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Young conservatives have grown up in Trump's Republican Party. Now, it's time to vote

When former President Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, Rylen Bassett was in fourth grade. Living in Defiance County, Ohio, he convinced his mom to take him to a rally about 50 minutes away in Fort Wayne, Ind.

And the rest is history.

"After that, I fell in love with it," Bassett remembered. "I was the kid that wore the Trump shirt all throughout elementary [school]."

That year, he stayed up late to watch the debates. On career day, there was an easy inspiration.

"I dressed up as Trump," he said with a smile. "I wore a Trump hat, wore the suit, put the button on, I did everything."

Now 18, Bassett is heading to Liberty University in the fall. He's become a political wonk, passionate about gun rights and education.

Ohio's primary Tuesday marks the first time he gets to vote in a presidential matchup. And though he's grown up from the wide-eyed childhood fan and can acknowledge the former president has his flaws, Trump is still his guy.

"He's transformed the political universe," Bassett said. "I still like the fact that he doesn't back down to anyone ... he is still a conservative at heart."

Rylen Bassett on career day in fourth grade (left,) and Bassett in his high school senior portrait (right.) He told NPR that Trump's candidacy in 2016 was "refreshing," and he stood out compared to traditional political figures.
/ Rylen Bassett
Rylen Bassett
Rylen Bassett on career day in fourth grade (left) and Bassett in his high school senior portrait (right). He told NPR that Trump's candidacy in 2016 was "refreshing," and he stood out compared to traditional political figures.

Bassett isn't alone in feeling a pull toward the former president. Trump carried the Buckeye State twice, in 2016 and again in 2020.

And nationally, Trump has been on the political stage for nearly a decade. So for many young conservatives casting their first ballot this year, Trump has been at the center of the Republican political world for much of their memory.

"Donald Trump is their Republican experience," explained conservative pollster and strategist Sarah Longwell. "If you've come of political consciousness in the last decade, then the Republican Party, to you, really does look like Trump."

To Longwell, this new generation of young conservatives is drifting away from the traditional Republican candidates of the past few decades and more toward those who embody Trump and adopt his brash style of politics.

"For people who have chosen to identify as Republicans or conservatives, in this moment, they've done it because they like what they see out of Donald Trump," she said.

Gen Z and younger millennial voters overwhelmingly supported President Biden in 2020 and historically back Democratic candidates. That said, some recent national polling shows Trump and Biden in a closer matchup among voters under 35, leaving potential for the GOP as they zero in on battleground states where margins may be small.

"You change 10% of that audience, you have fundamentally changed a presidential race," said John Brabender, a media consultant to the Trump campaign. He cautioned that while Trump has had an influence on young conservatives, so has Biden.

"It can't be dismissed how important it is in some sense that they see Biden as an overwhelming failure," he added.

Back in Defiance County, Bassett and his friends recently founded a young Republican club, the Roosevelt Reagan Society. In January, they organized a forum with the Republican candidates running in Ohio's competitive 9th Congressional District focused on issues affecting young voters.

However, not all members of the group are eligible to vote in the 2024 election. Jack Bourgeois and Elizabeth Thompson are two 15-year-old high school freshmen who helped start the club. When they think about the qualities they want in a future presidential candidate, their wish list echoes a familiar sentiment.

"We would need someone strong, smart and an honest decision-maker," Thompson said. "Someone who commands respect from other world leaders."

"I would want a presidential candidate with a lot of nationalism," Bourgeois added. "Someone who really truly stands for our country and shows the strength of America as a country."

As for Bassett, when he thinks about his ideal future candidate, it's complicated. He loves Trump but disagrees with the way Republicans have refused to compromise in the past, referencing Trump's opposition to recent bipartisan congressional talks on the border — legislation that went on to fail.

"I want a strong Republican that, he's willing to stand up for what he believes in," he said. "But at the same time, I want a strong Republican that knows when to fold his cards."

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Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.