Since Ron Paul swept the youth vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s become popular for press accounts to contrast the age of his supporters with the wizened appearance of the 76-year-old country doctor. The stories go like this: a “great-grandfather” with a “crotchety streak” possesses a “youthful magic” that spellbinds a “surprisingly young support base,” and not just because he wants to “legalize drugs.” Often enough, the stories take Paul at face value, concluding that college students have been pining for a presidential candidate who talks about the Constitution, ending the Fed, and Ludwig von Mises.
But this doesn’t explain the passion Paul inspires, the T-shirts declaring him “my homeboy,” the hottie calendars dedicated to him, the enthusiasm that greets news that Paul has released a new cookbook, of all things. “Ron Paul has the answer,” is the phrase his supporters tend to use when posting blogs and comments about him, with or without the enhancement of all caps.
The youth have long had a thing for the good doctor. In 2008, Paul’s volunteers in Des Moines were almost exclusively scraggly out-of-town college types who slept at a YMCA camp and were given three rules, “No drugs, no booze, and no freedom babies.” In the first two contests of 2012, the 12-term Texas congressman has dominated the field among those under 30, and drew far more lopsided support from men than any of the other candidates. As one fresh-faced supporter recently told MTV News, exhorting others to vote for Paul, “You have two choices: freedom and tyranny.”
The notion that this year’s election is a choice between freedom (in the form of Paul) and tyranny (in the form of any other candidate) encapsulates Paul’s grand appeal to men in their late teens and 20s: He traffics in absolutes. Political scientists point out that age and newness to politics predispose young voters to a less nuanced view of the political world. They’re less likely to take the long view, less likely to have patience, less likely to spin out the implications of their political theories.
Paul is for these voters less a politician than a wise professor who has, through decades of research, gradually honed in on the simple truths that will turn our country around. By implication, his supporters are the ones who’ve educated themselves enough to know only their revered Dr. Paul has the aforementioned “answer.” In this way, the elderly politician has pulled of a kind of branding coup, tapping into the intellect and the egos of hordes of young men frustrated by this economy’s thwarting of their ambitions.
The young tend to be “more interested in simpler, more abstract and pure philosophies,” says Peter Levine, who directs Tufts University’s Circle Research center, which studies young people’s civic participation. They are less likely to have developed the kind of partisan affiliation that older voters filter their news through, so they’re more reactive, more influenced by events of the moment, political scientists say. And this hasn’t just benefited Paul—in 2008, college-aged voters swooned for Barack Obama in part because they’d spent adolescence under President Bush, who was supremely loathed by the time the last election rolled around.
Certainly Paul offers policies that resonate with younger voters, in particular his anti-war stance and his insistence that economic troubles require a drastic departure from the status quo. But more than any other candidate, his message can be boiled down to a few principles, like the saving power of the free market. He doesn’t shy away from pushing these to their logical extreme, as evidenced by that moment during a September debate when—in response to a hypothetical from Wolf Blitzer—Paul calmly maintained that the government should not step in and give health care to an uninsured and gravely ill man. (This led to a rather frightening instance of audience participation, in which Blitzer followed up by asking if society should just let the man die and several audience members answered, “Yeah!”)
For Paul supporters, “it’s not really about political views, it’s about knowledge,” says Dan Cassino, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Supporters tend to talk about the congressman as a would-be educator-in-chief. “Without him I don’t think that we would know so much,” says a young man supporting Paul in Austin. Unlike supporters of, say, Obama or Mitt Romney, Paul supporters tend to talk about an absolute truth, one that others would see, too, if they could just be persuaded to read certain materials. Among them: Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. These, of course, come from Paul, who gives an exhaustive list of recommendations at the back of what he calls his “manifesto.” During the 2008 election, Paul helpfully offered Rudy Giuliani a four-book reading list, including The 9/11 Commission Report, to improve Giuliani’s grasp of foreign policy.
By extension, those who read what Paul reads and believe what he believes are proving their intellectual prowess. To the extent that voters try to communicate who they are through their candidate affiliation, Fairleigh Dickinson’s Cassino believes that what Paul offers more than any other Republican candidate is compelling branding.
“Candidates these days are essentially sold like soap,” and young people in particular tend to think of them “the way they think of any other product,” says Cassino, who with his sociologist wife conducted focus groups and surveys to develop this theory in the run-up to the 2008 election. “If I tell somebody I support Romney, what in the world do you know about me?” Cassino says. But just as Obama’s brand in 2008 signified hope and change and—let’s say—shopping at Whole Foods and driving a Prius, Paul’s brand has its own powerful symbolism, which is not so much about specific products as it is about ideas.
“The Ron Paul brand is actually relatively intellectual,” Cassino says. It’s “A brand that’s about, ‘I’m smarter than you are.’ … ‘All the politicians are telling you one thing but I know better.’ ” This is the brand for those who feel different, who see themselves as a little bit brainier and more marginalized than everyone else. “If you’re playing Dungeons and Dragons, this is your poiltical movement,” Cassino says.
This branding, he speculates, may also help explain why Paul holds more appeal for men. Social bias may enter into the equation. “In women it’s not considered desirable to be pointing out how intellectual you are,” Cassino says. Or at least, not as desirable.
This may also explain the limitations of Paul’s appeal. It’s not just that understanding him often necessitates the reading of semi-obscure Austrian school economists, though that is itself a high bar for political participation. (“I can’t get my students to read that stuff,” Cassino points out.)
It’s also that those drawn to Ron Paul are narrowly self-selecting—they are attracted to the idea of being the rare voices of reason in a culture of foolishness. They are, in Cassino’s words, “countercultural.” It is a point of pride for them to be trudging uphill against the wind.
It’s just possible that if Paul’s ideas ever became mainstream some of his supporters might not find them so compelling anymore. Though that probably isn’t in danger of happening anytime soon. For better or worse, it seems unlikely many Americans can be prevailed upon to care that much about the gold standard.