ANKENY, Iowa—I can only be in one place at a time, but I’d wager a ten spot that the people at Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum’s so-called victory parties elsewhere in the Des Moines metro area don’t look anything like the people crowded into the ballroom here at the Ankeny Courtyard Marriott for Ron Paul’s bash.
Seriously, most of them appear to be younger than me, and as you can see from my author photo, that’s saying something.
There is the guy in the baggy jeans with the half-backward Family baseball cap, which just so happens to match the Family tattoo on the back of his neck.
There is the girl with the tie-dyed purse and the woven Fair Isle flats (so Urban Outfitters).
And there is the gentleman in the red-and-white flannel shirt and the puka-shell necklace who could’ve time-traveled here from 1993, if he’d even been alive then.
The scene in the ballroom is a vivid illustration of one of 2012’s most intriguing paradoxes: why, exactly, does the oldest Republican in the race attract by far the most youth support? After all, when Paul touted Kelly Clarkson’s endorsement at a high-school rally earlier today, he also had “to admit that [he] wasn’t familiar with her” before last week.
Paul’s youth following is an easy subject for bloviating pundits like me to speculate about, especially when we’re looking at a roomful of young women in dark eyeliner and young men in darker hoodies. Maybe they identify with outsider types. Maybe they like belonging to a group. Maybe they just want to, you know, legalize drugs.
But that kind of speculation wouldn’t just be worthless—it would be wrong. When you actually step away from the media risers and start talking to Paul’s young supporters, a different picture quickly emerges.
Take John Olofson. A 23-year-old from Kearney, Neb., Olofson drove to Des Moines with a group of fellow Paulies earlier this week. They wanted to “experience Iowa for [them]selves.” Earlier tonight, Olofson attended the 65th precinct’s caucus, and cheered when Paul trounced Romney. But he’s not a hardcore partisan; he also visited the Occupy protest downtown.
The young people gather in the Ankeny Courtyard Marriott are, in other words, idealists. And so is the 76-year-old they came to see tonight, whatever else he is.
When I asked Olofson why he’s such a Paul fan, he mentioned a couple of issues. He liked Paul’s “message of bringing our troops home and focusing on what we need to do here.” He appreciated Paul’s “focus on the Constitution.” And he even mustered some ire for the Federal Reserve. “We need some accountability from the Fed,” Olofson said. “Without it there will be disastrous consequences for the country.”
But the core of Olofson’s support for Paul can’t be boiled down to a single issue—and it’s the same for other young Paul followers. “The bottom line,” Olofson told me, “is that Paul has a set model for what he believes. He isn’t swaying all over the place like the rest of these politicians.”
That dogged consistency, I think, is what attracts young voters to Ron Paul. Say what you will about the guy: that he could never get elected, and that he could never enact his ideas if he were. Doesn’t matter. In fact, that’s part of his appeal. Young voters aren’t as beaten down by reality as the rest of us. They aren’t as accustomed to compromise. And they’re searching for a system—religion, Objectivism, Beat poetry, whatever else we were all into in high school and college—to make sense of the world around them. They are, in other words, idealists. And so is the 76-year-old they came to see tonight, whatever else he is.
Republicans will seize on Paul’s third-place finish as an opportunity to dismiss him, yet again. I doubt they’ll be able to. But even if Paul does eventually go away, the idealism he has tapped into won’t. It’s a very potent force. So this week, instead of ignoring Paul, the party would be wise to use his strong showing in Iowa as an opportunity to ask the same question I asked at the beginning of this item: why, exactly, does the oldest Republican in the race attract the most youth support?
By the way, John Olofson never mentioned legalizing drugs—even though he was wearing a black Carhartt ski cap and a lip ring.