Ron Paul’s strong second place finish in Tuesday’s Minnesota primary is a reminder that he’s a powerful force within the Republican party and that his ardent youth support will endure throughout the nomination process. Still, his chances of actually getting the nomination are virtually nil — well, just over two percent, according to Intrade users.
If UC Berkeley students chose the Republican nominee, though, things would be very different. Paul has dominated the youth vote throughout the Republican contests, and — judging by conversations with my peers — he enjoys considerable support on campus, even among non-conservatives.
In a UC Berkeley Republican primary, Paul would win in a landslide.
But why is Paul so popular among the young? As you might expect, Republicans and Democrats disagree. Each party, seeking to be validated by Paul’s youth support, claims that a different array of his positions is responsible.
UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich (a Democrat) captured this dynamic in a blog post last month:
“The Republican right thinks that Paul’s views on the economy are responsible for his fire among the young … Baloney. The young are flocking to Paul because he wants to slice military spending, bring our troops home, stop the government from spying on American citizens, and legalize pot.”
Sure, Paul’s liberal social positions might speak to young voters. But his deeply conservative economic policies can’t be written off. Just look at YouTube videos of Paul’s rallies — young people get worked up into a frenzy when Paul talks about eliminating the income tax and the federal reserve.
There is more to the story than Reich suggests. In my view, Paul’s popularity among young voters should be viewed through a different lens altogether.
A substantial portion of Paul’s youth support is only loosely related to his political views. Of course, he has hardcore followers who are drawn to him because of his conspiratorial ideas about the Trilateral Commission or his belief that America should go back to the gold standard. But for the most part, young people are drawn to Paul for a simpler reason: he means what he says.
Fringe candidates have run in presidential primaries before, but Paul’s unwavering adherence to his principles — not his radical positions — is the salient feature of his campaign. Can you imagine any other serious politician earnestly telling a crowd of pumped up South Carolina Republicans that he wants to decimate the military budget? Or suggesting on national television that the government should allow a person to die if he or she got ill and failed to purchase health insurance?
As President Obama suggested in his State of the Union address this year, America suffers from a crippling trust deficit. Voters of all ages don’t have any faith in politicians to tell them the truth or keep their word. But while older voters might respond by sinking deeper into their cynicism and voting for candidates who they think will protect their social security or keep their taxes low, young voters are more idealistic. They haven’t been around long enough to become jaded about politics. Instead of giving up or clinging to a liberal or conservative ideology, young people respond to the trust deficit by supporting the candidate they know they can trust.
When young people look at Ron Paul, they don’t see a particularly attractive set of political positions — they see a politician who is being honest with them. Perhaps Paul’s support is especially strong because his honesty throws his opponents’ hypocrisy into such stark relief. Gingrich, a serial adulterer and influence peddler, can’t seem to stop sermonizing to Americans about morality and calls himself a “cultural teacher.” Santorum casts himself as a deficit hawk though he supported the trillion dollar Medicare prescription drug benefit, not to mention the war in Iraq. And Mitt Romney — well, let’s just say I don’t think there’s enough room in this article to document all of his ideological gymnastics. It’s hard to imagine a field better suited to bringing out Paul’s defining feature.
That many young voters who supported Obama in 2008 support Paul in 2012 strongly suggests that Paul’s youth support derives more from his character than his positions. In 2008, Obama promised to transcend partisan politics and fundamentally change Washington but has ended up presiding over a period of unprecedented gridlock and partisanship. Many young people, feeling that their trust has been violated, gathered instead around Ron Paul, who, though diametrically opposed to Obama on almost every issue, says what he means and means what he says.
Ron Paul will never be president. But politicians of both parties can still take away a simple lesson from Paul’s campaign about how to win over young voters: be honest.