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

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.

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?

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.” 

However, young people tend to latch onto such Paul positions with little investigation into the candidate's views as a whole, adds Professor Naison. The young people who endorsed them had little sympathy with, or even knowledge of, Paul's renunciation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, his opposition to Social Security and Medicare, or his intention to dissolve many federal departments, including the Environmental Protection Agency, he says. 

Some suggest that one issue alone may be attracting the under-30 crowd to Ron Paul: marijuana. 

“No other [major party] candidate advocates the legalization of marijuana,” says Tracy Davis, a Republican strategist and former George H.W. Bush speechwriter, via e-mail. Pot use among college-age youths has risen dramatically, while use of alcohol and cigarettes has decreased, according to recent in-depth studies. The studies go further, suggesting that the trend applies to a larger demographic of young voters – those between 18 and 30, she adds. “This one issue alone has a huge impact on young voters in America today, who would be thrilled to be able to purchase and smoke marijuana without the fear of being arrested,” writes Ms. Davis.

Then there's the economy. Paul’s outsider status appeals to many young college students concerned about the lackluster economy, says John Johannes, a political scientist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

“Many are scared, apprehensive, and worried [about what the economy holds for them]. At the same time, they don’t have the same 'stake' in politics and economics that older voters have. The messages coming from the other candidates on what should be done, while anti-Obama, may not resonate with younger voters,” he says via e-mail. Younger voters, no less than older ones, “are tired of ten years of war and military intervention in causes that are less than crystal clear,” he says.

Los Angeles Valley College freshman Shanae Jordan echoes these economic concerns. She likes Ron Paul because she thinks he can take the country back to where it was when a college education didn’t cost so much. She pays $35 per unit of college credit, which is quite affordable, but Ms. Jordan says she has friends on other campuses who are working two jobs to pay for tuition.

“His policies will take us back to when you didn’t have to save so much or sacrifice so hard just to get through school,” says the foreign language major.

As for whether Paul can parlay this youthful support into greater political power, Birmingham-Southern's Professor Davis says it’s not likely. “The overall youth vote is largely Democratic, and Paul’s support doesn’t work well with working-class youth,” she says. His support among the young, she adds, “is a college thing.”

Staff writer Daniel B. Wood  contributed to this report.

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