Congressman Ron Paul will not be the Republican Party's choice to challenge President Barack Obama. Even many of his most ardent loyalists recognize, at the current rate of his marginal support, Paul will not amass enough delegates to win the nomination.
Yet young people, Paul's most enthusiastic supporters, remain his most reliable voting bloc. In fact, Paul has finished first with Millennials, the 18-29 demographic, in almost every Republican primary to date. In a GOP campaign overflowing with dramatic mood swings, one thing is true: Paul's capacity to sustain the youth vote has been the most consistent feature of this cycle.
Young people have often preferred campaigns, sometimes those lacking mainstream appeal, that boldly challenged the establishment candidate. These candidates, like former Gov. Howard Dean for the Democrats or Mike Huckabee for the Republicans, ultimately fell out of favor with the party elders. One notable exception is Obama. Galvanized by zealous young supporters, Obama rode a wave of momentum to both the nomination and general election victory.
But Paul is far less likely to win, his supporters admit, than those other figures. Why, then, do young people still make him their preference this primary campaign? The answer is in every public opinion poll that describes young people's disgust with the political process. A libertarian rebel in GOP clothes and a frequent thorn in the side of Republican colleagues, Paul represents a path to freedom from a destructive two-party political system.
As the antiparty party candidate, Paul's central appeal, like that of Ralph Nader and Ross Perot before him, is that today's D.C. is neither a success story nor a work-in-progress: The two-party system and its unrelenting entrenched moneyed interests are denying the next generation a decent chance of enduring economic equity for all Americans.
Surely, young people consider Paul, like the rest in the GOP field, a flawed candidate. Some of his social and foreign policy positions are not in sync with the Millennial sensibility. But Paul's constant emphasis on the economic imperative at home — before investments in international commitments abroad — resonates plenty with the average college student carrying the impossible weight of college loans or with the recent graduate who can't find work in the United States.
Obama promised a unified bipartisan government that would work on behalf of the next generation. With continued joblessness and college tuition/debt plaguing campuses and individual young adults nationwide, it is increasingly difficult to believe in that reality. Many disillusioned students do not believe that a traditional party can fulfill that very real change.
Millennial votes cast for Paul, if obliquely, were also votes for a third party. For now, Ron Paul may seem like the only alternative to the typical DNA of major party candidates. But Americans Elect, a nonprofit organization, has launched the first-ever national online presidential primary to nominate an independent-minded ticket, not beholden to party doctrine or dictate.
Odds are that Paul himself will likely remain a fringe candidate, largely excluded from GOP convention proceedings and the fall campaign. That leaves Americans Elect — and the initiative and tenacity of America's young people, that is, if they want to build on their desire to form a truly viable third party.
Alexander Heffner, a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Perspective, covers the campaign at SCOOP2012.com.