TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Kieghan Nangle, 21, proudly sports a pink sticker on her laptop that reads “Pretty girls love Trump,” a declaration of her loyalty to former president Donald Trump.
Christian Calvert, 21, is all-in for Ron DeSantis, viewing the governor as a true conservative “without all the baggage” that Trump has and with a proven track record of success in Florida.
Samaria McKinney, 18, is reserving judgment of the primary candidates until after the Iowa caucuses because, so far, she’s “genuinely undecided.”
Here, at the University of Alabama, where the fourth Republican presidential debate will be held Wednesday night, young conservatives offered a range of views on who they find best to take on President Biden in 2024. But they were united in calling for the GOP to pay more attention to their generation, which they feel is part of the party’s path to victory in the next election and beyond.
Conservative students were uniformly thrilled to see the debate sanctioned by the Republican National Committee being held on their campus and were making plans to either attend in person or watch with friends. Many of the students who identify as Republicans at the university in the deep-red state said they don’t expect the debate to influence whom they’re backing in the primary, but they do see its setting on a college campus as a positive sign that the GOP wants to do better with Gen Z.
“It’s notorious and evident that the RNC has struggled with the youth vote in past elections. And the Democrats, you’ve got to give it to them. They have done a really great job at targeting the youth vote,” Nangle said in an interview at Monarch Espresso Bar, a local coffee shop where many students were studying ahead of next week’s finals.
Nangle added that she was pleased to see the RNC launch a youth advisory council earlier this year, but she feels Republicans — both the party and individual candidates — still have a long way to go to motivate young voters, particularly those who feel apathetic or disinterested.
Many of the students said their top concern was the economy, because they’re preparing to graduate and are worried about finding jobs and being able to afford the rising cost of living. Several said they wanted to hear more on how the candidates would actually bring down the price of groceries and gas. They also said they want Republicans to keep a major focus on the handling of the U.S. southern border and immigration as they worry about U.S. national security and the safety of Americans. Unlike Democratic and liberal young voters who have expressed unease over Biden’s age, most of the students interviewed were less concerned about Trump’s age and more about the experience they feel he brings.
Biden recently turned 81, and Trump is 77.
“For me, it’s more of a history and experience thing. My family was in such a better place during the Trump administration than we have been during the Biden administration,” Nangle said.
In interviews with conservative students here, a majority expressed support for Trump to be the GOP presidential nominee. Polls have shown Trump’s dominance as the front-runner in the primary holds across age groups. A November 538/Washington Post/Ipsos national poll before the third debate found 66 percent of Republicans ages 18 to 34 were “considering” supporting Trump for the nomination, similar to 65 percent of Republican voters overall.
A newly released Harvard Youth Poll found that fewer voters under 30 plan to vote in the 2024 presidential election than they did at this point in the 2020 election cycle, with the largest declines in planned participation among young Republicans and independents. Among young Republicans, 56 percent said they definitely plan to vote in 2024, a 10-point drop from 66 percent in fall of 2019.
Overall, the poll found that 26 percent of young Americans affiliate with the Republican Party, 35 percent with the Democratic Party and 38 percent say they are independent or unaffiliated with a major party.
Calvert, a senior, said that although he’s backing DeSantis in 2024, he does credit Trump with helping energize more young Republicans. Trump made the case that within the Republican Party there were a lot of “establishment types” that were “part of the problem,” he said. It has been Trump and figures such as entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who is running in the primary and will be on the debate stage, that have brought fresh thinking to the party, he added.
“People like Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, these kinds of establishment types, largely don’t do well with young people,” Calvert said as he sat with a group of friends at Loosa Brews, a beer bar in downtown Tuscaloosa. Christie, former governor of New Jersey, and Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, are slated to be on the debate stage. Pence, the former vice president under Trump, in October suspended his campaign for the presidency.
Calvert said he feels DeSantis “would govern more conservatively than President Trump.” He said he’s been frustrated with certain comments Trump has made recently, such as criticizing DeSantis’s signing of a six-week abortion ban as a “terrible mistake.”
He added that while he’s excited to attend the debate Wednesday, he does worry that the RNC is just doing it on the University of Alabama campus to pretend it’s listening to young voters. He said he repeatedly heard from fellow students that it was hard to get information on how to attend.
“It does give the impression that it’s more for show or just to say it than it is to actually take an action,” he said.
McKinney, sitting across from Calvert, nodded in agreement. The freshman added that she felt the GOP wasn’t listening to young people — and that they weren’t handing over power to younger figures in the party.
“They’re so hellbent on keeping what they have as opposed to taking on the next generation,” McKinney said, adding that she feels the party focuses too much on keeping older politicians in power.
McKinney said she has never been a fan of Trump, but “I’ll take him back now” if it’s a matchup between Trump and Biden. McKinney, who is Black, said she was turned off by the Democratic Party in 2020 because she felt Black voters were “being exploited” and that Biden chose Kamala Harris, who is Black and Asian American, as his vice president “as a method to get us to vote for them.”
For now, she said, she’s curious about Haley, but she’s waiting to see which candidates make it past the Iowa caucuses. “It’s going to come down to you have to prove to me that you’re worthy of my vote.”
Samuel Fisher, 18, said he was disappointed to see that Trump, his candidate of choice, has refused to join the candidates on the debate stage. Trump also skipped the previous three debates.
“Even if he was going to be getting attacked on the debate stage, I think he should still be there,” Fisher, a freshman who considers himself a conservative activist, said in an interview at Gorgas Library. “I am disappointed, honestly, because no matter how much you think you have it, you should still show up and debate.”
Fisher is attending the debate, but he doesn’t expect it to change his mind on whom he’s supporting. Of the candidates who will be on the stage, he said he’s most drawn to Ramaswamy, who he said does a “good job of targeting younger people” with his presence on social media apps such as TikTok. Fisher said he didn’t know much about Haley, and he’s not a fan of DeSantis for 2024, saying he feels the Florida governor “should’ve waited his turn and not turned his back” on Trump.
Fisher’s friend, Anthony Romano, 21, is also attending the debate — and as a senior who graduates in May, he wants to see the candidates talking about the economy, especially how it will impact young people entering the workforce. But Romano, who has a tattoo on his right arm with an American flag and eagle that says “Proud to be an American,” doesn’t expect to be swayed by the candidates on the debate stage because he’s a strong supporter of Trump.
“The more that they try to indict Donald Trump, the more I keep supporting him,” Romano said. “He’s the biggest threat to Democrats’ power.”
Romano praised Trump for finding ways to connect with young voters, such as attending UFC 295 at Madison Square Garden in New York last month and appearing on the Full Send Podcast hosted by the Nelk Boys, all of which “a lot of people our age watch.”
He and Fisher agreed they would love to see Ramaswamy serve as Trump’s vice president.
Rebecca Allen, 20, said she’s leaning toward supporting Ramaswamy in the primary because she likes the energy he has brought to his candidacy and feels his values are in line with hers.
“If this candidate is upholding the conservative values of the nuclear family unit, capitalism, the constitution, God … If this person is upholding these things and creating their policies from these things, that’s my reason right there to back him,” she said of the 38-year-old candidate. “And then the age, the spark, the energy, things he can bring to Washington. That there is more so a reason to support him.”
Sitting at Loosa Brews with her friends, Allen, a senior, explained she was first drawn to Ramaswamy because of how accessible he has been on social media.
Paten Kidd, 21, said he’s excited to see the Republican candidates coming to campus, but that to court more support from young voters, they need to get united on an issue he feels is key in this demographic: abortion rights.
While his personal top issue is protecting gun rights, he said he worried that Republicans will lose with younger voters if they don’t moderate their position or become more open-minded on how they talk about abortion. Republicans need to come together to “find that happy medium” on the issue, he said as he ate a red velvet doughnut at Babe’s Doughnut.
Kidd, a senior, added that he doesn’t know what the right number of weeks is for a ban, but he feels Republicans need to get past being hung up on that one issue because there are so many other issues to tackle, such as the economy and immigration, that could appeal to young voters.
“If you don’t figure out how to target us now, you’re going to be behind in targeting us later,” he said.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.