Rand Paul wants to capture the youth vote and become the Barack Obama of 2016. Does he stand a chance?

Andrew Romano
·West Coast Correspondent
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Rand Paul announces the start of his presidential campaign on April 7 in Louisville. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In launching his 2016 presidential bid here Tuesday afternoon, Republican Sen. Rand Paul repeatedly promised to run a “different” kind of race by reaching out to a different generation of voters. 

“Our great nation still needs new ideas and new answers to new problems,” Paul said before a jam-packed ballroom at the historic Galt House hotel. “Under the watch of both parties, the poor have gotten poorer and the rich have gotten richer. I have a different vision. An ambitious vision.”

Before his speech, Paul elaborated on that vision in a series of slick introductory videos billing him as “a different kind of Republican” with “a conservative message that energizes young people.”

“Ask the Facebook generation if we should put a kid in jail for the nonviolent crime of drug use, and you’ll hear a resounding ‘no,’” Paul said on screen. “Ask the Facebook generation if they want to bail out too-big-to-fail banks with their tax dollars, and you’ll hear a ‘hell, no!’

“Kids universally think the government has gone too far in snooping and looking at their record,” the senator continued. “Will you, America’s next generation of liberty lovers — will you stand and be heard?”

What Paul envisioned at his announcement event — a campaign that harnesses the energy of the youth electorate to alter the landscape of American politics — isn’t unprecedented. Yet his success is anything but assured.

There are two paths Paul could pursue going forward.

Paul loyalists like to compare their man to the last candidate who got millennials all riled up. “I’ve met a lot of young people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008,” said Jack Hunter, a former Paul Senate staffer who resigned after being unmasked as the controversial radio personality the Southern Avenger and now runs a politics site called Rare.us. “Do I think they agreed with everything he said? No. But he was different and he meant it. Rand could be the same.”

But the Obama template is an odd fit for Paul. Obama was a major-party candidate with a mainstream message and a promise to unite the country; the only thing that was particularly unusual about his candidacy was his demographic background.

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Paul listens to supporters chant “President Paul” while announcing his candidacy for the presidential nomination.  (Photo: Luke Sharrett/Getty)

In contrast, the core of Paul’s potential appeal, especially to millennials, is the fact that he clashes with his own political party more often than not: on privacy, on prisons, on pot, on defense, even on racial issues. If the Bluegrass State senator feels a need to try to be all things to all people by diluting his libertarian views in the months ahead — and he has already muddied his message on gay marriage and the Islamic State — he runs the risk of undermining his brand and squandering the support that’s lifted him to national prominence. 

A second path, however, may be available to Paul. Not so long ago, a principled insurgent from flyover country challenged GOP orthodoxy with the first insurgent White House campaign of the modern era. His main primary opponent was the Jeb Bush of his day: a big-name, big-money moderate from back east. But the challenger’s idealistic collegiate supporters (including a teenage Hillary Clinton) upended conventional wisdom, first by taking over the Young Republicans and later by powering him past Nelson Rockefeller to the party’s 1964 presidential nomination — a victory that introduced small-government movement conservatism to the masses and changed the GOP forever. “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” said the candidate at the time.

Could Rand Paul be the Barry Goldwater of 2016 — the man who starts to steer the Republican Party in a new direction? Can Paul make the GOP more palatable to the next generation by making it more libertarian?

Paul’s millennial outreach isn’t just rhetorical. He does interviews on Snapchat. He trolls his opponents on Twitter. He buys up search ads for their names on Google and belittles them on Facebook. “If you don’t go to a platform where [millennials] are, you won’t find them,” Paul said last month at the South by Southwest festival. (He was the only likely presidential candidate in attendance.) He then proceeded to open an office in hip, tech-centric Austin and attend a Mark Ronson concert.

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Ron Paul takes a selfie with a supporter before watching his son Rand announce his candidacy. (Photo: Luke Sharrett/Getty)

More important, Paul already has the youth infrastructure in place to capitalize on his social media efforts. His father, Ron, received millions of primary votes during his 2008 and 2012 presidential bids, many of them from the under-45 crowd. (According to 2012 entrance and exit polls, the elder Paul won 48 percent of these voters in Iowa and 46 percent in New Hampshire.) When Ron retired, his former national youth director launched Young Americans for Liberty, a 501©3 nonprofit that now boasts chapters on more than 500 campuses in all 50 states. The group, which regularly handles logistics for Rand’s campus events, estimates that roughly 80 percent of its 200,000 members would support the senator from Kentucky in 2016. And Paul’s youth outreach team was quick to leap into action Tuesday, hosting #LibertyKaraoke fundraisers in 62 cities around the country, many of them college towns.

Paul’s message seems to be connecting with younger conservatives. He has won the millennial-dominated CPAC straw poll three years in row; a recent New Hampshire poll shows him leading among voters under 45 by a wide margin. Nationally, he tends to run well ahead of the rest of the Republican pack among younger voters, with double or triple the support that Scott Walker, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are currently attracting.

“Paul’s criticism of the NSA and his strong stand on surveillance issues resonates among younger Americans who believe that the government shouldn’t have that much power to infringe on the freedom of its citizens,” says Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer. “The same goes for his position that we should back off the drug wars because they’ve been detrimental to minorities.” There is some evidence that younger Americans are more open than their predecessors to a political philosophy that blends social liberalism with small-government conservatism.

But whether any of this early millennial support can actually propel Paul to the presidency in 2016 is another story. Republican primary voters are old and white — not young and diverse. Only 12 percent of self-identified Republicans consider themselves libertarian, and even then, their allegiance to libertarian principles is shaky at best. And the more Paul tries to rally to his younger, more libertarian base, the more he will alienate the broader GOP coalition: social conservatives who oppose medical marijuana; defense hawks who are skeptical of his noninterventionist instincts; business Republicans who are spooked by his critiques of the Federal Reserve Bank. The same is true in reverse; every concession to the GOP establishment will damage him among millennials. “To win in 2016, Paul can’t look like just another politician,” says Zelizer. “If he does, young voters won’t buy that he’s willing to fight his own party.”

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Paul waves to the crowd after formally announcing his candidacy. (Photo: John Sommers II/Reuters)

Some Paul supporters believe he’s deft enough to thread this needle and capture the Republican nomination, and his announcement speech Tuesday offered a preview of the balance he plans to strike, especially on foreign policy. “I will do whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind,” Paul said onstage, identifying “radical Islam” as “the enemy.” “Conservatives should not succumb, though, to the notion that a government inept at home will somehow succeed at building nations abroad.”

Insiders also note that much of the senator’s youth- and minority-centric messaging may be aimed less at changing the Republican primary electorate than at convincing the existing electorate that he would be a viable, electable nominee come fall. But even that might be a stretch. Should Paul emerge as this year’s GOP standard-bearer, he’ll likely have to face Hillary Clinton in the general, and his hardcore anti-abortion position and recent admission that same-sex marriage “offends myself and a lot of people” will make it difficult for him to siphon off a decisive number of millennials, who overwhelmingly disagree.

As he spoke Tuesday, Paul seemed to acknowledge that being different is his best shot in 2016. “In order to restore America, one thing is certain: we cannot dilute our message or give up on our principles,” he said to riotous applause. “If we nominate a candidate who is simply Democrat-lite, what’s the point? Why bother?”

Barry Goldwater said much the same thing in 1964. Of course, he also went on to lose to Lyndon B. Johnson in one of the largest landslides in U.S. presidential election history. “It could be that Paul is a candidate ahead of his time,” Zelizer says. “He makes an argument about where the party needs to go, gets creamed, but attracts a new cohort that reshapes the party with new principles. That wasn’t clear after 1964. But maybe 20, 30 years from now, if the GOP moves in a more libertarian direction, then historians like me will look back at the failed Paul candidacy as the beginning of all that.”

The question now — the question that Paul’s announcement event gestured toward but did not answer — is whether he can withstand the pressure to conform as he embarks on his first national campaign.

After the senator’s speech was over and his “Defeat the Washington Machine — Unleash the American Dream” placards had come down, two young friends began the long walk back to their car.

Brice Ingram, 21, and Maria Menard, 19, had driven all the way from Delaware for the event — 11 hours. They were both wearing new, navy blue “Rand” T-shirts. They seemed to be big Rand Paul fans.

“Ron Paul,” Ingram corrected. “I mean, I like Rand’s libertarian leanings. Young people today want the government out of their pockets, out of their cellphones and out of their bedrooms. And Rand is the only person in Congress who’s standing up for civil liberties, against the NSA. For criminal-justice reform.”

“Against sending drug users to prison,” Menard added.

“But,” Ingram continued, “his stances in the last couple of weeks when it comes to foreign policy — signing the Iran letter and bidding to add $190 billion to the defense budget — kind of shook me a little bit.”

Menard nodded.

“Ron Paul has built an enormous base of support among people like us,” Ingram said. “I’m just hoping his son doesn’t polarize that crowd by pandering to the establishment.”