TURES COLUMN: During the debate, the college Republicans resembled the 1980s-1990s GOP

Published 1:57 pm Monday, December 11, 2023

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The fourth and final pre-primary Republican debate took place at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Dec. 6.  I attended the overflow debate watch party in the shadow of Bear Bryant Stadium that night, talking with the college students glued to the screens at the Alabama GOP event, and got a lot of insight from the young attendees, who were quite chatty about their preferences for candidates.  But they were even more interested in which issues were being discussed, and whether the party was paying more attention to people like them.

“The Democrats are way ahead of our party in youth engagement,” one College Republican insisted.  “The party has to start winning over college students, and events like these make a lot of sense.”

How engaged are the young conservative students?  “I didn’t want to get involved,” one told me.  “I was afraid I would put my name on a list, and then get canceled later.”  But then he talked about a political science professor who changed all of that.  “She was pretty moderate, and encouraged us to get involved.  She let us pick issues for us to discuss…we chose gun control and abortion.  She encouraged us not to debate, but to talk about it, and use some critical thinking, and think for ourselves.”  A friend added “More professors should do this.”

Inside the penthouse where the older Alabama GOP attendees watched, any talk during the debate was quickly shushed.  But outside on the balcony where the students hung out, the debate tended to stimulate conversation pretty well.

When I asked them which issue they cared the most about, nearly all responded with “jobs.”  When I pointed out the low unemployment rate, one responded “Well yeah, there are a lot of entry level jobs…at the bottom.  That’s not where I want to start.  For the jobs I want, you need like five years of experience.  Those are pretty hard to find.”

Housing was another primary concern for the younger people gathered around the television to watch the candidates spar.  “I’m worried about not being able to have a job where I can afford to have a house.  I don’t want to wait until I’m 49 before I can afford to have one.”

Though they were college Republicans, the students were far more accepting of immigrants (one of their group was one) as long as they respect the laws, and the group of students tended to support people who are LGBTQ (“my roommate is one,” a student told me), letting people make their choices.   They seemed more confident in the voting system than other Republicans, but were pretty skeptical of wars that might lead Americans to have to fight abroad, but supported steps to allow Ukraine and Taiwan to buy our weapons to defend themselves.

When it came to debate style, most preferred candidates who answered the questions instead of pivoting, and were less enamored with verbal and written attacks (Ramaswamy’s debate prop and one-liners fell flat with this crowd, though one liked his plainspoken language).

The male students generally gravitated to DeSantis and Ramaswamy, while the female students aligned with Nikki Haley.  There wasn’t as much support for Trump, though most admitted they would go with him if he was the nominee.  

“There aren’t many students for Christie,” one laughed.  “Yeah, but he’s playing an important role…keeping the others honest” a friend added.  

NewsNation reporters seemed to follow my lead, picking many of the animated young men and women to interview for their broadcasts after the debate was over.

In perhaps the most popular university in a deep red state, I found these college students to be Republicans, but more like the GOP candidates of old … the kind I supported when I was a College Republican in the 1980s and 1990s.  

To risk alienating this key voting bloc, the remaining candidates would do well to remember this during and after the primary.