KU boasts nation’s largest ‘Youth For Ron Paul’ group

By MICHAEL HOLTZ | Feb. 16, 2012

From January to June 2012, I reported for Political Fiber, a news website founded by one of my college journalism professors and funded by the Knight Foundation. Our mission was to cover relevant state and national news for a college-age audience from our newsroom at the University of Kansas. The site shut down in 2013, which is why I posted this story here. 

Army veteran David Conway first heard about Ron Paul in 2009, after an improvised explosive device abruptly ended his second tour in Iraq that July.

He spent the next six months recovering from a broken right leg, a severed tendon in his left ankle and shrapnel wounds across his body. Bedridden and disillusioned with the war, he spent most of his time browsing the Internet and watching YouTube videos.

“I felt like I had certain beliefs about the war but I never really expressed them,” said Conway, who’s now a freshman at the University of Kansas. “As a solider I was expected to support it.”

That all changed when Conway came across a video clip of Paul on comedians Pen and Teller’s Showtime series. He was soon obsessed with the libertarian philosophies championed by the U.S representative from Texas, connecting most with his anti-war beliefs.

Conway estimates he has since watched more than 200 videos of Paul, one of the four remaining Republican presidential candidates.

“It became addicting,” he said. “I realized there was this whole movement behind Ron Paul, and I wanted to become a part of it.”

Paul’s grassroots movement — led by an army of college-aged volunteers — has helped him sweep the GOP youth vote in the first four of five primaries and caucuses. Florida was the only state where 18- to 29-year-old voters didn’t favored the 76-year-old Paul, according to entrance and exit polls. Polls are unavailable for the most recent contests in Missouri, Colorado, Minnesota and Maine.

Under Conway’s leadership here in Kansas, the KU chapter of Youth for Ron Paul has recruited 1,649 supporters — more than any other school in the country.

Rock Chalk, Ron Paul

In 2008, Paul was one of the most visible candidates on campus thanks to a small group of passionate student organizers. Though many of those students have since graduated, they planted the seed for today’s campaign.

About a dozen students attend the chapter’s weekly meeting in a small room in the Kansas Union. At last week’s meeting they discussed how to raise $2,000 for Jordan Page — “the Bob Dylan of liberty,” as one student described him — to perform on campus.

Conway, the chapter’s president, has become one of Paul’s most fervent supporters in Kansas. Like many of Paul’s college-aged organizers, he doesn’t limit his involvement to one state. He and four of his friends drove to Iowa during winter break to volunteer for Paul’s campaign leading up to the state’s caucus. With help from hundreds of like-minded students, Paul won 21.4 percent of the vote and came in a close third.

Edward King, Paul’s national youth director, said young people have since become a vital component of the campaign. Youth for Ron Paul has organized more than 525 chapters and registered nearly 29,000 people, 4,000 more than it did in 2008.

“And the campaign is just getting started,” King said. “We expect it to grow even more as the momentum builds.”

Youth Support

At a time when voter enthusiasm for Republican candidates remains lackluster, Paul’s rivals could learn a lot from his success with young people, said Peter Levine, the director of Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. His ability to connect with college-aged voters is no small achievement for a candidate many pundits have written off as the GOP’s eccentric uncle.

“If you can organize a small, coherent, passionate sub-culture, you can have a big impact,” Levine said. “You can change the public discourse if you’re skillful at asserting yourself in that kind of way.”

Paul’s popularity with young people may be most evident online. His grassroots supporters are among the most active Internet users of any Republican candidate. “Kansas for Ron Paul 2012,” his Facebook page for the state, boasts nearly 900 likes. No other candidate has more than 350.

That so many young people are rallying around Paul’s anti-establishment rhetoric says much about a generation jaded by a fractured political system and a dismal economy. A survey by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that 52 percent of millennials believe the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction.

Many are so disillusioned, or simply uninterested, that they soon avoid politics all together. But that doesn’t mean candidates can afford to ignore them.

“It’s the biggest generation we’ve ever seen in America and the biggest generation in the world,” saidTrey Grayson, director of the institute. “Those campaigns that don’t adapt to what the millennial generation wants to see in candidates are going to have a hard time winning.”

President Barack Obama recognized the untapped potential for young people in 2008. But after winning 66 percent of the youth vote, his popularity with millennials has steadily waned. The Harvard survey found that Obama’s job approval among college students has fallen from 60 percent last February to 48 percent today.

Many of Paul’s young backers are ex-Obama supporters frustrated with what they see as the president’s failed promise of change. Others identify themselves as libertarians in the traditional sense: fiscally conservative and socially liberal. And some are single-issue voters who’ve attached themselves to one of Paul’s radical platforms, such as legalizing drugs or abolishing the Federal Reserve.

Together they say they’ve found hope in Paul’s ideological consistency and political authenticity. For them, his campaign represents more than a second shot at winning the White House; it’s an opportunity to have his message heard.

“Even if Ron Paul doesn’t win, he’s going to make dramatic change in the political system,” Conway said. “He’s building a movement. He’s not just running for president.”

A fighting chance

Though voter turnout among young people has remained low — 10 percent of voters on average in first five contests — it’s been enough to give Paul a narrow shot at winning the nomination.

But most experts agree his chances are slim. Despite his enthusiastic support from young people, he sits atabout 12 percent in national polls.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows Paul winning 18 percent of the vote if he were to run as an independent candidate. The poll found that most of his support would come from voters under the age of 65. They’re almost twice as likely than older voters to vote for him. Though Paul says he has no intention of starting a third-party run, it’s not something he’s ruled out completely.

Who Paul’s college-aged supporters gravitate toward if he loses the nomination, and turns down a third-party ticket, remains to be seen. Regardless of what happens, young people seem unlikely to write off his campaign as a complete loss.

“Whether or not Ron Paul gets the nomination, I feel like ideas are changing and people are changing,” said Dhyana Coil, a graduate student at Friends University, and member of Youth for Ron Paul. “I really do believe he has started a revolution of ideas.”