Photo of Vivek Ramaswamy at the Iowa State Fair by Greg Hauenstein, whose other Iowa political photography can be found here.
“Good things are going to happen in this country, and it just might take a different generation to help lead us there,” Vivek Ramaswamy said a few minutes into his “fair-side chat” with Governor Kim Reynolds on August 12. The youngest candidate in the GOP presidential field (he turned 38 last week) regularly reminds audiences that he is the first millennial to run for president as a Republican.
Speaking to reporters after the chat, Ramaswamy asserted, “it takes a person of a different generation to reach the next generation.” He expressed doubt that “an octogenarian can reinspire and reignite pride in the next generation,” and said his “fresh legs” can reach young voters by “leading us to something” instead of “running from something.”
But the candidate’s talking points—especially the “ten commandments” that typically cap his stump speech—are a better fit for an older demographic than for the young voters Republicans have been alienating for the past 20 years.
A YOUTH VOTE PARADOX
During his “fair-side chat,” Ramaswamy said young people would be the difference between a Republican candidate winning with 50.1 percent of the vote and one winning in a landslide. He’s right in one sense: Republicans who won the presidency in landslides during the 20th century—Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush—all carried the youth vote.
On the flip side (which Ramaswamy didn’t mention), the GOP nominee has won the popular vote in just one presidential election since the elder Bush’s victory in 1988.
To reverse that trend, Republicans will need to make inroads with younger voters. Millennials have favored Democratic candidates for president and Congress since they became old enough to vote, and “Gen Z” is following suit. Even worse for Republicans, millennials do not appear to be drifting away from Democrats as they approach middle age.
Ramaswamy argued he can deliver a mandate for conservative governance, telling the fair-side chat audience, “Forty percent of my 70,000 donors to this campaign are first-time ever donors to the Republican Party in any form, compared to 2 percent normally. We’re bringing young people along with us in droves.”
But here’s the thing: a large majority of Iowa GOP caucus-goers are Gen X or older.
The Republican Party of Iowa does not publish details about caucus-goer demographics, but entrance or exit polls from the last three competitive caucuses give us a rough idea. Those surveys indicate that GOP caucus-goers under age 45 comprised only about 28 percent of participants in 2016, about 31 percent in 2012, and about 26 percent in 2008.
Although voters over age 65 usually make up the largest group in an Iowa Republican primary election (see official statistics from 2018, 2020, and 2022), the largest age group attending GOP caucuses is typically the cohort between the ages of 45 and 64. They made up an estimated 46 percent of GOP participants in the 2016 caucuses, 42 percent in 2012, and 46 percent in 2008, according to entrance or exit poll data.
The lack of an absentee ballot option for the caucuses disenfranchises those who have limited mobility, can’t drive, don’t drive at night, or spend the winter months in a warmer climate—all of which depresses turnout among the oldest voters. Even so, Iowans aged 65 or older comprised at least a quarter of GOP caucus-goers in 2016, 2012, and 2008.
If millennials and Gen Z combined make up more than a third of next year’s Republican caucus participants, I’ll be surprised.
That means Ramaswamy needs to sell his vision for expanding the GOP’s youth appeal to a mostly middle-aged or older audience.
Enter the “truths” that anchor all of the candidate’s stump speeches.
“THIS IS A CAMPAIGN FOUNDED ON SPEAKING THE TRUTH”
Older people have been complaining about “kids these days” in one form or another for centuries. But Ramaswamy is the first young candidate I can recall who builds rapport by talking about what afflicts his own generation. He generated a lot of free media coverage in May with a proposal to raise the voting age to 25, allowing people to vote at age 18 if they are military service members, first responders, or can pass a civics test (which is probably unconstitutional).
At last month’s Lincoln Dinner fundraiser and during his Iowa State Fair appearances with Reynolds and on the Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox, Ramaswamy warned about the “spiritual void” facing younger Americans who are “hungry for a cause” and “starved for purpose.”
On the soapbox, he asserted that “faith, patriotism, hard work, family” have disappeared, giving way to “poison” such as “woke-ism, gender ideology, climate-ism, COVID-ism, depression, anxiety, fentanyl, suicide,” and other “symptoms of a deeper void.”
Some millennial or Gen Z Republican politicians have advocated for the party to address this problem by highlighting issues that matter to young voters, such as the environment or making housing and higher education more affordable. Speaking to NPR earlier this year, Iowa State University student David Hora called on Republicans to appeal to young people by focusing on finances and the economy. He characterized abortion, gun control, and immigration as distractions.
Ramaswamy has a different idea. The GOP needs a “moral mandate” to deliver a landslide victory like Reagan’s. Young people know when they’re being lied to, he told Reynolds. So “this is a campaign founded on speaking the truth,” in particular the “hard truths.” As is the case with rival presidential candidate Nikki Haley, Ramaswamy’s “hard truths” don’t include anything that might upset conservative audiences.
In any event, truth-telling is now a big part of Ramaswamy’s brand. The campaign’s caps feature the word “TRUTH” rather than the candidate’s name, and the yard signs with “TRUTH” in larger typeface than “VIVEK,” reminded me of how Andrew Yang used “MATH” for his 2020 presidential bid. Caps and signs were on display at the Iowa GOP’s state fair booth on August 11. (The party is giving each presidential candidate one day to use part of its space in the Varied Industries Building.)
Photo first posted on the Iowa GOP’s Twitter feed, August 11
The candidate wore a “TRUTH” cap for most of the day at the fair on August 12.
Photo by Greg Hauenstein of Vivek Ramaswamy at the Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox
If we’re being precise, Ramaswamy is using the wrong word. The “truth” he presents is not a set of facts that can be verified. It’s a list of contentious beliefs grounded in a specific ideological and religious worldview.
But as political rhetoric, it consistently resonates with Iowa Republican audiences.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF VIVEK RAMASWAMY
Ramaswamy was already a talented public speaker at age 18. Two decades later, he is a natural on the stump. He isn’t afraid to answer audience questions. Even when he follows the same general outline for his prepared remarks, he doesn’t sound as though he were reciting a memorized script verbatim.
But there is one section of his stump speech that he delivers exactly the same way, every time. On social media, many people have jokingly called these precepts his “ten commandments.” The display his campaign prepared for the Iowa GOP’s state fair booth (pictured above) leaned into that imagery. You can see the two large banners better in this photo, posted by Washington Post reporter Dylan Wells.
Ramaswamy builds up to these statements and presents them as a way to reach young voters by speaking the truth “without apology.” But in almost every case, the messages seem better tailored to an older audience. Taking them in turn:
1. “God is real.”
Compared to Gen X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation, millennials are less likely to believe in God, attend religious services regularly, or have any religious affiliation. A nationwide survey from late 2021 indicated that Gen Z “is the least religious generation yet.” They are also “far more likely to identify as atheist or agnostic.”
If Ramaswamy were focused on bringing young voters back to the fold, a sharp critique of secularism would be an odd place to begin. But it’s a great way to establish bona fides with the important social conservative wing of the Iowa GOP. As quoted by NBC News last month:
“I’m a person of faith. Evangelical Christians across the state are also people of faith,” he said. “We found commonality in our need to defend religious liberty, to stand for faith and patriotism and stand unapologetically for the fact that we are one nation under God.”
Ramaswamy is Hindu but attended a Catholic high school and often refers to Bible stories at his campaign events. He has depicted his religious beliefs as “overlapping with Judeo-Christian values” and has characterized the U.S. as being founded on “Christian values.”
2. “There are two genders.”
Republicans in Iowa and elsewhere are increasingly determined to punch down on transgender people. Ramaswamy has called for treating gender dysphoria as a mental illness.
But young Americans are more likely than previous generations to identify as part of the LGBTQ community. A solid majority support LGBTQ rights. Data collected in 2020 and 2021 suggested growing belief among younger people that there are more than two genders. A Pew Research Center survey from 2022 indicated,
Half of adults ages 18 to 29 say someone can be a man or a woman even if that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. This compares with about four-in-ten of those ages 30 to 49 and about a third of those 50 and older. Adults younger than 30 are also more likely than older adults to say society hasn’t gone far enough in accepting people who are transgender (47% vs. 39% of 30- to 49-year-olds and 31% of those 50 and older)
A Pew survey from 2020 found about half of millennials and 59 percent of Gen Z said that when a “form or online profile asks about a person’s gender it should include options other than ‘man’ and ‘woman.'”
A different study last year found, “Nearly two-thirds of Generation Z is worried about the future of LGBTQ+ rights, including a quarter who say they are ‘extremely concerned.'” Since then, Republican-controlled states (including Iowa) have enacted many more discriminatory laws.
3. “Fossil fuels are a requirement for human prosperity.”
It’s odd to rule out any possibility that technological advances could make fossil fuels obsolete. What if scientists crack the code on nuclear fusion someday?
Anyway, this “truth” dovetails with Ramaswamy’s insistence at the state fair that “The climate change industry is a hoax.” The Des Moines Register quoted from his news conference after his soapbox remarks.
“We’re abandoning the anti-carbon agenda in this country,” Ramaswamy said. “We will drill more, we will frack more, we will burn more coal, we will use ethanol, we will use nuclear energy without apologizing for who we are as Americans.”
For older voters, that may sound convincing. But polls have consistently shown millennials and Gen Z are more likely than their elders to support government policies to address climate change. A Pew survey from 2021 demonstrated that even among self-identified Republicans, there is no consensus on this issue.
Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, younger adults are much less inclined than their older counterparts to support the increased use of fossil fuel energy sources. For example, Gen Z Republicans are 30 percentage points less likely than Baby Boomer and older Republicans (44% vs. 74%) to favor more hydraulic fracturing, the primary extraction technique for natural gas. There are similar generational divides among Republicans over expanding offshore oil and gas drilling, as well as coal mining.
The latest Harvard Youth Poll cited views on climate change as an example of “a significant shift toward young Americans favoring more progressive government interventions.” When respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 were asked whether “Government should do more to curb climate change, even at the expense of economic growth,” net agreement was 29 percent in the 2013 survey but 50 percent this year.
4. “Reverse racism is racism.”
Republicans have been riding the white grievance horse for a lot of election cycles, and some 97 percent of Iowa GOP caucus-goers are white, according to past exit polls. So it’s not surprising Ramaswamy would imply white people are just as much victims of “identity politics” as people whose families faced discrimination for generations. (This year’s large GOP presidential field includes four candidates of color who deny systemic racism exists in the U.S.)
A Pew report from 2018 found a generation gap here as well. Millennials were far more likely than older cohorts to cite racial discrimination as “the main reason” many Black people cannot get ahead in the U.S. “Among the public overall, nonwhites are more likely than whites to say that racial discrimination is the main factor holding back African Americans. Yet more white Millennials than older whites express this view.”
5. “An open border is not a border.”
Republican politicians have been demagoguing about the southern border for many years. Reynolds recently deployed Iowa National Guard troops to Texas for the month of August and will send state troopers just before Labor Day, one of the deadliest holidays on the roads.
A Public Religion Research Institute survey from 2020 found that “across-the-board Gen Zers are more supportive of pro-immigration positions than Millennials and older adults.”
As for millennials, Pew found yet another big generation gap in 2019.
Three-quarters of Millennials (75%) say immigrants strengthen rather than burden the U.S. That compares with 63% of Gen Xers, 52% of Baby Boomers and 44% in the Silent Generation. In 1994, roughly comparable shares of Gen Xers, Boomers and Silents expressed positive views of immigrants.
Generational differences are evident in both parties but are particularly stark among Republicans. More than half of Millennial Republicans (58%) say immigrants strengthen the country, compared with just 36% of Gen Xer Republicans and even smaller shares among older GOP generations.
Ramaswamy does distinguish between legal immigrants (like his parents) and those who entered the U.S. without authorization. But this issue is more likely to galvanize older voters than young ones. In a fascinating analysis of how generational change now “divides the GOP,” Morley Winograd and Michael Hais wrote in April about key findings of a Pew Research Center survey from October 2022.
When voters were asked by Pew a month before the 2022 election to rank the importance of a variety of issues in the 2022 campaign, the answers for three of Republican’s favorite topics — immigration, violent crime and gun policy — revealed these generational differences most clearly. For example, 81% of older Republicans thought immigration was a very important issue, but surprisingly for an issue that has generated so much attention and excitement among Fox News viewers and GOP campaigners, less than half of Republicans under the age of 45 thought it was a very important issue. The percentage of younger Republicans who called the issue very important (49%) was closer to responses from Democrats under the age of 45 (35%) and older Democrats (38%) than it was to older Republicans.
6. “Parents determine the education of their children.”
Again, Ramaswamy is tapping into the current Republican zeitgeist. But younger voters are more likely to have read the books GOP politicians seek to ban from schools. And an NPR/Ipsos poll released in June of this year didn’t break down the numbers by age cohort, but found that even among Republican respondents, many opposed state laws banning certain books from schools or restricting topics teachers can discuss with students.
Incidentally, Reynolds boasted during her chat with Ramaswamy that Iowa “said no” to Critical Race Theory “being taught in our classrooms.” The 2021 law she had in mind did not mention Critical Race Theory.
7. “The nuclear family is the best-known form of governance to mankind.”
To my ear, this is the strangest of Ramaswamy’s “truths.” The nuclear family does not fulfill government functions. And in the context of human history, it’s a fairly recent invention. Multigenerational households were common in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries.
While many Americans are forced into multigenerational living arrangements due to financial stresses or caregiving needs, many families prefer that arrangement. Pew found in 2021 (emphasis in original),
More adults living in multigenerational households say the experience has been very positive (30%) or somewhat positive (27%) than say it has been somewhat negative (14%) or very negative (3%). An additional 26% say it has been neither. About half or more of those living with adult relatives other than a spouse or partner say it is convenient (58%) or rewarding (54%) all or most of the time. About a quarter (23%) say it is stressful all or most of the time, 40% say it is stressful some of the time and 36% say it is rarely or never stressful.
Pew also found that unemployed or disabled people living in multigenerational households were less likely to be poor than counterparts in other types of households.
Ramaswamy is entitled to his opinion, of course, and most Americans live in nuclear family households. But it’s hardly a perfect living arrangement for everyone.
8. “Capitalism is the best system known to man to lift people up from poverty.”
Again, a more popular statement with older Americans than young ones. The most recent Harvard Youth Poll (released this spring) identified “a significant shift toward young Americans favoring more progressive government interventions.” For example, 42 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed in 2013 said “Basic health insurance is a right for all people, and if someone has no means of paying for it, the government should provide it.” In this year’s survey, 65 percent agreed.
Similarly, from 2013 to 2023 there was a huge jump in young people agreeing with the idea that the government should spend more to reduce poverty and provide necessities like food and shelter to all people who can’t pay for essentials.
9. “There are three branches of government—not four.”
This one makes me laugh every time. Ramaswamy’s talking about the so-called “Deep State,” which he promises to address by laying off 75 percent of the federal workforce and eliminating agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service, Centers for Disease Control, and Department of Education.
What he depicts as a fourth branch of government is actually part of the executive branch. Some GOP candidates have talked about axing the education department since the 1980s, and Republicans in Congress have done their best to defund the IRS for many years, but shutting down the CDC and FBI is a relatively new obsession within the GOP base.
I’m not aware of any polling on this issue, and I am skeptical that this slogan is a big draw for young voters. But echoing Trump’s complaints about a corrupt government seems to be working well for Ramaswamy, who has risen to third place in national polling averages, ahead of much better-known politicians like Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Chris Christie. Writing at Slate today, Alexander Sammon makes a persuasive case that Ramaswamy surged in the polls by positioning himself as “the most pro-Trump candidate” in the field during this season of indictments.
At the Iowa State Fair, Ramaswamy didn’t repeat his promise to pardon the former president, but he assailed the “deep state” and repeated other tropes that are staples for Trump and his loyalists.
10. “The U.S. Constitution is the strongest guarantor of freedom in human history.”
Not for those who were designated as three-fifths of a person for the first 75 years or so that our founding document was in effect.
The bigger problem with this abstract argument is that tens of millions of young Americans lost their bodily autonomy last year when the U.S. Supreme Court majority declared that there is no constitutional right to abortion.
Ramaswamy tends to steer clear of this topic in his stump speech. When asked on the Des Moines Register’s soapbox whether he would recognize fetal “personhood,” he said “unborn life is life,” adding that he is “unapologetically pro-life.” He then argued that the issue “doesn’t have to be so divisive.”
Good luck with that. Abortion has become a much more salient issue for voters since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. Last week’s defeat of a GOP-backed ballot initiative in Ramaswamy’s home state of Ohio suggested that pro-choice voters were heavily engaged. From a 2022 Pew survey:
Younger adults are considerably more likely than older adults to say abortion should be legal: Three-quarters of adults under 30 (74%) say abortion should be generally legal, including 30% who say it should be legal in all cases without exception.
Gallup polling from 2023 showed that when asked, “With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?” 64 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 said pro-choice, and only 29 percent said pro-life. Among 30- to 49-year-olds, the split was 56/41.
The Harvard Youth Poll found a sharp drop in trust in the Supreme Court to “do the right thing” most or all of the time.
A BONUS HOOK FOR OLDER VOTERS
Douglas Burns covered a recent Ramaswamy event in Crawford County, where one of the candidate’s ideas “stood out.”
Ramaswamy offered a strategy for stabilizing the U.S. dollar that drew the interest of grain farmers in the audience of more than 250 people gathered inside a welding operation on the western side of Vail, about 10 minutes from Denison.
“Tie it to gold, silver, nickel, and agricultural commodities,” he said of the dollar. “That’s it, that’s all we need to do.”
Burns quoted Carroll County GOP chair Craig Williams, an agricultural consultant, as casting some doubt on the “intriguing concept”: “You can’t use physical assets for ag commodities. The commodity price is so volatile, I just can’t picture it.”
Still, I would guess this idea sounds appealing to voters old enough to remember when President Richard Nixon took the controversial step of ending “dollar convertibility to gold” in 1971.
CAN YOU PERSUADE VOTERS BY SPEAKING “TRUTHS”?
Ramaswamy implies that young people searching for meaning need only hear “the truth” to come around. But messaging about the “open border” and climate change “hoax” is not likely to be persuasive. From the analysis Winograd and Hais published in April:
For the first time since Boomers began to turn 18, Democrats are united across generational lines and Republicans are not. […]
Democratic campaigns [in 2022] broadly reflected the issue concerns of 18–44-year-olds, both overall and specifically among those who identify as Democrats. By contrast, Republican campaigns often seemed to double down on the concerns of the older members of the electorate, especially those of older Republicans. […]
Republicans remain out of step with voters under 45 whose loyalty to the GOP is being sorely tested by a leadership more focused on yesterday’s battles than tomorrow’s challenges.
Can Republicans reach those young voters by hammering away at Ramaswamy’s precepts? Data from the 2023 Harvard Youth Poll isn’t promising.
As evidence of generational replacement (a theory proposed by political scientists Paul R. Abramson and Ronald Inglehart), fewer than half (42%) of young Americans who grew up in conservative households call themselves Republicans today (36% independent, 21% Democrat); among those who grew up in liberal households, 60% are Democrats (31% independent, 9% Republican).
But Ramaswamy doesn’t necessarily need a strong youth vote next January. He can punch one of the traditional three tickets out of Iowa by convincing enough of the over-45 bloc that he’s the guy to reach their grandkids.