Nobody involved in Donald Trump’s reelection thought the president would win the youth vote in 2020. But they didn’t think it would be this bad.
Now the finger pointing has begun.
When the data came pouring in after Election Day, campaign aides and Trump allies alike were struck by the president’s poor performance with the 18-to-29-year-old crowd — especially in a cycle with surging youth turnout.
In nearly every Midwestern battleground state that mattered to Trump’s reelection, the president performed worse among young voters than in 2016, according to a POLITICO review of state exit polls. Trump ceded ground in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, two states he lost. He also regressed in Arizona, another critical state that slipped away.
In several of these states, the erosion was considerable. In Pennsylvania, President-elect Joe Biden won young voters by a 20-point margin, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 9-point advantage in 2016. In Wisconsin, Biden won the state’s youngest voters by a 16-point margin, a dramatic rise from Clinton’s razor-thin edge in 2016 — and a significant swing in a state Trump only lost by 20,000 votes. Michigan saw a four-point shift from 2016 to 2020.
“It’s not that Joe Biden electrified young people, it’s that there was a failure to connect with as many young people as we had the potential to,” said one Trump ally who is heavily involved in outreach to conservative youth.
To Trump’s critics, Biden gained ground with young voters because of who his opponent was: a divisive politician with a culture wars playbook that failed to energize audiences outside of his base. But among the president’s campaign aides and allies, the consensus is far less clear. Interviews with more than a dozen people involved in Trump’s 2020 operation revealed rifts, acrimony and a system in which no one would take the blame but everyone had a scapegoat — from the president himself, to the campaign to outside groups like Turning Point USA, Charlie Kirk’s conservative campus organizing group.
The fallout has left the GOP with a dearth of insight into what went wrong with millennial and Gen Z voters — particularly in a cycle where Trump saw gains with other demographics — and no clear strategy to prevent another surge of youth support for Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections. And the Republican Party is desperately in need of a strategy to reverse the trend, having struggled for decades to connect with younger voters.
“The Republican party has no future if it doesn’t improve its performance among younger voters,” said Michael Steel, a GOP strategist and former top aide to House Speaker John Boehner.
“I’m not a fan of top-down autopsy processes,” Steel added, “but I do hope the end of the Trump presidency is a natural inflection point and a time to reboot to some extent.”
Some Republican operatives involved in the 2020 cycle said the way young voters, who skew heavily Democratic, currently perceive the GOP will automatically improve once Trump is no longer in office.
They said the president’s inflammatory approach to issues like race relations, which became a major cultural flashpoint this summer, likely cost the party the support of young conservatives who may have been on the fence about supporting Trump and are less ideologically rigid than their older counterparts on such topics.
For instance, a post-election study by the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University showed that 60 percent of Trump voters between the ages of 18 and 29 believe racism is a “somewhat or very serious issue,” compared to 52 percent of Trump voters above 45 years old. Similar gaps emerged when young Trump voters were asked about the importance of climate change (52 percent said they were “concerned” versus 40 percent of older Trump voters) and their self-proclaimed identity (61 percent identify as conservative versus 74 percent of older Trump voters).
These same party operatives also blamed Trump for failing to tweak his message in the few instances when he appeared before younger audiences during the general election.
At a June campaign event in Phoenix, Ariz., where the president spoke to several hundred “Students for Trump” activists, he talked about 401(k) retirement funds, school choice and stock market gains — issues that resonate more with older investors, those planning for retirement and parents.
“Your 401(k)s, I don’t think you want to have somebody else playing with them because you’re just about at a record high, and you put the wrong person in, they will be obliterated,” Trump said to a group that had probably never dealt with a 401(k).
Others faulted the Trump campaign, accusing the president’s top aides of “outsourcing” his youth outreach program to Turning Point Action, the political action arm of the conservative campus group Turning Point USA.
Led by its 26-year-old founder, Charlie Kirk, the group oversaw myriad door-knocking and grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts this cycle, in addition to working with top White House aides like senior adviser Jared Kushner to plan events that put the president and his surrogates in front of young audiences. People involved with Kirk’s operation claimed his “herculean” efforts to boost Trump’s reelection were done without input or resources from the Trump campaign — much to their chagrin in the months leading up to the Nov. 3 election.
But two Trump campaign aides who have worked closely with Kirk said the campaign had its own youth outreach efforts that went beyond voters who are still in college. These aides described Turning Point’s messaging as too sycophantic to bring in young voters who might align more closely with conservatism but remain apprehensive about Trump himself. Kirk was afforded a primetime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in August and has a close relationship with the president and some of his adult children.
“It’s a mistake to think that groups operating on college campuses alone are going to reach young voters outside of college,” said one of the aides.
Another Trump ally described Turning Point Action as ill-equipped to handle youth outreach for a major party presidential campaign “because it’s a relatively new organization without deeper community ties.”
People close to Kirk rejected these claims, suggesting the young activist and his group did what they could to help the president, and accused the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee of lacking the organizational skills and resources needed to reach broad swaths of young voters in the critical 2020 battlegrounds.
“Instead of trying to scapegoat Turning Point Action, a completely outside, separate and independent entity that’s still fighting for election integrity, maybe that’s what the campaign should be doing,” said a person close to Kirk.
“He gave the president a platform when it was exceedingly hard and nobody could get it done on the campaign,” said a second person close to Kirk.
Part of the issue for both campaigns this cycle was the inability to reach college-age students on campuses, where they are most likely to register to vote and hear from candidates and their surrogates.
Because of campus closures related to the Covid-19 pandemic, voter registration drives and initiatives like the RNC’s “Make Campus Great Again” were stunted. Meanwhile, crowd-size and travel restrictions in many swing states made it difficult for the Trump campaign to get their candidate in front of millennial audiences outside of his signature rallies.
“Republicans are fighting from a deficit when it comes to young voters, so when you lose the ability to do a lot of things that drive turnout with those age groups, it’s even more challenging,” said a senior adviser to the Trump campaign.
RNC spokesman Mike Reed said the party’s student and young professional volunteers still managed to knock on over 4.1 million doors in key battleground states during the final few months of the 2020 cycle, in addition to making nearly 7 million calls to voter households. However, these figures did not apply to millennial-specific outreach.
In the end, Trump saw a decline in his youth support from four years ago in Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and several other states. Only Georgia and Michigan saw a slight increase in Trump voters under the age of 29 — from 33 percent in 2016 to 39 percent this cycle in Georgia, and 34 percent to 35 percent in Michigan, according to exit poll data. But the gains were not enough to put either state in the president’s column.
“We lost ground in a year where we should have gained ground,” said the Trump ally, matter-of-factly.
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