A luncheon last month in Charlotte, N.C., explored how Republicans can attract young voters.
By SUSAN SAULNY
“Social issues are far down the priorities list, and I think that’s the trend,” Mr. Hoagland, 27, said. “That’s where it needs to go if the Republican Party is going to be successful.”
Zoey Kotzambasis, vice president of the College Republicans at the University of Arizona, considers herself a conservative. But she supports both same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Those are not just her opinions.
“A lot of the College Republicans I know share the same liberal-to-moderate social views,” she added. “And I think that’s changing the face of the party.”
In a break from generations past and with an eye toward the future, many of the youngest leaders of the Republican Party are embracing views on some social issues that are at odds with traditional conservative ideology — if they mention such issues at all, according to interviews, experts and some polling.
“When it comes to what you do in your bedroom, or where you go to church, or where you want to put a tattoo, we just couldn’t care less,” Mr. Hoagland said at a meeting last month of young Republicans in Charlotte.
And some social conservatives say they are deliberately playing down their own views on issues as a tactical move to attract more young voters to the Republican Party.
Polls show that Americans under 30 are the least likely to identify as Republican, and those in the millennial generation support President Obama by a wide margin. But in an effort to win votes by capitalizing on disenchantment with the recession and its slow recovery, Republicans are placing a renewed emphasis on fiscal issues, with hopes of energizing their young people — a group that had one of the lowest turnout levels in the history of presidential elections in 2008 and did not turn out in strong numbers in this year’s primaries.
“I would prefer that Mitt Romney leave social issues sort of alone, because I do disagree with him on those things,” said Ms. Kotzambasis, whose group, like many others, operates mostly independent of any national party oversight. “He keeps saying that the first things he’ll tackle are health care and the economy, and I hope he tackles the economy. I’m graduating in a couple years, and it’s pretty dismal where I am.”
What has become the norm, some experts say, is for young Republicans to take a cafeteria-style approach to issues that are important to them. And some established leaders see that as a boon to their party.
“My theory is that, just as young people don’t have to buy a whole album on iTunes and can pick and choose just the songs they like, they can customize their political views — and they do,” said Kristen Soltis, a Republican pollster who is the communications adviser to Crossroads Generation, a new pro-Romney “super PAC” aimed at young voters.
In her outreach to social moderates, Amelia Lutz, vice chairwoman of the Missouri College Republicans, calls her particular group “a welcoming, big-tent party.”
A poll this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that the percentage of Republicans ages 18 through 29 who favor same-sex marriage has grown to 37 percent, up from 28 percent eight years ago.
“The students I know who are conservative are far less so on social issues than our parents,” Ms. Kotzambasis, 19, said. “People are more accepting of different lifestyles.”
Younger Republicans are also the most likely members of the party to say that “more people of different races marrying each other” and “more women in the work force” have been changes for the better, according to a separate Pew study conducted last year.
Republican leaders also hope to tap into what they see as a growing libertarian streak among young conservatives — the same energy that Representative Ron Paul of Texas rode with some success through the early primaries, with a strong emphasis on minimalist government and individual freedoms.
Those ideas may complement long-established ideals about deficit reduction and cutting the size of government, issues on which young Republicans do not differ much from older generations of Republicans, experts said.
Asked what she thought would be the most effective message to reach young Republicans, Ms. Soltis echoed Ms. Kotzambasis: “Jobs, jobs, jobs could be it.”
All of their characteristics taken together, young Republicans present a nuanced mix of political ideals that may well change the face of the party over time, experts say. “There has to be room for them or the Republican Party won’t exist, at the pace this generation is evolving,” said John Della Volpe, polling director at the Harvard Institute of Politics.
With Mr. Obama currently leading Mr. Romney among Americans under 30 by 21 percentage points, according to the most recent Gallup poll, some Republican advisers said they would consider it a success if the margin shrinks by 10 points. “In some of these swing states, that could really be decisive,” Ms. Soltis said.
North Carolina is one such state. In McLeansville, 20-year-old Eddie Souther has founded a new Republican youth group, the Collegiate Informed Voters of Guilford County, that is reaching out to students in Spanish and Arabic as well as English, hoping to cast the widest possible net for Mr. Romney.
“We have a pretty significant Hispanic and Muslim population here,” Mr. Souther said, “and I’m just thinking about the future of the United States.”
Some young conservatives, Mr. Souther among them, continue to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage but say they are playing down their personal views because they have made the calculation that such issues will not be a factor in this year’s races.
Mr. Souther’s month-old group is going to be pushing on the economy and jobs, he said.
“I’m definitely socially conservative,” he said. “I’m not for gay marriage or abortion. But those are not issues that we feel are going to be moved or dramatically changed in any way.”
Other young Republicans spoke with passion about how their values had evolved over the past several years, especially while in college.
Ms. Kotzambasis, at the University of Arizona, said she was “accepting pro-life arguments” in the seventh and eighth grades. “But when I went through puberty and became a young woman,” she said, “I realized I didn’t know what I would do in that situation, so I couldn’t judge someone else’s choices.”
At least two members of her College Republican group, one of whom is a lifelong friend, recently revealed that they are gay, she said. And the open discussions that ensued greatly influenced the entire club, and solidified Ms. Kotzambasis’s own view.
“I think people have become much more at ease and comfortable about it,” she said. “Honestly, there’s about zero judgment from the people in our club, and I think that reflects the direction my generation wants to take the party in.”