In many ways, the Republican Convention has fully embraced the future.
Look up inside the Quicken Loans Arena, and you’ll see four immense screens projecting Twitter and Facebook posts about the event. Down on the ground, delegates use Facebook Live to give their friends and followers a front row seat to the action. There’s a YouTube stage in the Media Center, a Facebook lounge next to the arena, and a Twitter bar serving up free drinks and snacks just down the road. Steps away from the stadium’s entrance, you can strap on an Oculus and be digitally transported to the top of a skyscraper.
But if you are one of the convention’s rare millennial attendees, it can be tough to see the Republican Convention as emblematic of your future, let alone the party’s. For many young Republicans this year, both the party’s platform and its newly crowned nominee, Donald Trump, are relics of the past.
For many young Republicans this year, both the party’s platform and its newly crowned nominee, Donald Trump, are relics of the past.
“I think this whole convention can just be summed up as a reckoning from the older generation,” says Charlie Kirk, the 22-year-old founder of Turning Point USA, an advocacy group for young conservatives. “This is a generational, this-is-our-last-chance type of thing.”
If you’ve been watching the first few days of the slugfest that is the Republican Convention, you might have seen Kirk on stage Tuesday, trying to convince the audience that the Republican party is not just for “old rich white men.” And yet, even Kirk, the lone millennial not related to Trump who was chosen to speak at Trump’s coronation, says he is “not the biggest Donald Trump fan in the world.”
He wasn’t the only young conservative in the arena who felt that way, either. As states cast their votes for Trump on the convention floor last night, young delegates staged silent (and not so silent) protests against the eventual nominee—a chant of “Rubio!” from one Alaska delegate, another New Hampshire delegate fist pumping in support.
Kirk started Turning Point when he was 18 to spread the conservative message on high school and college campuses, but in a lot of ways, he says, Trump’s candidacy makes his task tougher. “People are are going to brand us and loop us in that bucket like, ‘Oh, you’re the Donald Trump group,’” says Kirk, who does plan to vote for Trump despite his misgivings. “We’re going to have to fight back against that.”
Polls show that about three in five millennials want to see a Democrat in the White House next year. That could be construed as the legacy of President Obama, a candidate who received stunning support among young voters. But dig deeper into the data, and you’ll see that the last year alone has cost the Republican party precious support among this demographic. Since spring 2016, the most recent Harvard Youth Poll shows the share of young voters who want a Republican to become president has dropped from 40 to 33 percent.
There’s good reason for that. While Trump’s main campaign promise is that he’ll build a wall on the southern border and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, 76 percent of millennials oppose a border wall and say that immigrants are a national strength. And that may be partly to do with the fact that millennials are a far more diverse generation.
The Republican party has also adopted one of the most socially conservative platforms in recent memory. It includes language about conversion therapy for LGBT people and calls marriage between one man and one woman “the basis of a free society.” Meanwhile, nearly three quarters of millennials support same-sex marriage. They’re also more likely to be pro-choice than their parents’ generation.
For many young voters, says Patrick Ruffini, co-founder of the Republican strategy firm Echelon Insights, “The social issues are a deal-breaker.”
This rightward jolt is surprising. Building a base with millennials was one of the chief goals of the party’s Growth and Opportunity Project report, published after the 2012 loss. But, Ruffini says, “That is not getting better this cycle.”
But it’s not just the focus on social issues that’s alienating young people. The deep-seated sense of anger among older Republicans that has fueled Trump’s rise doesn’t sit well with them, either. “Trump has spoken to a big part of the demographic that was angry about the system,” says Amanda Owens, 25. “I think it’s because they see a life they had, and it’s not the same. Millennials are idealistic and adaptive and more open to change.”
Owens founded the online network Future Female Leaders in 2012 specifically because she saw a lack of spaces for young, conservative women to share their beliefs. What started as a Twitter feed during Owens’ senior year of college has now grown into a full-fledged media and merchandise business that employs 100 young writers. But rather than play on the fear that permeates her party, Owens rallies her base with beer koozies, elephant print skirts, and a cheeky motto: “We need more high heels on the ground.”
Future Female Leaders tries to stay above the political fray. But some of its members admit it’s been a challenge at times to stand behind a candidate who stokes so much nostalgia for a time gone by. “There were so many fresh faces on the scene,” says 21-year-old Victoria Feldmeier, a senior at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “So the fact that we ended up here, I just think it’s funny, cause my grandparents and parents swore up and down it was going to be Trump.”
“I thought it was a joke at first,” says Kaitlin Owens, 21, of the choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton. “I think that older generations are just really upset. Obviously we get the brunt of it, but it’s our parents and grandparents who are really upset.”
What these young voters want to hear from their party leaders, they say, is not where they stand on the country’s most divisive social issues, but on its economic ones. “I’m about to graduate college. I need a job,” says Feldmeier. “I’m like, is there going to be one there for me in a year?” Instead, the convention has been dominated by talk of immigration, Benghazi, and Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. Even last night’s lineup, which was supposed to be focused on “Making America Work Again” included very few speeches on the economy.
The glimmer of good news for Trump Republicans in all this, Ruffini says, is that millennials are still a relatively small slice of the voting population, despite being the country’s largest demographic.
That may comfort the delegates who made Trump their nominee last night. Tough luck, kiddos.