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'The Selfie Vote' Author Talks About the GOP's Young Voter Gap (Q&A)

Is the GOP's generation gap with millennials insurmountable?

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Kristen Soltis Anderson is a young Republican — and no, she doesn’t consider that an oxymoron.

The Republican pollster cast her first ballot for Jeb Bush as a student at the University of Florida, helping return him to a second term as that state’s governor. Back in 2002, her passion for politics is what distinguished her from others her age, not the fact that she was an 18-year-old conservative.

Times and sentiments have changed.

Republicans lost young voters by historic margins in the 2008 and 2012 elections, with millennials turning out in big numbers to support Barack Obama. And cultural and demographic changes don’t bode well for the GOP. Soltis Anderson has spent recent years studying how her party can bridge this generational divide.

The co-founder of the opinion research firm Echelon Insights has been described as the party’s go-to person for studying voting patterns. She’s a frequent guest on TV and radio, talking elections and political trends with Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” and HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.” Her insights on young voters are distilled in her book “The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (And How Republicans Can Keep Up).”

We met Soltis Anderson at Killer E.S.P., a trendy coffee shop in Alexandria’s Old Town, just outside of Washington, D.C., with carefully mismatched furniture and fair-trade coffee from Portland, to talk about millennial voters — and how candidates can hope to connect using digital platforms.

Re/code: What makes this generation of voters different from those who came before, and how is that playing out in this election?

Kristen Soltis Anderson: This is a generation that is, in one sense, incredibly cynical and jaded and frustrated, and in another sense incredibly optimistic. And there’s a reason why that matters in terms of how they consume news and information.

Kristen Soltis Anderson

If you were growing up in the 90s or early 2000s, you were told it’s a good idea to get married, it’s a good idea to buy a home, that’s the responsible thing to do with your money. Save your money, put it in the stock market. Go to college, get that degree — even if you have to take out the loans, it will be an investment that’ll pay for itself.

And all of a sudden you got to the financial crisis of 2008, a lot of those things stopped seeming like the responsible life choices we had all been told we were supposed to make. You mean I have to start off in an unpaid internship after graduation? Hang on. Wait, you told me I should buy a house, but now the bank just took our neighbor’s house. And you told me I was supposed to invest in the stock market but now Dad can’t retire for another four years — at a minimum, until this all comes back. Even the idea of settling down and getting married and having kids.

So all of these things that millennials were told “this is responsible, trust these institutions” … millennials were like, “No thanks.”

So how does this skepticism play out in the political arena?

Why that matters then, for how they consume information, is it makes it very valuable to have someone they know and trust putting a Good Housekeeping seal of approval on something. When a politician stands up and gives a speech, millennials look at them kind of side-eyed. It almost punishes you if you’re too eloquent, too polished and perfect.

Can you offer an example of this?

My favorite one of the “Jeb Unfiltered” videos was right after “Sharknado 3” came out and he is in the car getting driven to the next speech or whatever, and he turns around and he’s like, “I turned on the TV in my hotel room last night and I was flipping through channels and there’s this thing where Mark Cuban is the president? And then [conservative commentator] Ann Coulter was there. And all of a sudden there were sharks coming out of the sky.”

It was endearing to me because he had no idea … I don’t think that won over any voters, but it made me smile. I don’t want to diminish the importance of some of this stuff.

In order to get past this skepticism, how can politicians come across authentically?

People would rather feel 100 percent sure of where you stand and agree with you 70 percent of the time than be told that they agree with you 100 percent of the time but only be 50 percent sure that that’s real — which I think is the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton problem. (The Vermont senator enjoys a big lead in support among young voters).

I think she has an opportunity. [During the Feb. 3] debate, for instance, she sort of attacked Bernie Sanders for selling millennials a bill of goods. She’s like, ‘He’s promising you free college. I get that that’s appealing. It can’t be done the way he’s talking about doing it. I want to make sure that college isn’t free but is affordable, especially to people in the middle class.'”

People, especially on the Republican side, get freaked out. “Bernie Sanders is going to win over millennials by promising all this free stuff and millennials are so dumb, they’re just going to eat it up!” I don’t think that’s why they like Bernie Sanders. I think they are, like, “I’m going to vote for him because he has the same distrust of the system that I have.”

That may explain why anti-establishment candidates seem to be resonating so strongly with primary and caucus voters in the 2016 presidential race.

The thing that has surprised me the most has been Donald Trump — who’s not at zero percent with millennials. I don’t think it’s just because, “He’s that guy from TV.” He sounds different. Donald Trump’s campaign sounds like one continuous troll of the establishment.

I did a focus group [of young Republicans] for Fusion out in California during the second Republican debate, the one that was in Simi Valley at the Reagan library … When they walked in, 12 of the 14 supported Trump. We watched the debate, and this is one of the debates that Trump didn’t do well in, where Carly Fiorina took the bark off of him.

Only two people changed their minds.

People think Donald Trump is so out of touch with millennials, right? He says all this offensive stuff about women, people in communities of color. If you had to write a playbook for how to alienate millennials, Donald Trump seems to be following the playbook. And yet, because he is able to feign authenticity.

Donald Trump actually looks like he was the first- or second-place candidate among millennials who turned out in Iowa, where only 12 percent of caucus goers were that 17-to-29-year-old demographic.

Why is voter participation among millennials an issue?

If I take a room of 100 senior citizens and 100 millennials, most of those senior citizens are going to vote on Election Day and probably fewer than half of the millennials will. So the propensity to vote is lower for millennials — but there are so many of them.

There’s inertia to voting. Once you start moving, once you vote that first time, that’s a good predictor you’ll probably vote again and again. And once you vote for a party a handful of times you’re kind of wearing that party’s jersey for the rest of your life. It’s not impossible to change it, but it’s hard.

That’s why my message to Republicans is not only do you need to win them for this election, but you need to win them so that we can win the presidential election in 2032. Someone who turns 18 this November will be able to vote, if they live an average life expectancy, until 2076. That’s a really long way away.

This is an investment in the long haul.

So how the other candidates using digital platforms to reach voters? Millennials are certainly not watching the “NBC Nightly News.”

The thing people sometimes don’t understand … they say “I’m going to create a viral video.” Even people at companies where their business model is viral content only sort of have a sense of what the secret sauce is to make something viral.

It is important for people who work in politics and policy to get better about telling stories, because that’s the stuff that people love to share, right? Like, “This daughter hasn’t seen her father in five years. When he comes home for the first time, you”ll never guess what happens next.” Click. BuzzFeed, they figured it out. You’re telling stories. What’s the thing that makes you tune back into a TV show next week? [Curiosity about] what happens next. That’s all part of are you telling a story.

Too often in politics, we’re not used to thinking about creating content the way you would in Hollywood … You’ve got to have a good story to tell and a good idea to talk about and a good human face on that story, or else it’s not really going to have much virality.

So what types of videos go viral?

Why do people share things in the first place? You share them because it says something about you when you share it. “I’m sharing a funny thing because I’m so savvy and I found this first and I want my friends to see it.” I don’t think people are conscious of the self-interest, but when I decide, ‘”Do I read an article and enjoy it or do I read an article, enjoy it and share it with other people?” What causes that switch?

I think this is a big reason why the right struggles online is that for folks on the left. You can say, “Here’s this really sad story. Share this because we’re fighting this injustice.” There’s less of a heart-wrenching story in … “We are now almost $19 trillion in debt and that’s horrible.”

I actually feel like Vox’s Ezra Klein is good at tapping into the “Share this because you want to show your friends how smart you are. Share this because you think it’s interesting, but you also want to prove to your friends, ‘Look I totally understand the refugee crisis in a way that you probably don’t. Allow me to share.'” Or watch John Oliver destroy the Miss America Pageant.

People want to consume stuff that their friends have shared … A friend vetted this for me. They think this is worth my time — because there’s such a flood of information. Just to wade through it and find what counts [is time consuming]. If your friends have curated it for you, it deals with the trust thing, it deals with the time thing.

Platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow candidates to reach people with messages, down to the Zip code. How has that changed the dynamic of the modern campaign?

For a while, the Republican problem was they had an “If you build it they will come” mentality. “If I want to reach ‘the kids’ I gotta have a Facebook page.” And they set up Facebook pages and no one would like them … I think that sometimes people get so focused on “What’s the platform that I need to be on?” instead of “Am I creating good content that people will enjoy?” If the content makes sense for the platform, that’s great. But don’t [think] “OK, I’ve got to be on Snapchat, so let’s come up with something.”

In 2012, I would look at [Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney’s] Facebook page leading up to the election and it was like, “This is how much money we raised last month. Sign up here.” “We’ve got this many volunteers ready to knock on doors. Sign up here.” Lots of calls to action. Then the election ended, and all of a sudden it was Mitt Romney on the beach with his grandkids, somebody taking a selfie with Romney on a Southwest flight. Really fun stuff. What I realized then — actually Obama had been doing it all along — was how do most people use Facebook? They use it to share pictures of their lives. I think sometimes people try to take an old message and cram it into a new platform and that doesn’t work. If you take a press release and post it on Facebook you’re doing it wrong.

People have to be comfortable with and understand how the new platforms work. Figure out if there’s a story you can tell that makes sense on that platform. If there isn’t, don’t force it because you feel you have to be there.

What about Snapchat?

The moment that I became somewhat of a Snapchat believer was the first Republican debate. I was sitting two or three rows in front of [Snapchat’s political ad executive] Rob Saliterman. During one of the breaks, I turn around and say, “What’s going on?” And he said, “Hey, tell me what your reaction is, we’ll put it in the Snapchat national story.” Okay, [Ohio Governor] John Kasich’s answer on gay rights was good.

I had people I knew in high school, who I haven’t talked to in 10 years, came out of the woodwork [and say], “You were on the Snapchat national story.”

What advice do you offer candidates seeking to reach millennials?

Part of what I tell them is to always think about the way the stuff they stand for will actually affect someone’s day-to-day life.

This is not a strongly idealogical generation. It’s certainly not a partisan generation. So the ideological arguments that you’re trying to make about principles and the Constitution and liberty and the appropriate role of government are all fine, but they’re not the things that are going to push the buttons of [young voters].

There’s a time when Barack Obama gave a beautiful answer — and it was defending a policy that Republicans in the House had advanced. He was doing an interview on MTV in 2012 and was asked, “What have you done to make it easier for people to start a small business and be like the next Mark Zuckerberg? ”

He talked about repealing financial regulations that were prohibiting people from raising small amounts of money online through the JOBS Act that made crowdfunding possible … Why isn’t every Republican on every college campus like, “Look what I did! Now you can put in money for a product you think is cool, or you can come up with a product and raise money from your friends and family.” You never heard that. You did hear, “You didn’t build that.” Missed opportunity.

You’ve got this policy. What does it actually mean in the life of the voter you’re trying to talk to? That isn’t just advice about millennials. That’s advice about anyone.

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