WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump refused to explicitly blame white supremacists for violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Republican Emmanuel Wilder couldn’t help but take it personally.
“I try not to let my feelings get ahead of the facts, but in this circumstance, it hurts,” the 30-year-old Wilder, a North Carolina-based African-American involved in GOP outreach efforts, told McClatchy at the time.
Five months later, it’s Trump’s Republican Party that is hurting – with young voters, and significantly, with young Republicans like Wilder, who may like Trump’s tax plan but are deeply bothered by his routinely divisive tone.
As the Trump presidency hits the one-year mark, the Republican Party confronts a yawning generational gap that has been exacerbated in recent months by Trump’s incendiary comments on race-related issues and the party’s official support for an alleged child molester in Alabama’s Senate race.
Now, as few as a quarter of voters under the age of 30 approve of Trump’s job performance. And among young Republicans, Trump’s approval rating has plummeted 12 percentage points since the spring, according to Harvard’s Institute of Politics poll released last month, down to 66 percent. That’s certainly robust, but well below Trump’s overall GOP approval rating, which hovers around 80 percent.
“In a sentence, they are certainly not doing well,” said John Della Volpe, the polling director at the Institute of Politics. “That would be an understatement.”
It’s not that young Republicans are suddenly turning into progressives. To the contrary, those who choose to stay involved on college campuses often rally around Trump, and there is widespread conservative distaste for the protest-happy “resistance” movement.
But interviews with more than a dozen young Republican activists around the country reveal that one year into the Trump era, the party’s long-standing challenges with the next generation of voters are, in many cases, only getting worse.
After Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012, the College Republican National Committee authored its own “autopsy” report, warning that the party had a perception problem with young people in part because of “outrageous statements made by errant Republican voices.”
Now, Republicans hold the White House, but some young conservatives fret that the most “outrageous statements” come from the president himself — especially on issues related to race and diversity.
Last Thursday, according to The Washington Post, Trump expressed a preference for immigrants from countries such as Norway, and demanded, “Why are we having all these people from sh—hole countries come here” — a reference, according to reports, to Haiti, El Salvador and Africa. He later said that “this was not the language used,” but several U.S. senators with knowledge of the meeting stood by the original characterization of his message.
“There are many preconceived notions about Republicans, and hearing words like this … it is attached to the brand,” said Wilder, an activist with the Young Republican National Federation, who said Trump’s comments were shocking and “hard to hear.” “It doesn’t really help in outreach. … Certain situations like this push more Republicans away, push more conservatives away.”
And indeed, according to Della Volpe, in the Harvard IOP survey last month, only 55 percent of Republicans aged 18-29 approved of Trump’s handling of race relations, while 42 percent disapproved (for voters under age 30 overall, a mere 22 percent approved).
Race “seems to be one of the most significant drivers” of Trump’s faltering numbers with young Republicans, Della Volpe said, “with race being the wedge to open up greater divisions in the country.”
The violent August white supremacist march on Charlottesville has faded from the news cycle amid a host of other explosive stories. But young voters remember Trump’s insistence that there was blame for violence “on many sides,” and “both sides,” remarks many in his party saw as shocking instances of false moral equivalence. Several young activists pointed to that moment when asked for their theories on Trump’s struggling poll numbers.
“The Charlottesville situation, that was a big moment,” said Artemio Muniz, who works on outreach with Wilder through the Young Republican National Federation, also known as the Young Republicans. “We were texting each other, figuring out, what can we do as Republicans to show that’s not the Republican Party brand? Even though we understand the microphone President Trump has, we thought, what can we do as young Republicans to explain that’s not the brand we believe in?”
Asked for comment on this story, a Republican National Committee official pointed to RNC programs aimed at young professionals and students and said that interest in those efforts is growing. But the official did not comment on the idea that Trump is struggling with that demographic overall in part because of race-related controversies. A White House spokesman was given nearly a week to respond to requests for comment on this story but did not reply.
Chandler Thornton is aware of the difficulties his party faces with young voters.
“You’re labeled as someone who doesn’t like diversity, is not very open-minded,” said Thornton, the national chairman of the College Republican National Committee, describing the challenges conservatives confront on campus.
But the blame for that faulty perception, in his view, lies not with Trump’s rhetoric but with ultra-leftist campus environments that shut down free speech, stymie civil dialogue and are institutionally biased, problems that have worsened as the progressive movement has grown more energized.
“It’s not really about being liberal, it’s about not being willing to hear the other side,” he said, noting that at some schools, protests over conservative speakers have veered toward violence. “When you look at the younger demographic, it’s very challenging for the party to break through that preexisting bias on campus.”
Still, he said, participation in College Republicans overall is up since the election: “It’s definitely not easy right now to be a College Republican on campus, but it’s an exciting time for those who are.”
Strategists and activists say Republican-leaning young voters are excited about the tax bill that passed late last year, and they can tick off a host of GOP role models aside from Trump who spark enthusiasm, from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Meanwhile, those who are more moderate on immigration are heartened by Trump’s past sympathetic comments about young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers,” hopeful that, for all the bluster, he will eke out what they consider to be a compassionate deal. His legislative agenda overall has broad support from Republican-leaners, activists say, and there are plenty of students who delight in Trump’s rejection of political correctness.
“He’s still delivering on a lot of big campaign promises, despite some of the craziness that’s coming out of Twitter or other media forms,” said John Wood, the president of College Republicans at Liberty University, a major evangelical institution led by Trump ally Jerry Falwell Jr.
But as in the broader Republican Party, there have been fights among college conservatives over the direction of the GOP, and disagreements over how strongly to defend Trump. In 2016, some chapters disavowed him, and not everyone has come back to the fold.
“I’m definitely still a conservative,” said Declan Garvey, who was the president of the Harvard Republican Club during the 2016 cycle, when the organization disavowed Trump. But asked if he still identifies as a Republican, Garvey said, “I hesitate to use the label explicitly. I hope to one day be able to use the word ‘Republican’ proudly again, but as of right now, I’m trying to maintain an independent conservative mindset.”
Hints of the GOP’s generational challenges that have bubbled up in polls and campus anecdotes turned into tangible consequences in last month’s Alabama Senate race.
Despite bipartisan backlash, Trump and the RNC stood by the GOP nominee, Roy Moore, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls. But the Young Republican Federation of Alabama, comprising Republicans between the ages of 18 and 40, abandoned him.
It was a move that reflected young voters’ attitudes across Alabama: While Obama landed only 48 percent of young voters in Alabama in 2012, Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, won a resounding 60 percent in one of the reddest states in the nation. He went on to win the seat.
The laws of political gravity may not apply to Trump when it comes to his devoted base, but they do to everyone else, warned Zach Weidlich, the chairman of the College Republican Federation of Alabama.
“For (Trump’s) sake, for the party’s sake, we could serve ourselves better without quite so much bombastic style, but at the same time, that’s what electrifies his base, it works for him,” he said. “But long term, it’s not the best plan for growth and success. I don’t think other Republican candidates and officials would be very smart to fully embrace that kind of Trump style. With Moore, it didn’t really work for him.”
As the midterms heat up and Trump-related controversies continue to overshadow other political messaging, some young Republicans are ringing the alarm bells as they seek to bring new voters into the fold — while trying to keep current members from breaking away in an uncertain and volatile environment.
“There are some individuals that believe the best way to help the party is to always advocate for the party, no matter what,” said Muniz, Wilder’s Young Republicans colleague. “Me? I’m looking to win.”
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