, those conversations mostly focused on fiscal issues. In a candid 2013 report, the College Republicans released polling showing that focus on economic growth and opportunity are more important to millennials than narratives around the constitution and traditional American values. And while the CRNC follows the Republican platform, which is unwaveringly conservative on all fronts, they downplay social issues in favor of economic ones.
From the report’s findings, they also developed a “new language set” to talk to young people about their values, axing the longstanding big government is the enemy line in favor of “innovation” and “promoting the sharing economy.” Love Uber, Lyft, Airbnb? That’s the work of free-market capitalism, they say, and the result of limited government—two core Republican tenets. Talk of “cutting spending” and “reducing debt” also poll well with young people. And another study, released in June, showed that millennials respond well to talk of “an open and organic economy” allowing for communities to “invest locally.”
In a sleek video with an uplifting, Christian-rock-esque soundtrack, that buzzy new vernacular is on display as young women and men, dressed like a pollster’s idea of trendy (plaid, beanies, denim shirts), explain why they’re Republicans. “We’re the Facebook generation. The Uber generation,” one woman says with a Southern twang. “We’re Republicans because we know these ideas need an open economy to flourish.”
It’s not hard to see why they’ve all but eliminated talk of social issues in their overtures to young women. Though a full 44 percent of millennials think abortion should be illegal, in a February poll, more than 80 percent of millennial women said they support gay marriage, and just 18 percent said they oppose government funding for Planned Parenthood, two issues on which older Republicans have staked their party’s brand.
Making their task even more daunting: 63 percent of millennial women are actually afraid of Trump, according to an April Refinery 29/ABC News poll. Just 15 percent of young women say they plan to vote for the GOP nominee, compared with 57 percent who say they support Hillary Clinton. And despite their best efforts, as Trump has risen to the GOP nomination, support for the Republican party has diminished. A Harvard study from this spring found that 33 percent of all millennial voters want a Republican in the White House, compared to 61 percent who would prefer a Democrat. Last year, the gap between the two parties was just 15 points.
Despite the odds, other groups focused on turning young people on to the GOP are also using the CRNC’s relatability strategy. Crystal Clanton, the national field director of Turning Point USA, a conservative youth activist group, agrees that simply raising the visibility of women helps attract more to their ranks. In June, she organized the Young Women’s Leadership Summit, an activism training conference in Dallas for 400 young women. A major aspect of the four-day event, she says, was making sure women are “stepping up and being leaders, so that it’s females talking to other females—not just men trying to articulate that the conservative movement cares about women, but actually having women do that.”
Along with the field program, Smith and her team at the CRNC plan to air ads for Republican candidates all up and down the ballot later this month. And like the generation they’re trying to reach, they won’t be on TV; they’ll stream on YouTube, Pandora and other mediums. “Where our generation is watching content is where we want to be,” Smith says. “So if that’s Snapchat on one campus, if that’s Hulu on another campus, that’s where we’re going to be.”
The last time they advertised to young women, though, it backfired. In 2014, the team released “Say Yes to the Candidate,” a riff on the popular wedding show “Say Yes to the Dress,” supporting Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s reelection effort. The 60-second spot featured a young woman tussling with her mom over the wedding dress she wants—the classy and modern “Rick Scott”—and the one her mom prefers, the frumpy “Charlie Crist” (in reality, Scott’s Democratic challenger; in the ad, an “expensive and a little outdated” frock with a high neckline and sleeves). Dubbed the “most sexist Republican ad of the year” and the GOP’s “most condescending ad yet,” it stoked the stereotype: Republicans just don’t understand women. (Smith stands by the ad, noting that it was the brainchild of her team of women in their twenties, who were just drawing on a show that they themselves watched.)
But this year, many younger women voters say the Republican nominee is not just out of touch on women’s issues but overtly sexist. “On a simple level, he does hamper efforts to bring more conservative women into the fold,” says Mindy Finn, running mate of conservative presidential candidate Evan McMullin and founder of Empowered Women, a nonprofit separate from the CRNC that aims to amplify the views and voices of right-of-center women. A former Republican operative who worked on George W. Bush and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, she’s been a steadfast #NeverTrump advocate. “As we see in the polls, while his approval rating is pretty poor among many demographics, it’s amplified among women. Women view him negatively.”
The CRNC says that the 2005 recording—in which Trump boasts that he can “grab [women] by the p—y” without their consent—hasn’t changed their strategy at all. “We’re continuing what we were doing; we’re trying to get the youth vote out,” says Justin Giorgio, the group’s communications director. “We’re trying to change the way that young people see the Republican Party.”
Smith acknowledges that “the perception is not that [Trump] cares about people.” But she’s confident that her party’s nominee can overcome what she sees as a messaging flaw. “He needs to show young voters his heart. He needs to show them where he’s at. But once he does, I think he can show that he’s that change agent that they are looking for. They are frustrated with Washington. They are frustrated with the perceived incompetence of this city. And so they want someone who’s gonna shake things up.”
But how do you get young women excited about a party when the standard-bearer says women who are sexually harassed should just quit their company and was caught on tape bragging that he could get away with touching women without their consent because he’s famous?
“This generation, if nothing else, is a forgiving one. They’re looking for a strong leader that’s not afraid to take on the big challenges of today,” Smith says. “Of course, like any other candidate, there’s going to be areas of concern and, maybe, problematic language used at times. But overall, they’re looking for something different. And importantly, they’re not finding that difference in Hillary Clinton.”
The “Final Thoughts” segments of Tomi Lahren’s news show are usually the most inflammatory. The 24-year-old host of Tomi on TheBlaze TV, a conservative network owned by Glenn Beck, has attacked Beyoncé’s pro-Black Lives Matter Super Bowl halftime show and actor Jesse Williams’ speech about racism at the BET Awards, earning harsh criticism from more moderate Republicans. But at the end of one show, in May, she grappled with a singular concern of the GOP establishment: gambling on their own nominee.
Electing Trump, she said on the show, “could go one of two ways: He could get reckless, or he could get us back to work. And I hope to God“—here, she looks heavenward and clasps her hands in prayer—”it’s the latter.”
Even off the air, Lahren, who was a member of the College Republicans chapter at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, speaks like a television pundit. She forcefully emphasizes phrases like “fiscal responsibility” and pauses to let her declarations sink in. Like Smith and her team at the CRNC headquarters, Lahren says that simply being an eminently visible young woman in right-wing politics helps bring more into the conservative fold. “They’re kind of drawn in because I look like them,” she tells me. “I look like someone that’s not just an old, crusty white man on Fox News talking about politics.”
That’s key, she says, because “although they might look at me for appearance first and relate to me, then they hear what I’m saying. I’ve had so many young women say to me, ‘I was not interested in politics, I didn’t care about this stuff until I started watching your stuff, because it’s short, it’s to the point and it makes me get excited about politics and understand that this stuff does relate to me.’ So for me, what I try to do, and what I think the conservatives need to do better, is relaying our message in a younger, more direct way.”
On her nightly, hour-long show, Lahren weaves pop culture, sports and other topics that pique her interest into the newsy fare to show her audience that politics underlies, well, everything. Episode by episode, she tries to “strip away the shame, or the misinformation, around what being a Republican or being conservative means.”
It’s increasingly more challenging to do that in Trump’s vision of the GOP. Lahren is far from a Trump fan—“some of the things he’s said, they’re indefensible”—yet she maintains he’s better than the alternative.
But thanks to the revealing Access Hollywood tape—along with the cascade of women claiming Trump sexually assaulted them—three weeks out from Election Day, Clinton is leading by at least eight points in most major polls. It’s nearly assured that Trump will lose (though he’s promised he won’t accept defeat quietly). As the party’s favorability slides even further, from just 32 percent in June, Trump will likely wreak lasting damage on Lahren and the CRNC’s efforts to woo young women.
Those “core values” so abhorred by Sam, the young woman from the College Republicans focus group, have only been made more public by Trump’s campaign. It appears that as young conservative women work to raise their voices this year, they still have to contend with an older man talking over them.