Minneapolis entrepreneur Anton Lazzaro supports President Donald Trump, even if he doesn’t agree with some of the socially conservative messages emanating from this week’s Republican National Convention.
At 29, Lazzaro is the youngest of the known Minnesota GOP delegates, and he worries that some of the Republican Party’s ideas on social change might be holding it back with other young conservatives.
“I think that’s more of the older, traditional, Christian evangelical wing of the party that kind of controls those type of things,” Lazzaro said. “I think that’s going to change over the next decade, because there’s a lot of younger Republicans that have more modernized views in my opinion.”
Polls consistently show that younger voters, particularly college students, favor Democratic nominee Joe Biden over Trump, a gap that could be decisive if Democrats can get them to turn out to vote in November. But to Lazzaro, Trump’s low polling numbers among young people are less a reflection of the president than the traditional GOP establishment.
Lazzaro believes in LGBT rights and does not oppose the right to abortion. But even as opposition to abortion is a near constant among conservatives of all ages, some young Republicans yearn for broader messages of inclusivity on race and other social issues.
University of St. Thomas student Karly Hahn, chairwoman of the Minnesota College Republicans, said that “Gen Z” Republicans like herself are focused on small government and family choices, on which she said the president has delivered. But Hahn said young Republicans are less receptive to some of the rhetoric used by the older generation.
“We grew up in school systems of inclusivity, where everyone needs to be inclusive of everyone,” Hahn said.
But to Hahn, 21, young Republicans do not receive that inclusivity in return, especially on college campuses where young Democrats pushing progressive causes are a much more vocal presence.
“When we go to college and get to campus and say that we’re conservative, we get attacked,” Hahn said. “When we say our opinions, we get called racist and xenophobic and homophobic and everything like that.”
Fellow GOP delegate Joseph Witthuhn, a software engineer from Eagan, said that he too doesn’t expect all young Republicans to have socially conservative beliefs.
“I definitely see a difference, particularly on social issues as far as where people fall on that spectrum. Where I don’t see a difference is on economy, regulations, jobs, that type of stuff. Whether you’re old or young. I see almost universal agreement from Republicans on that side of things,” Witthuhn said.
He supports the president’s tax bill, from which Witthuhn saw benefits. Witthuhn said he’s happy to send Trump back for another four years.
“On the whole when I look at it being him versus Biden, there’s no choice there for me at all,” Witthuhn said.
Not unlike Hahn’s experience at St. Thomas, Witthuhn, 32, recalls being young and conservative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he mostly kept his beliefs to himself.
But even if some young Republicans stay away from the public eye, it does not mean they don’t exist, said Witthuhn.
“Young people tend to lean left; it’s almost indisputable when you look at polling numbers,” Witthuhn said. “But ‘tend to’ isn’t a brush that paints 100 percent.”
The generation gap has been on full display this week, as the state’s GOP delegation skews older than the Democratic National Convention delegation from Minnesota, which featured several high school and college students.
“I think that obviously we can all do better to get younger delegates and people participating in the party,” Lazzaro said.
Lazzaro personally isn’t bothered by Trump’s rhetoric, and believes that the president has done a good job broadening his base in the last four years.
“I think that once you kind of go past the personal animosity that some people have toward him, I think that there’s a lot of people that really do like his message,” Lazzaro said.
GOP leaders say that a broader, ideological message focused on opportunity and economic freedom can resonate with young voters. Speaking on the second day of the convention, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was quoted in the Minnesota News Network predicting a surprising turnout of young conservatives.
“I think the young people in this country are a lot smarter than the socialist Democrat party gives them credit for and they’re going to show them in November,” he said.
Lazzaro, who has always voted for Republicans, said he supports the president’s work on the First Step Act, a 2018 criminal justice reform law, and the Right to Try Act, which allows patients to access experimental medicine.
“I hope that Americans really look at how this president has tackled so many things, and not on trying to play the blame game about things like a pandemic and other Democrat talking points that are really just based on attacking the president and not on any issues that matter to voters,” Lazzaro said.
“I think it’s going to be interesting to see how many people are willing to look past some of the more controversial things the president has said and still vote for him because they really actually do like his policy,” he added.
But that remains to be seen in a new generation of voters. A recent Knight Foundation poll showed that 70% of U.S. college students said they would vote for Biden vs. just 18% who would vote for Trump.
Still, some young Republicans sense a hidden strength outside of the media glare.
“You keep it to yourself a little bit,” Witthuhn said, “and that’s part of why we’re optimistic about Trump’s chances, even in a state like Minnesota.”