CLEVELAND – Donald Trump needs millennials like Matthew Pagano of St. Paul if he is going to win the White House.
Young, enthusiastic and engaged, Pagano is a die-hard Republican who is also part of an age group that is most skeptical of the celebrity real estate mogul and the direction of the party.
Democratic rival Hillary Clinton has a dramatic edge among younger voters, one that Trump tried to cut into Tuesday night when his son, Donald Jr., 38, and daughter Tiffany, 22, addressed the Republican National Convention. The Trump children joined a roster of speakers here to talk about economic opportunities on the night themed “Make America Work Again.”
It is a message resonating with Pagano and other young Republicans grappling with crushing student loan debt or on the hunt for well-paying first jobs. Some would like to see the party move away from confrontational advocacy on social issues, like same-sex marriage and the emerging debate on transgender rights.
These battles are “particularly unhelpful in trying to attract new, younger voters,” said Pagano, 28, a Minnesota delegate in Cleveland.
The convention is chock-full of young Minnesota delegates, with at least a dozen 35 or younger. Many are new to the workforce and the financial demands of adulthood, and acutely tuned in to the economic message at the convention.
The four-day convention at Quicken Loans Arena is Trump’s chance to introduce himself to Americans just tuning in to the battle. It is also an opportunity to reboot his campaign and make inroads among groups that have been turned off by some of his early stumbles and sharp rhetoric.
Recent polling has shown that voters ages 18 to 29 prefer Clinton by nearly 2 to 1, with young voters from Washington state to South Carolina saying they were repelled by Trump’s polarizing statements about Muslims and immigrants.
The Institute of Politics at Harvard University last week published a poll showing that among likely young voters, 45 percent supported Clinton while 23 percent backed Trump. If November’s election outcome mirrors those findings, it would represent a 24-year low for a GOP presidential candidate.
But the poll held a glimmer of good news for Trump and Republicans. The institute found that a large majority of millennials, 64 percent, said improving the economy was their top concern — an issue where Republicans believe they have an upper hand.
Republicans spent much of Tuesday night driving that message home.
“My fellow Americans, it’s time to update your résumés because Donald Trump is growing jobs, and with a Trump presidency America will be closed to overregulation and open for business,” said Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
Republicans are also trying to get a foothold on solutions for growing student-loan debt in the U.S., an issue that resonates strongly with voters who came of age during the Great Recession and the slow economic recovery.
As the job market evolves, many fear it will eventually make a four-year college degree the new high school diploma, forcing job seekers to get more education and take on more debt.
Some young Minnesota delegates find themselves warming up to Trump and his economic message.
“It took me a while to come around,” said alternate delegate Claire Leiter, a 24-year-old from Minneapolis. “I was a Rand Paul girl initially.”
Leiter said that for Republicans to win over young voters, “it’s about focusing on economic issues,” particularly for recent college graduates hoping to launch careers.
“We’re in that transition stage between the education system and being on our own, understanding what taxes really feel like, what job prospects there are, upward mobility and how to achieve it,” Leiter said. “I think the Republicans have the solutions to a lot of our problems and challenges.”
The convention comes during a roiling battle within the GOP as many struggle to broaden its appeal beyond its base voters.
While many older Republicans tend to be more socially conservative, the new generation has a more Libertarian streak on some issues, like same-sex marriage.
Underscoring the power social conservatives wield, the national party platform adopted here last week lurched far right on many issues.
Even so, Pagano said he is encouraged by the growing number of young Republicans taking prominent roles within the party. He thinks the new blood will bring a gradual shift, causing divisive battles over social issues.
“I think there’s a way without losing the core tenets of conservatism,” Pagano said.
Delegate Jen Niska, 34, an admissions official at Bethel University, said the party needs to boil down its message to one that is simple and more inclusive.
“We get so passionate about what we believe that we can quickly, sometimes even unintentionally, ostracize people that don’t necessarily agree entirely with us,” Niska said. “And when we do that, we shrink the base, we make it a much smaller tent and we tell people that they’re not wanted.”
Christopher Rush, 30, an alternate delegate from Woodbury, said he fears that turning away from stances like the GOP’s opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage would dilute the party’s message — and turn off religious conservatives who have become a foundation for the party.
“The reason I became a Republican conservative is because of these things, because of the social stances,” Rush said. “If you want to streamline and be about being just fiscally conservative and just act like it’s all about money and not morality and how we treat life doesn’t matter, I’m not going to be part of this.”
He added: “This is why I’m not a part of the Libertarian Party, because they don’t take seriously these moral issues.”