Young conservatives board the 'Trump Train' to 2024
Mya Conrad has been a fan of former President Trump ever since she was 12 years old.
So now that she's 18 and eligible to vote, there's no question of who she's casting her ballot for.
"I love all the other candidates. I think it's a really solid lineup," said Conrad, who goes to Belmont University in Nashville.
"But I'm very loyal to the MAGA movement," she added.
Conrad spoke to NPR just minutes before Trump took the stage at a recent conference hosted by Turning Point Action, the advocacy wing of Turning Point USA, one of the largest — and only — national organizations focused on engaging and educating young Americans on conservative issues.
"From the earliest days of our republic, every generation has been called to defend America," Trump told the packed crowd at the Palm Beach Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Fla.
"...Now they really mean it. We're in big trouble," Trump warned of his view of the current state of the country.
Far-right Republican political and media leaders dominated the two-day conference, trumpeting conservative talking points about restricting transgender rights and abortion, and changing the education system.
But, with 15 months until Election Day, Republicans face an uphill battle with young voters. In recent major elections, younger millennials and Gen Z have largely turned out for Democratic candidates, partly motivated by issues like protecting abortion access.
That said, for some of the younger attendees at the conference — who are already part of the Turning Point network and involved in political activism in their communities — the core conservative social issues discussed on stage are the same ones they're passionate about. Still, it remains unclear if that messaging will resonate with other young voters on the fence about who to choose in 2024.
For South Alabama University student Hayden Haddock, even though he hasn't chosen a candidate, the top issue is restricting abortion.
"We cannot have a conversation about any other human rights without the foundational right to life," Haddock said, adding, "whoever of these GOP candidates will stand for that the most is the one who has my vote."
But to Clemson University student Blaine Hibbert, Republicans can't lose sight of promoting policies traditionally related to the party, including pocketbook issues, which appeal to a wider swath of the electorate.
"Look, I'm pro-life, I'm pro-gun. But when it comes to these swing states, these swing districts where we need to attract moderates into the fold, that's where we have to run on these fiscal conservative issues that the left is just not with us on," he said, sporting a pro-Trump cowboy hat.
Unsurprisingly, at an event full of Trump hats (along with T-shirts, stickers and banners), the topic everyone weighed in on was the eventual 2024 nominee.
If Trump's in the Republican Party, that's who I'm voting for. If he was in the Democratic Party, I'd be voting for him there. It's really, I like Donald Trump.
NPR spoke with more than two dozen young attendees throughout the conference, and virtually all supported another Trump presidential bid, mirroring his widespread favorability among Republicans nationwide.
"Trump all the way. I'm on that Trump train," Austin Nellius, a 23-year-old cabinet maker, said.
Nellius spoke with NPR near a wall of big poster board cutouts of the faces of all the major Republican candidates. Attendees quickly filled them up with written messages on sticky notes.
Trump's face was in the middle, covered in notes including, "We love you," "You deserve it!" and "Stay your course, stick to your accomplishments!"
A cutout of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who skipped the event, hung next to Trump. His messages were mixed, with some urging him to wait for another election cycle and others praising his gubernatorial tenure. One just said, "De Loser."
"I feel like conservatives would have been more in favor of supporting him in '28. But now that he went in the race against Trump, I feel like his chances are shot for the long haul," Nellius explained.
And to some young voters, that intraparty rivalry turns them off.
"The biggest problem with the country that I see going into this new election is the fact that the Republican Party as a whole is so divided, and really, our ultimate goal should be about winning," said University of Florida student Megan Ramon.
She plans to support Trump next year and argues it isn't time for DeSantis to run.
"It should be about getting back into office. And I feel like it's become such a warzone," Ramon added.
For many, supporting Trump is the logical answer when looking at the primary field.
In addition to DeSantis' absence at the conference, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declined invitations.
Negative sticky notes dominated the poster board cutouts of their faces.
The biggest problem with the country that I see going into this new election is the fact that the Republican Party as a whole is so divided, and really, our ultimate goal should be about winning.
"How are you going to expect support if you don't even show up and talk?" attendee Jacob Lawrence asked. To Lawrence, who is a student at the University of South Alabama, the decision holds more weight, given the event attracts young conservatives.
Other than Trump, just a handful of declared candidates did show up, including entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.
Ramaswamy was the only Trump alternative that received a warm welcome. According to the event's straw poll, run by the Republican-leaning firm Trafalgar Group, 51% chose the political newcomer as their second choice. Trump won nearly 86% of the primary vote for the nominee.
On the other hand, more moderate candidates, Hutchinson and Suarez, were heckled throughout their remarks on Sunday — at one point during Hutchinson's speech, the crowd began chanting Trump's name.
"We've got some great people that are running. And what we need is respect for those that might have a differing opinion," said Hutchinson, who has been publicly critical of Trump.
By NPR's count, 11 major Republican candidates have jumped into the primary — a staggering difference from the Democratic side, where President Biden stands as the clear front-runner.
But Biden's approval remains low among young Americans. According to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, just 38% of people under 30 approve of his job in office.
And between Trump and Biden, Wheaton College student Dolan Bair argues Trump is more effective at reaching young people this time around — despite the fact Biden won the age group by 24 percentage points in 2020, according to exit polling.
"Biden's older than Trump for sure, and he doesn't have the same sort of energy that Trump is having," Blair said. (Trump, 77, was the oldest president in U.S. history until Biden, 80, surpassed him.)
"[Trump] gets all these younger people out to the crowds, people like me," he added.
But attendance at the conference varied in age, with many older people also present. Turning Point staff told NPR that 2,500 students were at the event — less than half of the estimated 7,000-person crowd on the day of Trump's speech. Total attendance dropped to 5,000 the following day.
And while Trump's popularity is strong among Turning Point's younger cohort, for some attendees, having a big primary field is a good sign for the party's future.
"On the Democrat side, I don't see anybody who can take Joe Biden," said 21-year-old Clay Montgomery, adding. "But at least on the conservative side, we can say we have multiple candidates that even if '45 [Trump] gets reelected again, and becomes '47, we have guys down the pipeline who can come in after Trump."
To Montgomery, a student at the University of Arkansas, Fort Smith, looking past this election, the GOP is better suited to bring in new blood.
"Democrats don't have that. So, it's concerning having a lot of people but also see it as a good thing. It's a double-edged sword," he added.
And though young voters trend liberal, party allegiance is much more split. According to the latest Harvard Youth Poll, 35% of people under 30 identify as a Democrat, compared to 24% for Republicans and 40% for independents.
Houston student Cierra Becker votes on issues and candidates over party. She considers herself a libertarian but often leans towards Republicans.
Ahead of the 2024 presidential election, Trump is the candidate who she is focusing on.
"There seems to be a part of him that is still a regular person. And that is what I can identify with. I can't identify with somebody who gives perfect speeches every time," Becker said, who also works as a firefighter and EMT.
"If Trump's in the Republican Party, that's who I'm voting for. If he was in the Democratic Party, I'd be voting for him there. It's really, I like Donald Trump," she explained, "not necessarily, I am a Republican or Democrat."
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