ANKENY , Iowa — A surprising fact of the GOP caucuses: The oldest presidential contender is a magnet for some of the youngest voters.
Rep. Ron Paul, a 76-year-old Texas doctor, is embarked on his third try for the White House, and it is an effort built on youth.
“He’s the one consistent candidate,” said Josie Nelsen, a 21-year-old industrial engineering major at Iowa State University. “He follows the Constitution.”
According to Edward King, Paul’s national youth-vote coordinator, the attraction can be traced to the novelty of Paul’s positions. “He’s got unconventional answers and real solutions to the problems that we’re facing,” King said.
But even the candidate himself is not sure: At a meet-and-greet in Boone, he explained: “I’ve been asking the question myself for a long time. . . . I talk a lot about freedom. It’s a young idea.” He noted that voters used to bring their kids to his events but that now he often sees kids bringing their parents. And yet the cause eludes him: “I don’t have a full answer for that.”
To be sure, Paul makes outlandish, bookish declarations for the most radical reforms, such as abolishing five Cabinet departments — demolishing them even, if his explosive ads are to be believed. To a generation who grew up steeped in news of war and economic instability, Paul offers quick fixes that save more than they cost. “I don’t think it’s your sacrifice if I bring the troops home,” he told a crowd in Ames. “I think it’s a blessing.”
Paul’s college appeal looks a lot like what an enthusiastic, favored professor might engender on any campus across the country. His staff and his questioners address him as “Dr. Paul,” though because of his MD, not a PhD, and his rally remarks are peppered with scholarly footnotes: Austrian economists who predicted the end of Bretton Woods monetary management system, the inflationary depression of Zimbabwe, the century-old dual mistake of creating an income tax and a Federal Reserve system. He decried regulations run amok, like bans on raw milk — which was red-meat rhetoric in the cattle-minded crowd — and hemp. “If you get high on hemp, you’d need a cigar as big as a phone pole,” he said. Cheers.
As other front-runners have soared and collapsed, Paul’s support has climbed steadily, particularly in Iowa.
“Temporary energy” is how one campaign adviser described the spiky prospects of rivals such as Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the latest front-runner, former House speaker Newt Gingrich. By contrast, Paul’s trajectory appears slow and steady, and “his focus is on college campuses because that’s where there’s so many open-minded people who are open to new ideas that are outside of the mainstream establishment that they hear from other politicians,” King said.
“Ron Paul doesn’t derive his support from the media, though it’s helpful,” King said. “But a lot of these other candidates live and die by the coverage they get. Just like many of these campaigns that have come and gone, one mistake and it evaporates immediately.”
This week, Paul’s new ads have electrified the Iowa airwaves, with sneering attacks on his rivals for switching positions. The ads also contain raucous montages of the congressman’s rousing anti-bureaucracy positions — complete with pyrotechnics and power chords. Voters are implored to “drain the swamp” of Washington, because “that’s how Ron Paul rolls,” according to a raspy voice-over.
King credited a 46-state, campus-focused drive to introduce young activists to the candidate he describes as “the godfather of the tea party movement.” The Paul effort on campus looks traditional — with petition drives and sign-up tables and activist message meetings. The Iowa operation, by contrast, does not have the usual hive of phone-bank volunteers huddled among white boards and maps. Many workers report for duty from home and for shorter intervals. They dismiss traditional outreach; one campaign representative, for example, said that door-to-door canvassing is not a priority in Iowa, and campaign organizer James Barcia would not allow a reporter access to the state headquarters in suburban Des Moines, explaining that its activities are “operationally sensitive.”
Paul have been marshaled through Facebook when the campaign has sent out ballot-access petitions or rally seat reservations, and word has gone out through social media that Paul has a new celebrity supporter who might engage pop-culture-minded voters — actor Vince Vaughn.
Across from Drake University in Des Moines, Paul’s candidacy has been the subject of daily caffeinated discussions at Mars Cafe, said Daniel Bosman, who is the chief barista. The 30-year-old father of two said he might eventually support President Obama, as he did in 2008, but he’s starting to feel a pull toward Paul. “I like how he debates,” Bosman said. “He’s got the facts all up in his head, and it feels different when he’s saying it.”
Mars Cafe is a few doors from a Planned Parenthood office, and when candidates arrive for a debate at Drake on Saturday, protesters are expected to show up on the block, as they have during previous campaign events. Several Mars patrons noted that they learned much of what they knew about the Paul campaign from Facebook posts, makeshift signs on highway overpasses and fired-up young activists.
At a question-and-answer session for employees at a Des Moines financial service company, Paul endeared himself to two young Republican women who were undecided as the caucuses approach. “I really like all his tweets,” said Lauren Geers, a 25-year-old Principal Financial employee. “He’s really blunt and to the point.”
In his remarks, Paul reminded Geers and her colleagues of his career as an obstetrician, who has delivered 4,000 babies. He asserted his belief in protecting unborn fetuses and, completely switching gears, compared the economy’s reliance on printing more money to an addict scoring one more feel-good fix.
Paul’s decades of predictions — economic bubbles, terrorist attacks — impressed 22-year-old business major Patrick Reardon, who was among a crowd at a campaign event at Iowa State University in Ames. “He’s the only true peace candidate,” Reardon said, noting this was the 10th event for the candidate that he has attended. “I never pass up an opportunity to see Ron Paul.”