Rep. Ron Paul: Winning young hearts but not votes?

This post has been updated, as indicated below.

Rep. Ron Paul(R-Texas) stopped by The Times on Wednesday to chat with the editorial board between rallies on university campuses – his campaign’s signature event. Tuesday night Paul was at the Chico campus of California State University, drawing a crowd of 1,000 (the campus newspaper’s count) to 6,000 (Paul’s estimate) youthful attendees. He’s heading to UCLA next, then to UC Berkeley, where the crowds may be even larger.

The board holds off-the-record sessions with candidates in order to decide whom to endorse, so I can’t say much about what we discussed. I don’t think I’m violating our ground rules, though, to report that Paul said he wasn’t dropping out of the race. What keeps him going is the enthusiasm generated by events like the one at Chico State, where his warnings about the threats to financial freedom and individual liberty resonate strongly with young voters.

So why doesn’t that enthusiasm translate into better results for Paul in the GOP presidential primary? After all, young voters’ embrace of candidate Barack Obama helped him defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary and Republican John McCain in the general election.


One answer may be that the voters he’s winning over at campuses across the country aren’t Republicans. They may not be Democrats, either. They want something different, and drastically so, from what the two parties are offering today: a hands-off approach to social and fiscal policy.

But then, that’s been the Libertarians’ pitch for a long time, and the party isn’t exactly setting the political world on fire. According to a rough tally in January by Ballot Access News, less than one-half of 1% of voters in the United States registered as Libertarians. Although the party’s ranks are gradually growing in California, it still counts only 93,300 registered members, or 0.55% of the state’s voters.

Paul’s doing way better than that among Republicans. He’s been drawing about 12% in the average poll since December. Yet he’s grabbed a much thinner share of the delegates awarded thus far – a little under 5%, by one unofficial count.

Assuming he doesn’t surge dramatically over the next couple of months, the test for Paul will be whether he attracts enough support to affect the other candidates’ focus and positions. H. Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign demonstrates how an unsuccessful bid for president can still move the policy needle in Washington. Perot put the federal budget deficit at the forefront of the debate over fiscal policy, and his point of view eventually prevailed.

Paul’s main issues are monetary policy (he likes the gold standard) and ending U.S. intervention in foreign conflicts. Those are (ahem) not mainstream points of view in the Republican Party, and you won’t hear any of his talking points on those issues echoed by GOP front-runner Mitt Romney. Or by President Obama, for that matter. Romney has been promoting “economic freedom” lately, but his definition of that phrase seems to have little in common with Paul’s.

The campaign’s not over, so there is still time for Paul and his backers to influence the focus of the fall campaign. His ability to do that would noticeably improve, though, if more of the people attending his campus rallies showed up to vote in the GOP primaries.

[For the record, 6:20 p.m. April 4: An earlier version of this post contained off-the-record information. It has been removed.]


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