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Seeing struggles with young voters, new Utah GOP leadership looks to recruit Gen Z

Around 100 people protested Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' speech at the state GOP convention, held at Utah Valley University in Orem, April 22, 2023.
Saige Miller
Around 100 people protested Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' speech at the state GOP convention, held at Utah Valley University in Orem, April 22, 2023.

Although Republicans dominate Utah politics, there’s one bloc that isn’t so keen on the GOP: young voters. The newly installed state party leadership wants to change that.

“Our state is the youngest state per capita in the entire country,” said new state party chair Rob Axson at the April 22 GOP Organizing Convention. “If Republicans, or any political party for that matter, can't connect with the younger generation, we'll see the consequences of that here in Utah sooner and more severely than anywhere else.”

An example of the challenge could be found outside the convention. A crowd of roughly 100 people, many of them college-aged, gathered to protest the party’s choice of keynote speaker, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

There are other warning signs, as well.

A new paper from Eastern Illinois University found that young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — traditionally a reliable base of conservative support in Utah — are moving away from GOP politics in greater and greater numbers.

The shift isn’t unique to people of the Mormon faith. In a state as reliably red as Utah, statewide voters under the age of 45 voted for independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin over Republican incumbent Mike Lee by 7 percentage points in the 2022 midterm elections.

Even though Lee went on to win the election by 10 points overall, some in the Republican establishment saw cause for concern.

According to political analysts, the in-your-face brand of politics ushered in by former President Donald Trump in 2016 isn’t helping.

I think Donald Trump accelerated a lot of the gaps that we were already seeing start to emerge in American politics because of his personal political style,” said University of Utah associate professor of political science James Curry. “Those gaps already existed and they dramatically worsened during his years.”

Brigham Young University sociology professor Jacob Rugh doesn’t “see the GOP making inroads with voters under age 35 as long as Trump or Trumpism as embodied by more extreme candidates rules the party in the public consciousness.”

Even so, some in the new Utah Republican Party leadership, like newly-elected Utah GOP treasurer McKay Newell, see it as an outreach problem, or “maybe like a lack of messaging.” Newell is 28 years old and was also an executive board member with Utah Young Republicans.

“I could count on one hand the number of times in caucuses or conventions the last few years that I've heard somebody talk about or talk to Gen Z. That hasn't been happening.”

The youth turn away from Republicans has also been seen nationwide. According to data from Tufts University, voters under the age of 30 favored Democrats by a 28-point margin in the last November election.

But that doesn’t mean that the GOP has lost young voters forever.

“There's always a path to shift how each demographic group votes,” Curry said. “With young voters, there’s probably even more ground that you can make up just because younger people's political views are not as well set.”

Although the youth bloc is, in some respects, more swayable than their older counterparts, there are still risks to leaning too hard on Gen Z and Millenials.

“You can't lose overwhelmingly with younger Americans and routinely win elections,” Curry continued. “But you don't want to necessarily go all in on young folks because they're going to turn out at a lower rate than our older folks.”

Another piece of political wisdom that speaks to the challenge Newell sees with the party capturing younger voters is the old adage that says people get more conservative as they age. It might not hold true, either.

“Only time will tell, but my guess is the effects of these last seven or eight years with the rise of Trump and the years to come will indeed manifest among Gen Z voters for a very long time to come,” said BYU’s Rugh. “It won’t just automatically ‘go away’ as they age.”

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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