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Conservatives Hope To Reach Hard-Pressed Youth

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

It's been almost a year since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. We spoke with a young protestor there minutes after Mubarak stepped down as Egypt's longtime leader. Today, we check back in with her to see how she's feeling about Egypt's future these days. That conversation is coming up in a few minutes.

But first, a look at young people and the political situation in this country. The Conservative Political Action Conference kicks off in Washington, D.C. today. Organizers say it's the largest annual gathering of conservatives in the country. And this year, they say, that young people are expected to make up about half of the attendees. Now, you might wonder why that is because it's commonly understood that people tend to get more interested in voting and politics as they get older.

But in 2008, people under the age of 30 came out in record numbers. And in the last three general elections these young voters voted predominately for Democrats. But now, younger people are hard-pressed to find jobs and these are the voters that young conservative Republicans are hoping to reach.

Today, we're going to speak to two of them. They're trying to get the under 30 crowd excited about their side of the aisle. They are Alex Schriver. He is the national chairman of the College Republican National Committee. Also with us, Soren Dayton. He is the communications director of the Young Republican National Federation. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

ALEX SCHRIVER: Absolutely.

SOREN DAYTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, let me just start with you and ask each of you how did you get interested in politics and your particular politics, your conservative politics, wondering if it was a family tradition or something that you discovered on your own?

SCHRIVER: Well, I'd say there were two main issues that really got me involved in politics. I didn't come from a political family. I don't have much of a political background before I got involved. But in 2001, I was in eighth grade when 9/11 happened and that was obviously a life-changing event for all of us and really, to me, impressed the importance of getting involved in the political process.

I also came from a family with a small business. My father and grandfather owned a small business growing up. And so, that sort of instilled in me the ideas that I believe the conservative and Republican Party teaches, which are smaller government, allowing individuals to thrive and so forth. So, I went onto college, got involved in the College Republicans at Auburn and I'm now here in Washington.

MARTIN: OK, great. Soren, what about you?

DAYTON: My family also wasn't involved in politics. I actually - my story starts a little bit with 9/11 also. But after college, I started a software company during the tech boom and my friend and I, you know, went through that. There was a bust obviously that we participated in, I guess, both parts of that.

And in the process of that, I came to think about government in very concrete terms, as we look to the process of starting a small business, and really thought about the idea of how do I want to serve my country as that ended. And politics was one of the ways. I also looked at joining the military and things like that. But certainly my family isn't very political. And if they are at all, they're sort of progressive church people. There's a little bit of a disconnect.

MARTIN: So, they vote Republican?

DAYTON: Oh, no. No. They're progressive church people. My dad's pretty...

MARTIN: So, they kind of vote Democrat?

DAYTON: My dad's very liberal. And my mom is actually Canadian, so she's never voted in the U.S. election.

MARTIN: Oh, interesting. But, you know, it's - I'm interested because this is not my saying. I'm not being mean. But there's a saying - I think it comes from England - that if a young person is conservative, he has no heart. If an old person is a liberal, he has no brain. I know you've heard that. But in terms of this country, the politics are that young people tend to trend Democratic. In the 2008 election, according to the Pew Research Center, which is a respected research organization, 66 percent of voters under the age of 30 chose President Obama. I was wondering why you each think that is? Alex, I'll start with you. Alex Schriver, who's the national chairman of the College Republican National Committee.

SCHRIVER: Well, obviously I've heard that, and I actually disagree with the base that you tend to vote liberal when you're young and conservative when you're older. You know, the voting age was changed to 18 in 1972. Since then, Republicans have won the youth vote four times. And we've tied it twice. And actually Bush in 2000 came within a couple of points of tying it.

Now, since then, it's trended in the wrong direction. We lost the youth vote 54-45 in 2004 and 66-32 in 2008. And so, I think Soren and I would both agree that this idea that the Republicans can't win the youth vote is just not true.

MARTIN: OK.

SCHRIVER: We've won it four times in the modern era since we passed the 26th amendment. And so, as we get back to the issues of jobs and the economy, 74 percent of young people say that jobs and the economy are the most important issue to them. And as we get back to that and as our candidates are going around the country talking about that, I think we'll see a shift back to the Republican Party.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Alex Schriver. That's who was speaking just now. He's chairman of the College Republican National Committee. They're here in Washington, D.C. to attend the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Also with us, Soren Dayton. He's the communications director of the Young Republican National Federation. You might not know that the Conservative Political Action Conference actually attracts a very large number of young participants.

Soren, about that - is the Conservative Political Action Committee by definition a Republican group, because one might think that conservatism technically knows no parties. So, are there people like your family members there who lean - well, they're not conservative.

DAYTON: Right, right. But there's certainly a wider range of people than just Republicans. In fact, I would say many people in the conservative movement in the United States think of themselves as conservatives first and Republicans second. And when you look around, there will be people that have run third party candidacies in the past. There will be all sorts of people.

Don't forget, in the United States you'd seen polling, including Pew polling, shows that 40 percent of America is conservative, 40 percent is moderate, 20 percent is liberal and what 30-ish percent is Republican, 30-ish percent is Democrat, and a whole bunch of people in the middle. So...

MARTIN: But people interpret that in different ways. Like African-Americans, for example, many of African-Americans self-identify as conservative because of their own personal values and the way they choose to act on those values, but they don't necessarily vote...

DAYTON: Sure.

MARTIN: ...for Republican candidates who identify that way. So, people interpret conservatism different.

DAYTON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And one of the things I was interested in is there's a question of whether conservatism has a message that appeals to young people, particularly because another one of the perceptions is that young people tend to be more socially liberal. They tend to be more tolerant of things like same-sex marriage. They tend not to believe that, even if they have a personal value system around certain issues, don't believe that the government should play a role in addressing those issues, if I'm encapsulating that correctly. So, I wanted to ask if you feel that the conservative movement today really has an appeal to young people as well, apart from the issues you talked about like the smaller government more freedom.

DAYTON: Well, I would note - and I forget who does this poll - but every year a respected nonpartisan polling agency asks a series of questions about incoming freshmen in universities. And since the '70s when they did this, when they started this, polling on, say, abortion about, you know, every year entering freshmen are getting more and more conservative.

Now, gay marriage is a different issue. And it's clear that there has been a pretty sharp increase in support for gay marriage. But on things like abortion, I would say the conservatives are winning this argument pretty decisively even with college students.

MARTIN: Let's shift to the economic argument. Alex Schriver, since you're chair of the College Republican National Committee, you've been chosen to sit on a panel called "Why Am I Living In My Parent's Basement? How The Obama Administration's Policies Are Detrimental To Young People." So, give it your best shot. What's your best argument for why? Give me a preview, if you would, of what you're going to say on the panel.

SCHRIVER: I think of the 30,000, you know, it absolutely comes down to the difference in the Democrat and the liberal philosophy and the conservative Republican philosophy. And that is - on the latter of those two - this idea of independence. So, what we talk about, and as the name of the panel as you mentioned, is getting out of your parent's basement.

And in the last 36 months, the policies of this administration have disproportionately affected our demographic greater than any other group out there. And young people are sitting here three years off with skyrocketing national debt. They can't put gas in their tank. They can't put food on their table, and they're moving back in with their parents.

And so, we as a party and we as a movement are talking about candidates and policies that will allow these young people to provide for themselves. Get their own health insurance, get a job that they can actually support themselves and, tongue-in-cheek, move out of your parent's basement.

MARTIN: Are you in your parents' basement, by the way?

DAYTON: I am not. I'm here in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Your folks - you're doing OK. So, and I wanted to ask you, that Texas Congressman Ron Paul seems to be very attractive to young voters so far, even though he hasn't won any of the contests. He hasn't come out on top in any of the contests so far, even the beauty contest. But I wondered if that is your perception, also. And if he is not the young person's candidate, is there a young person's candidate this year in the way that President Obama seemed to be in the last election?

SCHRIVER: Well, first of all, I want to question a little bit some of this argument about the strength of Ron Paul with young people. Certainly, in the earliest of the primaries and caucuses, that was true. But when you look at the results from Florida and Nevada, which are the last ones that we have exit polls for, you know, Romney, the winner in both of those, actually got more. And I suspect, if you looked at the results from the most recent set on Tuesday, this would also hold.

MARTIN: Where do you think that perception comes from? Just the fact that he gets a warm reception on college campuses, or that a lot of people come out to see him?

SCHRIVER: I think there is that, and I think he's certainly worked harder. And if you go to CPAC, you know, one of the things that CPAC struggles with is the number of Ron Paul kids that are going to come and vote in a straw poll every year. I assume they're holding a straw poll.

MARTIN: But are you endorsing - is either of your group endorsing? No? So neither of you has a candidate?

DAYTON: We're prohibited by, actually, the tax laws that we operate under.

MARTIN: OK. All right. So, finally, before we let you go - and, Alex, I hope we'll see you again. I hope we'll see both of you again. A lot of famous people have served in that job before you. Karl Rove, as I understand it, was president of your organization before you, and later went on to become a very important advisor for President George W. Bush.

Wondering if you think a role like that is in your future. Where might we see Alex Schriver next? We want to keep in touch when you become super large. When you become Karl Rove-large, we want to be sure you come back and see us.

SCHRIVER: I'll be sure to come back. Well, I'm very blessed, and every day is a blessing to get to wake up and do the job that I have. I went to school at Auburn University in Alabama. I'm passionate about the state. I hope to return there one day and make a difference, in whatever capacity that may be. I've obviously got big shoes to fill. Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed and Karl Rove and so many others have come before me in this chair. And so it's an honor to serve these two years. I'm looking forward to this election in November.

MARTIN: He's already polished. He's already not answering my question. So - Alex Schriver is the national chairman of the College Republican National Committee. He was here with us in Washington, D.C., along with Soren Dayton, the communications director for the Young Republican National Federation. They were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. They'll be participating in the Conservative Political Action Conference later today.

Thank you both so much.

SCHRIVER: Thank you.

DAYTON: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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