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Why Ron Paul, graybeard of GOP race, lights up the youth vote

Ron Paul strikes a chord with young voters, who are attracted to his renegade views on foreign policy, the economy, and, yes, marijuana. For some, the very fact that he's so outside the box is the main attraction.

By Staff writer / January 6, 2012

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul stand on a corner with signs in Manchester, New Hampshire, Thursday.

Eric Thayer/Reuters

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What does the young, 20-something voter see in a senior-citizen Republican presidential candidate with shaggy brows, isolationist views, and an economic policy that predates 1971? Isn't this the same group that helped to sweep Barack Obama into office in 2008?

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We're talking about Ron Paul here, the GOP presidential hopeful who has parents scratching their heads as their college-age offspring gush about Mr. Paul's rather singular views (for a politician) on Iran (leave Tehran's ayatollahs alone), the gold standard (go back to it), and marijuana (legalize it), to name a few.

The appeal, in part, is the very fact that the Texas congressman endorses views that are outside the mainstream – and is willing to say what others won't, according to young Paul supporters and college professors who are watching the captivation among their students. 

Listen to Stu Lewitz, a third-year English major at Los Angeles Valley College and a Paul backer. 

“Everything he says and does comes from a place that is outside the usual Washington-centric mentality, and that’s what this country needs,” he says. “We can’t get out of this mess with the same lame thinking that got us where we are.”

Polls taken as voters headed into the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday confirm that Paul has youth-appeal. Among caucusgoers under 30, 37 percent support Paul, notes Natalie Davis, a political scientist at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. HIs support drops to 10 percent among caucusgoers ages 30 to 45.

“College students tend to be anti-establishment,” she says.

Paul is most often characterized as holding libertarian views, and that message of self-reliant independence strongly appeals to young people struggling to emerge from parental control, Professor Davis says. “It says, ‘Just leave me alone, don’t tell me what to do, I will fix it myself,” she says. 

Certain of Paul’s specific policy positions also appeal to the young, says Mark Naison, a professor of African American studies and history at Fordham University in New York. He has been tracking Paul’s support among young people involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. In an e-mail, he points to four. “First, his determination to curtail the power of the Federal Reserve Bank; second, his opposition to US involvement in Mideast wars; third, his opposition to the drug war and the imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders; and fourth, his opposition to torture, preventive detention of suspected terrorists, and curbs on civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.” 

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