Monday, January 30, 2012

Millennials and Ron Paul.

To my mind, one of the most fascinating aspects of the ongoing race for the Republican nomination for president is the enthusiasm of many young voters for the oldest candidate in the race, 76-year-old Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Though his principled libertarianism and outspoken antiwar views set him at odds with many in his party, Paul has done consistently well with Millennials in early-voting states. In Iowa, Paul won 17-to-29-year-olds with 48 percent of the vote, compared with 23 percent for Rick Santorum and 13 percent for Mitt Romney. Paul did nearly as well with young voters in New Hampshire, getting 46 percent of the vote among 18-to-29-year-olds - versus 26 percent for Romney. South Carolina proved to be less hospitable territory for Paul, but he still managed to finish two points ahead of first-place finisher Newt Gingrich among Millennials, winning the 18-to-29 bloc with 31 percent of the vote to Gingrich's 29 percent.

Ron Paul's popularity with Millennials has attracted considerable notice from the media - for a very small sampling of recent articles on this topic, consider these reports from the Dallas Morning News, the Boston Globe, Forbes, and the Baltimore Sun. The reasons for Paul’s appeal to Millennials are easy to identify. For one thing, the Texas Congressman has chosen to emphasize issues that resonate with young voters: Paul's opposition to U.S. military action overseas has a natural appeal to people of military-service age who are willing to enlist but averse to risking their lives for uncertain gains, while his calls for sweeping cuts in the federal budget and for more aggressive efforts to control the national debt make sense to young Americans who are acutely aware that their generation will be paying for the fiscal choices of their parents. Though I suspect that some of the Congressman's young supporters may disagree with specific details of Paul's platform, the candidate's libertarian emphasis on respecting personal autonomy also seems to align broadly with the values of many Millennials.

Of course, Ron Paul appeals to many Millennials not merely because of his message but also thanks to his inimitable personal style. Paul's reputation as a maverick is matched by a lack of pretense that sets him apart from the blowhards and empty suits who often seem to dominate contemporary American politics. Much in Paul's self-presentation proclaims that he is a different kind of candidate, including his oft-referenced background as a practicing physician, his ill-fitting suits and goofy laugh, and his disarmingly matter-of-fact way of answering questions that usually invite a rehearsal of each candidate's tired talking points (for example, when asked during the most recent debate about what he would do if Raúl Castro called him in the Oval Office, Paul answered, "I'd ask him what he called about"). Roger Ebert (of all people!) got it right in a tweet from the night of the Iowa caucuses: "Leaving politics out of it, what sets Ron Paul aside from every other GOP candidate? He's the only one who's cool." Perhaps what makes Paul cool to so many young voters is his evident authenticity - here, for once, is a candidate who is clearly comfortable in his own skin and is unmoved by any compulsion to change his convictions or public personality to conform to media expectations of what a major party presidential candidate should be like.

Lest the effusive tone of the preceding paragraph strike some readers as an endorsement, I should hasten to note that my intent here is not to speak for or against any candidate. What interests me about the 'Millennials for Ron Paul' phenomenon is its broader cultural and social implications. There are many questions here which deserve serious study; for example, I would love to know exactly how many Millennial Paulites supported Barack Obama in the last election - Paul's ability to attract the support of Democrats and independents has been widely noted, so I imagine that a not-inconsiderable number of people who are now for Paul were once for Obama. The reasons for these shifting allegiances also deserve attention: are young voters who have moved from Obama to Paul simply switching from one charismatic 'hope and change' candidate to another, or is this shift a sign of a political coming of age? In other words, I wonder whether some Millennials who supported Obama in 2008 because they liked his image and rhetoric might now be supporting Paul because, on reflection and in light of the past four years, they now believe that Paul better represents their views. Are Millennials supporting Ron Paul as an expression of a youthful idealism that will pass in time, or is their enthusiasm a harbinger of a generational shift that could reshape American politics in coming decades? It's too soon to answer this question, but I'd love to see more polling and analysis on the Millennial Paulites and what they may mean for the future.

Finally, a word on the age issue. As I noted above, the candidate who is currently drawing the most enthusiastic response from young voters is also the oldest person running. Of course, chronological age isn't everything: Paul's energy on the stump and behind the debate podium belies his years, and the unaffected exuberance that he displays when speaking to much younger crowds suggests that Paul is still young at heart. Even so, Baby Boomers should pay close attention to what is going on here: the '60s mantra about not trusting anyone over thirty doesn't apply to many Millennials. Indeed, it is tempting to draw a parallel between young voters' support for Ron Paul and the affection that many young Catholics have for Pope Benedict XVI, an even older man who impresses youthful audiences with his genuine personal humility and his willingness to deliver a challenging yet inspiring message. To say the very least, it is striking that many of the most engaged and committed members of the Millennial Generation are looking beyond the Boomers and taking their inspiration from leaders who came to maturity in the 1940s and '50s. While it is too soon to be sure what all of this means, I look foward to finding out. AMDG.


At 1/30/2012 9:01 PM, Anonymous John Kopcha said...

Dr. Paul is a social liberal as is Obama and that may explain the appeal of both to young voters. However, Paul's approach and logic for his positions is in direct contrast to Obama's reasoning leading to his social positions. Voters, for the most part, are just interested in the proposal and not the reasoning behind it.

At 1/30/2012 9:25 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Good point, John - and it's a pity that more voters aren't tuned into the key differences there.

At 1/31/2012 10:01 AM, Anonymous Helene Prehatny said...

I read your comments with interest. Traditionally, young people are the most idealisic - most have not experienced the practical reality of living. The magic word in a soceity which is in chaos is 'Change'. Thus we had 'Obama'. Fortunately, Ron Paul has 'substance'. My issue is with the perceived 'Isolation' policy.

At 1/31/2012 10:28 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Thanks for the comments, Helene - Paul has suggested that he's really more interested in starting a political movement than in being president. It will be interesting to see how many of the young people who are currently excited about Ron Paul would be interested in sticking around in the long run - or will they find another candidate and a new cause in 2016?


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