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Jeff Jacoby

From Reagan, a way for GOP to win young voters

Then-Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan and wife, Nancy, share a chuckle as they try a rocking chair presented them during their visit to the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi.File/The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

Second of two parts (Read part 1) ‘THE OLDEST president in US history and the youngest members of the nation’s electorate have forged one of the strongest bonds in American politics.’’

So wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer in May 1986. Ronald Reagan was then in his sixth year as president, and his support among younger voters was stratospheric. Eighteen months earlier, a pre-election poll commissioned by Time magazine had found voters ages 18 to 24 expressing support for Reagan over his Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale, by an amazing 45-point margin — 63 percent to 18 percent. Now, the Inquirer noted, Reagan’s support among the young was even greater: According to a new survey, voters younger than 25 were giving Reagan a 79 percent job-approval rating. As it turned out, even that wasn’t his high-water mark. When he left office in January 1989, Reagan’s approval rating among the electorate’s youngest cohort was an incredible 85 percent.


For half a century, the Democratic Party had commanded the loyalty of most new voters. Under the Gipper, the political tides reversed and first-time voters surged to the GOP. Their devotion helped sweep his chosen successor into office; George H.W. Bush was elected with a majority of the under-30 vote. But by the time Bush ran for reelection four years later, Reagan’s magic with the young had dissipated. Bill Clinton won a plurality of the youth vote in 1992, and that age group has voted reliably Democratic ever since.

How did Reagan do it? What made him so strikingly popular with so many voters young enough to be his grandchildren? What, if anything, would it take to persuade today’s youngest voters to give the GOP a serious look? Mitt Romney wondered last week why more college-age voters aren’t “working like crazy’’ to elect Republicans like him. Similar laments might previously have been voiced by John McCain, George W. Bush, and Bob Dole.


Of course there is no single explanation for the political behavior of an age bracket that comprises millions of individuals. Certainly for some young voters it all comes down to ideology. The millennial generation tends to hold strong left-of-center views on many social and environmental issues, and millennials are less likely than older voters to describe government action as inefficient or unfair. It stands to reason that voters who embrace, say, “green’’ energy, same-sex marriage, a highly multilateral foreign policy, and an activist federal government would gravitate to the political party that shares the same views.

Does that mean Republicans must turn themselves into liberals to have any hope of winning twentysomethings back? Of course not. Pandering may be inseparable from politics, but it’s a poor strategy for long-term political growth. Candidates who tell voters only what they think those voters want to hear do themselves and their party no favors — least of all when it comes to the young, who hunger to be inspired and to be part of something consequential, something bigger than themselves.

New voters didn’t flock to Reagan in the 1980s because they were captivated by his views on supply-side economics and the Soviet Union. It would be truer to say that they were captivated by Reagan — by his optimism and authenticity and love of country, by his manifest faith in the people he sought to lead — and so they came to share his political outlook as well.


All other things being equal, are young people more naturally inclined to liberalism, with its appeal to feelings and good intentions, than to conservatism, which emphasizes standards and good results? Perhaps. But when Reagan was in the saddle, all other things weren’t equal.

Like other candidates, he had political ambitions and pursued them, but his career wasn’t strewn with innumerable flip-flops and conversions of convenience. He had controversial views, but didn’t hector the American people with preachy intolerance. He had millions of admirers, but he was no self-worshiping egotist.

And while he may have been an actor, he was never a phony. “Reagan’s lack of guile is one of the things that he has going for him,’’ wrote Meg Greenfield, the Washington Post’s unabashedly liberal editorial-page editor, in 1980. “In fact, Reagan won the nomination . . . with what seems to have been an unusually aboveboard, uncrooked, and uncompromised campaign.’’

Reagan was the first president I voted for, and the only one I ever voted for without qualms. I admired his moral clarity, his sunny outlook, his self-deprecating modesty, his love of liberty. He never had to tell young voters they should be “working like crazy’’ to elect him. So many of them already were.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeffjacoby.com.