There are still questions hanging over the 2020 election. Not the ones Rudy Giuliani and his team are posing about voter fraud — the judges are answering those — but more philosophical ones about where the Trump campaign may have fallen short.
Here’s one of Cockburn’s, for example: how is it that Trump’s youth support dropped by three percentage points compared to 2016?
CNN’s 2016 exit poll showed that 34 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton — but in 2020, the President got just 31 percent. And the margin between Trump and the Democratic candidate widened considerably over the last four years: Clinton led Trump by a 22-point margin in the 18-24 demographic in 2016, which Biden increased to a 34-point margin this year. ‘Voters 18-24s had by far the biggest swing toward the Democratic candidate of any age demo compared to 2016,’ said a spokesperson for Edison Research, who conducted CNN’s exit poll.
What gives? Ahead of the 2020 election, the Trump campaign formed various coalitions with the purpose of turning out different demographics — Latinos for Trump, Irish Americans for Trump, Catholics for Trump, Sikhs for Trump, and so on. Curiously missing is Youth for Trump, the campaign’s 2016 youth coalition, then directed by David Blair. A LinkedIn search of the 300 or so people who list the Trump campaign as an employer turns up just one person who describes herself as a ‘youth coordinator’, a young woman who only graduated college this summer.
A possible explanation to this anomaly comes courtesy of former White House counsel Don McGahn. According to a leader in the conservative movement, who attended a White House event for young right-wing activists in 2017, McGahn told the audience ‘We’re not worried about the youth vote, Charlie Kirk is taking care of that.’
Charlie Kirk is founder of Turning Point USA, the buzzy online youth movement that dominates a lot of so-called ‘campus conservatism’. The President frequently retweets him, and he’s often spotted flitting around with the President’s family members or attending various youth events at the White House.
Did the Trump campaign fail to woo young voters because they put too much trust in Kirk and Turning Point USA’s meme army? It would certainly seem like a strategic error to rely on a campus-based organization in a year when most colleges have shut down due to the pandemic. Plus TPUSA’s social media posts are more popular among boomers than millennials or Gen-Z.
‘The Trump campaign invested in TPUSA’s network and trusted Charlie Kirk, and they didn’t come through for the President,’ a conservative activist told Cockburn.
TPUSA and its affiliated organizations may not officially be a part of the Trump campaign — FEC records confirm there is no exchange of funds between the Trump campaign and Turning Point Action — but there’s no denying that Kirk’s youth group had some personal investment in getting the President reelected. In July 2019, Turning Point Action, TPUSA’s political action committee, staged a buyout of a grassroots organization called Students For Trump. The 2019 TPUSA Teen Action Summit hosted President Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle. The President also addressed the TPUSA Student Action Summit in Palm Beach in December 2019.
‘I want to congratulate my friend, Charlie Kirk for mobilizing students on more than 1,500 high school and college campuses all across the country. Amazing,’ Trump said.
Trump spoke again at the Students for Trump Convention in June 2020, which was attended by about 3,000 people in a Phoenix megachurch. Trump urged the crowd to ‘show our appreciation’ to Kirk, noting that he ‘is mobilizing a new generation of pro-American student activists’.
The relationship worked both ways: Kirk got the opening speaking slot at the 2020 Republican National Convention. ‘Speaking to you in my personal capacity tonight as a 26-year-old, I see the angst of young people, as well as the challenges facing new parents,’ Kirk said. ‘I am here tonight to tell you, to warn you, that this election is a decision between preserving America as we know it and eliminating everything that we love.’ Kirk launched his podcast, The Charlie Kirk Show, in April 2019, and his first guests were Donald Trump Jr and Kimberly Guilfoyle. He interviewed President Trump on the show before the Phoenix convention in June 2020. Kirk also released a book, The MAGA Doctrine: The Only Ideas That Will Win the Future.
A Turning Point spokesman, however, told Cockburn that the organization’s work to turn out the youth vote for Trump was never intended to be a solo effort, nor was it done in any formal capacity with the Trump campaign.
‘Turning Point Action and Students For Trump never sought to replace the youth outreach of the campaign,’ the spokesperson said. ‘This is an independent organization that, yes, held over 30 “Get Out The Vote” and door-knocking events in swing states and swing districts, founded nearly 400 Students For Trump chapters compared to a couple dozen for Biden…we worked our butts off to get the President reelected — but our work was supplemental to, not in replacement of, the campaign’s efforts.’
A leader in the conservative movement, frustrated with the lack of progress among youth voters in the last four years, was less charitable. ‘Don McGahn insisted Charlie Kirk and Turning Point had things handled as far as youth support, and Trump’s team often touted Kirk’s work and campus connections,’ he said. ‘Clearly, their trust in Kirk’s reach and impact was misplaced.’
So did TPUSA really bungle its GOTV efforts, thereby costing Trump three precious percentage points among young voters? Or did McGahn’s comment merely reveal a flippant attitude in Trumpworld towards youth turnout? The campaign’s apparent failure to establish its own 2020 youth coalition and instead rely on TPUSA’s existing infrastructure, a group with which it has no formal affiliation beyond a deep friendship, certainly suggests a deep sense of complacency.
The Trump campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article, but Cockburn will include their reply if they do.