Across the country, the youth vote is down. Registration is low. Voter enthusiasm for Republican candidates has been lackluster.
Unless that candidate's name is Ron Paul.
The 76-year-old U.S. representative from Texas has energized — and gained —young voters at a time many people under 30 are turned off to politics.
Paul's reputation for attracting young voters is so pronounced that supporters say it's sometimes rare to see older adults at his rallies. Many times, the folks in the loud cheering sections at his events are called simply "the kids."
"I'm 36 and I'm considered an old guy," says Patrick Hussey of Parkville, who participated in a Paul rally on a recent Saturday in Towson. "It's very unusual that there's this resurgence in the old right. He's a 76-year-old man and he's got the under-30 crowd for him. It's very unique."
Motivated by Paul's purist libertarian ideology — he opposes most foreign wars, advocates for severe cuts to federal budgets and believes drugs should be decriminalized federally — supporters say they're drawn to a movement that is consistent, fair and free. And while the 12-time congressman has failed to win any of the first three voting states, he's captured the youth vote every time, sometimes dominantly.
In Iowa, 48 percent of the under-30 caucus-goers went for Paul, compared with 23 percent for former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and 14 percent for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
In New Hampshire, Paul garnered 47 percent of the youth vote, compared with 26 for Romney.
"Paul's 47 percent support from 18- to 29-year-olds was the strongest level of support for any candidate by any age group," noted Peter Levine, the director of Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
In South Carolina, Paul carried the youth vote, yet again. He garnered 31 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old vote in comparison to 28 percent for former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and 21 percent for Santorum.
Paul has attributed the idealism of his platform to his popularity among young voters. Asked by Jay Leno, on "The Tonight Show," in December, about the issue, the candidate said: "Freedom is very appealing, it's based on principle. …. And I think younger people tend to be more principled and later on resort to blend in and mesh in and go along with the crowd".
Patrick McGrady, 25, of Aberdeen, who helps rally support in Maryland for Paul, says the most difficult part about all the youth enthusiasm is how youthful it is. Many Paul supporters come to the campaign with no experience and no idea how to organize.
"Who do I know that's a Ron Paul supporter that isn't young?" he asks rhetorically. "They're active. They want to work hard. They don't have a clue what they're doing."
McGrady said Paul supporters are attracted to the Texas congressman's ideology of economic and social liberty, not necessarily his character.
"A lot of the Paul people, they're not political hacks," he says. "When they see Ron Paul speaking the truth, they get excited."
That's why, he says, revelations that decades-old Paul newsletters contained racist comments — ideas the candidate disavows and says he didn't write — aren't a deal-breaker for Paul supporters.
"It's not about Ron Paul," McGrady says. "We don't think Ron Paul is infallible. It's the message. He's the only guy saying anything that anyone believes."
While Paul supporters don't consider the newsletters a deal-breaker, they could be very damaging in a general election for young voters, Levine says. That's because, he notes, the biggest dividing issues between young and older voters are those of tolerance and diversity.
The most pronounced dividing line is gay marriage, he says, but young people are also more inclusive on issues like immigration. Paul says the government should have no role in keeping gay people from marrying, and he opposes plans to institute a national ID card as part of immigration reform.
"Young people are much more tolerant," he says. "They don't tolerate racism."
Levine says he sees Paul as the only GOP candidate who is motivating young voters. He said the campaign has bused young people to battleground states to help persuade other youth voters to cast ballots for their candidate.
"I haven't seen anything else like that on the Republican side," he said.
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