When Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky strolled off the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday to Ellie Goulding’s “Lights,” the tune was likely familiar to a large chunk of the crowd.
Tumolo, 20, wasn’t alone. At CPAC, an annual hub of conservative politicians and activists, a large number of seats was taken up by millennials – and maybe – the party’s future.
“There are tons of students here,” Tumolo said. “Even the speakers, they’ve really tailored their message to a younger audience. It’s very refreshing.”
The millennial crowd at CPAC, though, is not representative of the nation as whole. A study from the Pew Research Center released Friday shows millennials lean liberal – 32 percent identify as liberal, compared to 26 percent who identify as conservative.
For Republicans, party affiliation may be more worrisome. While a solid half of millennials identify as independents, 27 percent identify as Democrats, compared to 17 percent who identify as Republicans. When the leaning of these independents is taken into account, half of millennials identify or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 34 percent say they identify or lean Republican.
The atmosphere at CPAC was festive, but Republicans are aware of the changing demographics. During his speech, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called on the party to attract young voters, a group that voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the last two presidential elections.
Cruz told the audience that drawing a clear distinction between the Democratic and Republican ideals would bring millennials to the polls in favor of the GOP.
“If you were to sit down and design an agenda to hammer the living daylights out of young people, you couldn’t do better than the Obama economic agenda,” Cruz said. “Yet how many Republicans said that? Does anyone remember in the last election anyone going and making the case to young people?”
Cruz gave props to Ronald Reagan and Ron Paul for being the most recent Republicans to wrangle the younger crowd. “They stood for principle,” Cruz said. “And young people came out by the millions.”
The Tea Party darling represents one faction of the conservative movement; representing another is the Libertarian movement and Rand Paul.
The Kentucky senator, son of former Texas House member Ron Paul, has inherited some of his father’s young followers. Rand Paul came out on top at the CPAC presidential straw poll – a gauge of the nation’s conservatives – with 31 percent of the votes. Of the 2,459 people from all 50 states and the District of Columbia who participated in the straw poll, nearly half were between the ages of 18 and 25.
“Among the college crowd is probably where you’re going to see that whole conservative libertarian lean the most,” said conservative blogger Justin Higgins, also a millennial. “There’s a reason why there is no panel on gay marriage. The only values issue is a Citizens United movie about abortion. Obviously the organizers are a lot smarter than Republicans in Washington because they understand that having an issue that divides our own party is not smart.”
Ryan Smith, a junior at Loyola University Maryland, traveled with Tumolo to attend CPAC and said the GOP could take some notes from the pages of Obama’s ground game when it comes to attracting young voters.
“I think it’s a good thing we are trying to target younger people because it was such a good tactic in the last two presidential elections and the liberals basically had a monopoly on it,” Smith, 21, said.
The music, Higgins said, was another attempt to appeal to the young crowd. Republican Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor, walked on to the stage to Pitbull’s “Feel This Moment.”
“Years ago … everybody would come out at CPAC to this generic type music. Now, they understand their target audience,” Higgins said. “There’s the people who write the checks, the people that get the diamond level sponsorships, but the college students provide the energy.”
Come 2016, any presidential contender is going to need a lot of that.