Perry's Path to Victory: WWRRD?

Reagan Campaign Postcard

I want to let you know that I am one of the many thousands of young people who are working hard to elect Ronald Reagan president of the United States. Our country needs the changes Governor Reagan has proposed. And we surely can’t afford four more years of national decline under Jimmy Carter. I would appreciate it if, as a favor to me and to America,  you will vote for Reagan for President on November 4.

Erick has occupied considerable bandwith in recent weeks telling the Perry campaign it’s time to reboot. Beyond his suggestions for staff adjustments, this diary offers some more specific, strategic suggestions. But let me begin by saying I have no special expertise* except that I’m the mother of a Hillsdale College student who is active in his school’s College Republicans (currently a Perry supporter) and another son who is a high school senior who will cast his first vote on Super Tuesday in Ohio. Both were homeschooled for the majority of their education. I’ve also worked as a volunteer on a lot of campaigns, both old school grassroots and new media, in Ohio, an important swing state, for what that’s worth.

WWRRD – What Would Ronald Reagan Do?

In a 2007 article at the Media Research Center, Brent Bozell III described President Reagan’s astounding success among young voters and the GOP’s subsequent decline with this age group:

“In a [1984] pre-election poll taken for Time magazine, voters aged 18 to 24 said they were backing or leaning toward Reagan by a margin of 45 points – 63 percent to 18 – a lead nearly ten points wider than in any other age bracket….

“… But since then, young voters have swung dramatically and solidly toward the Democrats. CNN exit polls in 2004 showed that John Kerry beat Bush only among voters under 30 (by a 54 to 45 percent margin). In the 2006 elections, young voters gave Democrats a whopping advantage of 60 to 38 percent, far more than any other age group. “

Clearly, the Republicans have a lot of ground to regain. The U.S. Census Bureau tells us there are some 21 million 20-24 year olds in this country – 7% of the population (no details on whether this includes only eligible voters).  Most of these weren’t eligible to vote in 2000 and many are not yet registered voters.

Reagan recognized the advantage of courting this age group and used their enthusiasm (and manpower) to his advantage. Time is short, but with modern technology, Governor Perry can replicate Reagan’s efforts and gain an advantage over his competitors that could provide a path to the GOP nomination.

President Reagan Greeted Mary Lou Retton Los Angele
“There is a new patriotism spreading across our country. So when you're put there, set your sights high . . . Then go for it! Do it for yourselves, for your families, for your country and . . .do it for the Gipper.”

The “Millennials” flocked to Obama in the last presidential election because he offered them hope and change and an iconic vision for the future.  In many ways, it’s similar to what Carter offered the country after the scandal of the Nixon administration and the leftover frustrations of the Vietnam War. Carter didn’t deliver on his promise of a kinder and gentler world. Malaise and the Cold War wasn’t what America signed up for. Reagan came along and inspired and encouraged an entire nation and the youth he won in 1980 continue to vote Republican today.

Currently, Ron Paul is the only GOP candidate actively courting  young voters and he’s attracting libertarians, disenchanted Obama voters, anti-war activist,  and new voters who aren’t really sure what they believe.  While many of Paul’s followers are surely ideological purists, much of his success in the polls and in Iowa can be attributed to a group of young voters who just want someone (or something) to believe in and a movement they can belong to or a way to make their world a better place.

Conservatives can and must take back the youth vote and I believe Gov. Perry is the one who can do it. Both his personal charisma and his straight-talking, authentic style will appeal to young voters and on substance, there is room for Perry to convince this generation that conservative, free-market principals are the way to make the world a better place and to inspire them to see, as Hillsdale College’s President Dr. Larry Arnn is fond of saying, the good, the true, and the beautiful in America.

So what did Reagan do and What Would Reagan Do in 2012?

In 1986, Reagan was halfway through his second term and mindful that the GOP still needed to court the youth vote. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote:

“The President plans to meet with groups of high school and college students about once a week for at least the next two months to maintain his special relationship with them and to preach his conservative philosophy. On May 13, for example, he met at the White House with a group of high school seniors from North Carolina, and last week he met with another group of students in a session that was televised live to high schools across the country.”

The Inquirer continued with some comments from then-White House Communications Director Pat Buchanan, who said that apart from a desire to establish “a conservative dynasty,” Reagan was fond of doing question-and-answer sessions with young people.

“We’re working with various formats and testing them out, and when we come to the ideal one, we may do it on a more regular basis. It’s something the President likes. He has great rapport with young people.”

Dennis Thomas, another senior presidential assistant, said that the administration was trying to “redefine the role of government” and that young people may be the most receptive to Reagan’s philosophy of less government involvement:

“If we can achieve a national philosophy that is more in line with Ronald Reagan’s view of the world, then we’ll have a continuing and a more permanent legacy. That’s the purpose of what we’re trying to do with young people.”

Gov. Perry can do this, too. Of course, he doesn’t have the luxury of hanging out on college campuses seven days a week, but he can recruit scores of students who do have that luxury.  He can recruit them by speaking on campuses and surrounding himself with young supporters. Begin to change the narrative that Ron Paul and Meghan McCain represent the youth wing and the future of the GOP. It’s not true and their loudmouthed followers shouldn’t get to define that for conservatives.

The Perry campaign should immediately use part of whatever is left of his cash stash to hire someone to contact the College Republicans (CR), Students in Free Enterprise and every other group of conservative young people they can think of at every school, beginning with S. Carolina and Florida. Secure invitations through these groups to speak at as many schools as possible between now and Super Tuesday (I’m partial to Hillsdale!), but most important, reach out to them. Find students who would be willing to join a special “Students for Perry” team that would receive special emails and text alerts .(My inside expert tells me twice a week is perfect). Let them know they will be receiving special assignments and – this is very important – don’t drop the ball.  This age group is looking for authenticity, so do what you say you will do.

Ron Paul’s people are already doing this because they understand that this age group is not watching TV ads, they do not read mailers, and they are not watching the debates. They are hearing about candidates on Jimmy Fallon and Jon Stewart right now. But Perry can change that if he starts speaking to them directly and creating a volunteer network across the country that will engage in grassroots campaigning via new media targeted to their age group (see Obama: 2010). Imagine if every college campus – or even 20% of them – had a “Students for Perry” group with Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. The impact could be enormous.

A word on messaging…

A 2010 Pew Forum study on religion, politics and social issues found that the Millennial generation is less likely to attend church than their parents, more likely to approve of gay marriage, and more likely to approve of big government solutions to social problems.

So, should Perry change his positions to win their votes?  No, silly, that’s Romney’s job! As Reagan did, Perry should “redefine the role of government” so that “young people may be the most receptive to our philosophy of less government involvement.” He should look them in the eye, and as he does better than any other candidate in the race, explain to them that they live in the greatest, most exceptional country in the world and then teach them how we came to be that way.

This generation appreciates and understands stories and narrative rather than charts, graphs, and statistics. They must be taught about “Peace through Strength” by telling them a compelling story of a child suffering in E. Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. They must learn about life before the Cold War ended by hearing stories of American children crouching beneath their desks practicing for the nuclear holocaust in Texas and families digging bomb shelters in their backyards in S. Carolina.  Most of them never learned that in school and don’t understand that the doctrine of “Peace through Strength” makes America – and the world – a safer place.

That’s how we win back the young Ron Paul supporters in the arena of ideas and the way we lure the #Occupy kids out of their tents in the streets.

Finally, the sweatshop of the conservative movement…

A couple years ago my son, Ryan, and I  attended a Leadership Institute Youth Leadership School.  They were kind enough to let me tag along for free, since I was the driver.  First rate organization, first rate training. I learned more useful campaigning skills that weekend than I had in 20 years of active campaigning.  Adam Guillette, who led our class that weekend said this:

“Homeschoolers are the sweatshop of the conservative movement.”

Now, an overly sensitive homeschooler might have been offended, but Ryan and I knew it was true. We had worked in the trenches on campaigns with other homeschoolers and we knew about this valuable resource. In fact, not long after that class, we worked with a bunch of homeschoolers to help run a primary campaign for a congressional candidate. He didn’t really stand a chance against a millionaire car dealer, but we put up a decent effort with almost no money and 5 competitors. My son, then in high school, ran the youth campaign and he and his friend, also in high school, designed the website (yes, shameless bragging).

It seems Rick Santorum learned this secret and used it to his advantage in Iowa.  There has been an explosion of homeschool graduates in the past several years and studies have shown that they are more likely to vote, attend public meetings and work on campaigns. Clearly, they tend to be awfully good at reproducing (see: The Duggers) and have much more control over their time than families with kids in school. [Important note: don’t even THINK about trying to get your grubby paws on the mailing list. Even if you get it, if you spam the list it will backfire in ways approaching biblical proportions. Ask Michele.]

So while Gov. Perry’s youth liaison is working on tracking down those groups, he should have someone tracking down the leaders of homeschool groups in important states. The conversations should go something like this:

“I’m a former homeschooler and I’m with Gov. Perry’s campaign. I understand that you may not have made up your mind about this election but I’d like to invite you to join his special email list for homeschooling leaders. As you may know, Texas is one of the most free states in the country for homeschooling.  A President Perry would love to spread that message of freedom for homeschoolers across the country. And by the way, we’ve prepared a packet of educational material and coloring sheets about the primaries for the kids. Would you like us to email it to you and your members?”

[Ryan suggests they should offer coloring sheets on firearm safety…I didn’t raise no dummy!]

Then send a personal invitation to Perry’s next nearby town hall to that leader and all 9 of his children.  Congratulations. You have just launched the “sweatshop of the conservative movement” in that city.

These suggestions may seem counter-intuitive in this day and age of huge, expensive media buys and the traditional path of mailers and coveted endorsements.  Courting the youth vote doesn’t involve a huge financial investment, but, rather, a change of mindset and vision. As author Suzy Welch recently said on Piers Morgan:

“People end up voting on the the humanity of the candidate. They look at the two people and they say, ‘Who do I trust more to get us out of the mess we’re in?'”

This is more true of young people than of any other age group. And if they can be inspired, find causes or candidates to believe in, they will walk across hot coals or sleep in tents on city streets for them. When my 20-year-old watched Gov. Perry’s rousing speech from the Hannity’s Freedom concert he was inspired.  Perry’s American exceptionalism spoke to him as Reagan’s spoke to me when I cast my first vote in 1984, not knowing then whether I was a Republican or a Democrat.  I believe Perry can do for the conservatism what Reagan did for it in the 80’s.  I hope he doesn’t let the opportunity pass him by.

Ryan Bolyard contributed to this diary.

*Disclaimer: I’m an Ohio delegate for Gov. Perry.