There hasn’t been much talk about the grassroots support for Mitt Romney this election season. But some college Republicans are trying to mobilize their peers for the candidate, according to the New York Times. These young activists say they walk a fine line, avoiding issues like same-sex marriage that might alienate their socially moderate friends, while emphasizing Romney’s fiscal expertise. The Times suggests that the apparent break with conservative orthodoxy on social issues among the next generation of GOP leaders could portend a shift in the national party’s political priorities.
This raises the question: Are young Republicans really more liberal on social issues? The 2012 Millennial Values Survey, which polled college-age Millennials (age 18-24), found that the picture is a bit more complicated. It is true that these young adults place a low priority on social issues – only 22% of young Millennials and 31% of young Republicans report that same-sex marriage is a critical issue facing the country, compared to over three-quarters (76%) of both groups who say the same of jobs and unemployment. Abortion also ranks comparatively low among young Millennials’ and young Republicans’ priorities (22% vs. 33%).
Despite the low stress they place on social issues, however, young Republicans are much less supportive of same-sex marriage than their peers and do not differ markedly from Republicans overall. One-third (33%) of Republican Millennials say that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry legally, compared to 24% of Republicans overall. By contrast, nearly 6-in-10 (59%) younger Millennials overall support same-sex marriage, while 61% of young Independents and 74% of young Democrats also favor allowing gay and lesbian people to marry.
On the issue of abortion, young Republicans’ views are also more aligned with their party than their generation. Overall, a majority (54%) of young Millennials believe that abortion should be legal in most or legal in all cases. Fewer than 3-in-10 (29%) young Republicans say the same. Among Republicans overall, 36% say abortion should be legal.
These findings suggest that Republican Millennials are more out of step with their generation than with their party. Avoiding social issues could be a workable strategy if the goal is to recruit more moderate Millennials. But it also makes sense within a college environment. The New York Times article quotes college students seeking to organize their peers, who are substantially more liberal on social issues than younger Millennials without a college education. For example, only half (50%) of younger Millennials with less than a high school education favor same-sex marriage, compared to 62% of younger Millennials with some college education.
Given these numbers, it seems premature to declare that the Millennial generation is poised to tear the Republican Party away from its socially conservative roots. But it certainly seems wise for young Republicans seeking to draw moderates or college-educated peers to their cause to stay away from social issues. Among these groups, the Republican Party’s position on same-sex marriage might be more of a third rail.