Dark clouds and raging thunderstorms ushered in Halloween in Columbus, Ohio as Governor John Kasich cast his ballot for president. The Republican known for party allegiance and conservative values is no natural political dissident. But under ominous Halloween skies, Kasich cast an ominous vote—John McCain for president.
Kasich defied the rules of establishment politics and refused to vote for the Republican nominee. In doing so, Kasich fulfilled a promise he made in October to not vote for Trump because of his unruly behavior. On top of this, McCain’s ineligibility as a write-in candidate rendered Kasich’s ballot invalid. This forfeit of a vote by the governor of a prominent swing state was more than symbolic defiance of GOP leadership. This vote was a call to action, an indication of the rift that continues to expand within the Republican Party.
While Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric appealed to a voter demographic tired of gridlock and ready to “drain the swamp,” it also brought out many enemies, even within the Republican Party. Republican leaders, like Kasich, found Trump’s vocal antipathy towards the establishment not refreshing, but dangerous, especially given his lofty campaign promises and quick temper.
Older establishment Republicans were not the only ones to oppose Trump. Though Kasich initially seemed to lead the charge, the post-Trump conservative movement has a much younger force behind it. Trump’s election caused backlash among millennial Republicans, inspiring young members of the Grand Old Party to give it a new face. Republicans’ stringent social conservatism and partisanship has led to a new GOP generation that focuses instead on fiscal responsibility, lenient social policy, and bipartisanship.
Millennials expressed that message fearlessly at the polls. It’s no secret that Trump lost among this demographic, earning the support of just 37 percent of voters aged 18 to 29, compared to Clinton’s 55 percent. Contrarily, 53 percent of individuals over 45 voted for Trump, compared to Clinton’s 44 percent. Though the disparity between age groups across the political spectrum is clear, a similar gap exists within the GOP itself. While Trump held a firm majority of boomer voters across the board, their descendants were less enthusiastic. An Institute of Politics report from the Harvard Kennedy School showed that 57 percent of millennial Republicans viewed Trump unfavorably in spring of 2016. The following November, millennial members of the GOP had the fourth lowest voter turnout since 1972.
One reason for this young conservative revolt lies in Trump’s misbehavior. Ohio high school senior Michael Carcioppolo, 18, is one of the millennial Republicans put off by Donald Trump’s mannerisms. He told the HPR that Trump’s presentation of himself and response to criticism were “disrespectful,” noting, “When you are President of the United States, it is the job of the people to question you.” He explained that instead of using critique to build better policy, Trump took to Twitter to attack his opponents, making what Carcioppolo described as his “already tainted image” even worse. Trump’s combative nature and refusal to acknowledge the validity of criticism pushed conservative millennial voters away by making them feel unheard and disrespected.
But Trump’s election also revealed an ideological gap between young and old Republicans. The same issues that won Trump the baby boomers and the silent generation are likely the very same issues that lost him the loyalty of millennial Republicans.
This cross-generational contrast is due in part to variations in coverage of the issues. A Pew Research Center study indicated 61 percent of millennials get political news from Facebook in a given week, compared to just 39 percent of baby boomers. Conversely, 60 percent of boomers received their political news from local television, compared to only 37 percent of millennials. Whereas individuals are likely to watch television news with an agreeable political slant, they have far less control over coverage on Facebook. As an opinion site, Facebook provides more exposure to all viewpoints and sides of the conversation than networks like MSNBC and Fox News, which tend to cater to particular ideologies. According to Facebook’s own research, 28.5 percent of news individuals see on their Facebook news feed crosses political divides.
This gap in coverage contributes to the generational gap regarding social issues revealed in the election cycle. One of the most striking of these is immigration. According to a March 2016 Pew Research Center survey, a majority of both boomers and millennials opposed Trump’s border wall proposal—57 and 80 percent, respectively. However, the study revealed a greater generational difference on immigration. While 76 percent of millennials believed immigrants strengthen the country, only 48 percent of boomers agreed.
These statistics demonstrate the uniquely global mindset of the millennial generation. As such, Trump’s calls to leave NATO unless America’s economic burden shrinks, build a wall, and close borders to Syrian refugees hold less appeal to millennial voters, including young Republicans.
The generational gap in the Republican Party goes deeper than immigration. Millennials have different priorities than older Republicans, specifically regarding social policy. Since the mid-1970s, when the debate over abortion was reignited, the Republican Party has veered further right on social issues. The rise of the religious right in the 1990s only accelerated this rightward crusade. Republican platforms from 1992 to 2008 decried things like same-sex marriage and adoption. The 2004 and 2008 planks demanded a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and every platform since 1980 has called for an end to abortion. Trump adopted these positions throughout his campaign, like when he called for the overturn of Roe v. Wade.
This social conservatism helped him gain the support of the boomers. One of those boomers is 67-year-old Anthony Spitaleri, a retired business owner in Wickliffe, Ohio. For him, Trump appealed to a need for security and a desire to return to traditional ideologies. In an interview with the HPR, Spitaleri said that he believed these social issues largely influenced his generation’s vote. Nonetheless, Spitalieri acknowledged that millennials would likely not share his priorities, noting that, “Young Republicans’ thoughts about not just politics, but life in general are very different than my generation’s when we were young.”
So what do millennial Republicans prioritize? John Chachas of the conservative student organization Turning Point USA called millennial Republicans “socially agnostic” in an interview with the HPR. “More than anything, millennials want economic opportunities, the ability to make their own success, and as little intrusion into their lives by the government as possible,” Chachas said.
Traditional Republican stances on social issues violate this tenet of limited government intrusion, and millennial Republicans are pushing back. When Time interviewed 20 young Republican leaders at a College Republican National Committee gathering, they almost unanimously agreed the party should be more lax on social issues, especially on LGBTQ+ issues. Many even said the GOP should take a page from the Libertarian playbook by letting other social issues fall to a more liberal wayside while preserving fiscal conservatism.
This new conservative movement focuses on economic issues and opportunities for advancement rather than social issues. As the boomers continue to age, millennials, who in 2016 made up just three percent of delegates to the RNC, will fill their places and steer the party in a new direction grounded more in conservative fiscal policy than social platforms.
This ideological revolution presents a unique opportunity to not only shift the Republican party, but the entire U.S. political system. After decades of polarization along the political spectrum, millennials have a unique opportunity to restore bipartisanship. The millennial Republican stance on social issues presents a crucial moment of opportunity in American politics: a chance to rejuvenate political cooperation.
Social issues have been historically contentious, especially for older members of the Republican Party. Millennial relaxation towards conservative social values, however, could turn previously controversial debates into points of unity between the parties. The implementation of bipartisan social policies opens the door for cooperation on matters such as the economy and national defense, resulting in a more efficient and less divisive government than in recent years.
Young people are recognizing this opportunity to mold a society based not upon party divides, but political ideas. While 28 percent of millennials identify as Democrats, and 18 percent as Republicans, about 48 percent identify as independents—more than millennial Democrats and Republicans combined. Joe Rigutto, a student at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio and self-identified independent, told the HPR that he believes the parties have become obstructionist. Rigutto explained that he thinks party politics will eventually dissolve, noting, “Normal voters are moving away from partisanship; they just want the government to do the job that the taxpayers are paying them to do.”
When Kasich fatefully surrendered his vote, he expressed the sentiments of a generation of Republicans unlike his own; a generation ready for a new era of conservative political thinking. Trump’s election did not represent the millennial conservative mindset. It did, however, renew its fervor and reveal its unshakable voice.