12/24/2011 09:37 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2012

Ron Paul's Iowa Caucus Conundrum: Can He Get Out The Youth Vote?

Ron Paul's biggest foe in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses may not be Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann or even Newt Gingrich. It could be a hangover.

Paul is currently leading the Republican presidential field in Iowa, his approval rating among the state's voters having risen this past week from 21 to 23 percent, compared with Romney's 20 percent and Gingrich's 14 percent, according to the latest Public Policy Poll. Paul's surge arises in part among the state's younger voters, who have rallied around his libertarian agenda: The Texas congressman garnered 33 percent support among voters under age 45.

But will hard-partying college students still recovering from New Year's Eve come out to vote on Jan. 3? Some believe the timing of the caucuses -- at the end of winter break, when college campuses are still sleepy -- could negate Paul's youth advantage.

"It's difficult," said Tim Albrecht, a strategist for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R). "They're home, they're with their chums, they're watching a Cyclones game, they're opening presents, they're attending New Year's parties, they're spending New Year's Day recovering, and boom, now they have to go to a caucus."

But don't count out Paul's young supporters just yet. Between 2004 and 2008, turnout rates for young voters in Iowa's Democratic and Republican caucuses actually tripled, from 5 to 15 percent, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. That count covers voters from ages 17 to 24.

On the Republican side, Iowa State University political science professor Dave Peterson said, the enthusiasm boost in 2008 could be attributed to the caucus' winner, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose high-profile evangelical identity made him popular among young conservatives. The high youth turnout on the Democratic side in 2008, said CIRCLE Director Peter Levine, was largely due to future President Barack Obama's aggressive outreach efforts.

"Obama's campaign in '08 realized that 17-year-olds could vote [as long as they would be 18 by the date of the general election], so they organized in high schools -- and nobody else did," Levine said. The Iowa caucuses in 2008 were also held in early January.

"If Ron Paul wins Iowa, it'll be because of the youth vote," Levine said.

Paul's campaign has no special plan for bringing the kids to the caucuses, however. The campaign says it doesn't need to. "The young people are organizing themselves," said David Fischer, an Iowa co-chair for Paul. "When we have Ron Paul go to a campus visit, he draws extraordinarily large crowds. That's not a function of an organizational skill. That's a power of the message Ron Paul delivers."

Of Iowa's 3 million population, 360,000 are college students. Of those, only half are state residents. But the out-of-state students shouldn't be written off entirely. Adam Sullivan, editor in chief of the Daily Iowan, the student newspaper at the University of Iowa -- which endorsed Paul last week -- said their fervor for Paul is enough to get college students to the caucuses, even from out of town.

"They're only caucusing because they're excited about Ron Paul. It's not the same for Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich," he said. "If anyone's supporters will come back to Iowa to caucus from Minnesota or Illinois, it'll be Ron Paul's," Sullivan said.

Moreover, the majority of Iowa's youth voters aren't actually students. "Only about half of young people go to college at all. Only half of those go to four-year colleges," Levine said. "When they show the youth vote number, it'll include 90 percent non-college students." That's why the timing of the caucuses might not be so detrimental to Paul.

For Peterson, much has yet to be determined. "The people who are backing Ron Paul -- of all ages -- are die-hard supporters," he said. "The Paul people are dedicated, and they're going to show up. The real question is the 75 percent of the people who aren't Ron Paul supporters. What are they going to do?"

Sixty percent of young Republican caucus-goers in 2008 identified as born-again or evangelical Christians, and 19 percent were independents. Peterson said he sees Texas Gov. Rick Perry as the dark horse of Iowa, because his targeted -- and oft-mocked -- messages reach evangelicals. According to Peterson, the value of winning the youth vote might also be overplayed.

And even Paul's campaign expressed some uncertainty about student turnout on Jan. 3. "The college campuses are silent right now. It's Christmas break," Fischer acknowledged. "The students don't have campus and don't have the esprit de corps of participating together. Whether they'll turn out at home on caucus night, I don't know."