It’s a cliché that young people reject their parents’ ideas. But as 2024 approaches, that goes for political candidates too.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has found favor with younger Republican voters across the country, even as former President Donald Trump holds a commanding lead in the field of GOP White House hopefuls.
Conservatives in their teens, twenties and thirties told USA TODAY they thought DeSantis was one of two winners of the first GOP debate last month, along with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. The Florida governor narrowly beat Trump, 36.6% to 35.4%, in an informal straw poll of about 300 attendees at the National Young Republicans Convention in Dallas, Texas, in August.
“I think for young Republicans, it’s very clear who their favorite is,” William Atkins, a freshman at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said.
Ron DeSantis offers a ‘palatable alternative’ to Donald Trump
Despite her own approval of Haley’s debate performance, Lauren Langas, vice chairwoman of the Texas Young Republicans, said the race is primarily a “dogfight” between the Florida governor and former president.
“It’s a Trump, DeSantis race to the top, and not to be disenfranchising to any of the other candidates, but I feel like they’re all just kind of participating in a spectator sport,” Langas said. “We know who the frontrunners are.”
Trump continues to lead in Republican primary polls, by almost 40 percentage points over DeSantis in some recent surveys.
But pockets of young voters are showing their support for the Florida governor. For example, a poll of about 90 high school activists at a leadership program in March in Naples, Florida, showed DeSantis beating Trump 54% to 45%, Atkins explained.
The founder and former chairman of the High School Republican National Federation, Atkins, 18, said he thinks Trump on the ballot next November will hurt the party’s overall chances.
“If he is the nominee, we’ll probably lose the House of Representatives. We won’t win as many seats in the Senate as we hope. And we’re not even going to end up winning the White House,” he said. “So really, if we want to win in 2024 and if we want to make a change, we need to nominate somebody who appeals to the broader American public.”
His concerns are shared by Rafael Struve, communications director for the Texas Young Republicans. He said the former president’s legal battles may not bode well for Republicans in a general election. Trump has been indicted on four sets of criminal charges this year, including allegations he tried to steal the 2020 presidential election.
“We really do need independents and moderates to sway in our direction,” Struve, 31, said. “A lot of folks like myself – I am a two-time Trump voter – see the record of Governor DeSantis … and young voters are starting to see it as more of a palatable alternative.”
Struve, another DeSantis supporter, said the Florida governor offers a conservative policy platform, like Trump, but with a more agreeable leadership style.
“(Trump) sort of shook up what was maybe perceived as sort of an establishment zombie culture,” Struve said. “But I think there’s this need, there’s a desire of return to sanity.”
DeSantis’s age, experience appeal to a younger base
Questions of age swirl around next year’s election.
President Joe Biden, who is seeking reelection to his second term, will be 81 by November 2024. He’s potentially facing a rematch against Trump, who would be 78.
Concerns about the age and health of the nation’s leaders flared most recently when Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had his second public health scare in weeks, having to be helped by aides after freezing in front of a gaggle of reporters in Kentucky.
Many younger Republicans are keeping age in mind when assessing a field of candidates ranging from 38 to 77 years old, Struve said.
“The youth factor is something that is relatable to younger voters because they are nervous about the idea of having somebody who is older and might be more susceptible to health complications during their time in office,” he said.
“We really do need folks who have the energy, who have the vigor necessary to be able to tackle a lot of daunting challenges once they take the White House,” Struve added.
As the only millennial candidate in the mix, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy may have an advantage in appealing to constituents closer to him in age, Struve said.
The flipside, Langas said, is Ramaswamy’s lack of political experience compared to other Republicans running for office.
“It’s a very hard line to find that balance between where do you take policy and principle and track record? And then weigh it against: are they going to be able to see through their office? Are they going to have health complications?” Langas said.
A potential happy medium: DeSantis, who, at 44 years old, has held public office for a decade.
“We have a real chance to accomplish a lot of the things that the Make America Great Again movement wanted to accomplish, through somebody who has shown that he can get it done and has the youth, stamina and endurance to actually get it done in Governor Ron DeSantis,” Struve said.
Some young Republicans are still keeping an open mind
Among younger voters in South Carolina’s largest city, the current GOP favorites are DeSantis, Trump, Haley and another home state candidate, Sen. Tim Scott, said Garrett Lacy, chairman of the Greater Charleston Young Republicans.
“I haven’t necessarily seen a candidate captivate truly younger Republicans,” Lacy, a 27-year-old owner of a fishing guide business, said, based on his attendance at local political events in the crucial early voting state.
And there is far from a consensus on DeSantis in the politically purple port city, he said.
“There’s only a couple that are true Team DeSantis,” Lacy said of his peers.
Upstate in Greenville, South Carolina, DeSantis fared well with a crowd of young conservatives who gathered to watch the first Republican debate last month. About 60% said the governor was their first choice for president, and 40% said he was their second choice in a straw poll at the end of the night.
Still, several voters at the watch party said they would vote for whichever Republican is on the ballot next fall.
“Everyone on that stage, with the exception of maybe two people … I would still support them over a Democrat any day … even those two,” said Pedro Mateo, 28 and a retirement specialist, told USA TODAY ahead of the first debate.
Mateo is chairman of the political engagement committee for Young Greenville, a Republican group and host of the watch party.
Torn between Haley, DeSantis and Trump, Langas said she is waiting until closer to the election to pick a candidate.
“At this point, it’s really just Trump versus the other candidates,” she said. “There’s just really no middle ground. So, we need to figure out what the other candidates bring to the table and compare it to Trump’s track record and then make a decision from there.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: These young Republicans want Ron DeSantis for 2024, not Donald Trump