01/31/2012 12:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Florida, Diverse Young Republicans Ignited By Ron Paul

By Ike Sriskandarajah


Photo Credit: IKE SRISKANDARAJAH/Turnstyle News
Young Ron Paul supporters in Florida.

Ron Paul's libertarian ideas may be considered fringe in the Grand Old Party, but they are mainstream among the party's younger voters. And whoever does become the Republican nominee could pay a price for neglecting this energetic base.

In the days leading up to the Florida primary, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney wrestle for last-minute votes across the state.  Meanwhile, on a quiet, shady street, the Florida College Republicans are having their own poll. Twenty-one young conservatives representing every major college and university in the state gather around a small conference table inside the George Bush Republican Center, a half mile from the state Capitol, to discuss the future of the party.

I wasn't allowed inside the meeting, but Kayla Westbrook, the chairwoman of Tallahassee's Florida State University College Republicans, met me outside.  Westbrook is dressed for television news - actually, she was on Fox Business earlier this week talking - says, "we're just exchanging ideas and going over what we can do to turn Florida red."

The state went Blue in 2008 despite the best efforts of this active youth group, which claims to have clocked 100,000 phone calls and 20,000 volunteer hours for candidate John McCain.  But in general, McCain couldn't generate the passion his competitor, Barack Obama, did.  This year, the Republican candidates face the same challenge, especially when it comes to exciting young voters; that is, with one notable exception.  I asked Westbrook who she's supporting this primary and she said, "Well, I can't say I support any one candidate over another, being the leader of the College Republicans, but I do like Ron Paul."

Ron Paul is the answer this primary for many young people in Florida's capitol city. Among the party-oriented College Republicans, Paul came in second to Mitt Romney. But in the three Republican contests in other states, Ron Paul won among voters under 30, by considerable margins.

According to Peter Levine, the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, "if anyone's showing up, it's people who are showing up for Ron Paul.  He's getting half or so of all the Republican young votes."

Levine reminds me that while those percentages are impressive, in overall numbers, Obama drew several times as many young voters in 2008.  The Paul base is few, but they are everywhere.  On the FSU Campus alone there are four student groups that favor Paul. The College Republicans meet on Tuesday, the College Libertarians are on Wednesdays, the Youth for Ron Paul is on Thursday - and that meeting ends just before the later-scheduled, Campaign for Liberty meetings start.  FSU Senior, Jeremey Uneberg, told me he sometimes spends six hours a week going to all of them. "That's pretty much what I do. Some people are interested in watching the Kardashians on TV and I'm interested in politics."

Uneberg's six hours a week doesn't even include the extra-extra-curricular Ron Paul "sign-bombs," where he and a handful of enthusiastic supporters meet on a stretch of highway in front of a Tallahassee grocery.  The week before the primary they are out every rush hour, waving hand-painted signs with slogans like, "Honk if you are for Ron Paul and Limited Government."  Another one takes advantage of the candidate's internet popularity, simply urging, "Google Ron Paul." There's about a honk a minute and during red lights, the more daring supporters play frogger with the cars, handing out or even pasting bumper stickers on cars and trucks.

So why does the oldest candidate do so well with the youngest voters? According to Uneberg, there are two big reasons.  He says, "the anti war message is pretty popular," adding, "I'm 21 years old so, we've been at war for over half my life."  But for Uneberg the root of America's problems, and the reason for his support of Paul, comes down to money. "The focus on the Federal Reserve and economic issues are the number one concern. Without the Federal Reserve's bad practices in the first place, we wouldn't have even been able to fund the wars in the first place," he said.

Paul supporters echo this sentiment along highways and on FSU's campus: they favor cutting the deficit a trillion dollars, dismantling the Fed, and unleashing the power of the free market. Fiscal conservatism gets top billing.

And their number one frustration is that this issue gets eclipsed by another issue.

One of Ron Paul's most controversial plans is to end the war on drugs by lifting Federal restrictions on all controlled substances, leaving legislation up to the states. Young Paul supporters complain that people think they're just in it for the drugs. Uneberg justifies his position by saying, "as a criminology major, as the son of a retired police officer, as someone who wants to go into law enforcement, I find the war on drugs to be very problematic. It disproportionately affects black communities, and I don't think that you can say that you support civil rights then ignore the fact that there are these injustices that occur in our criminal justice system."

Which brings up another thing that Paul supporters would like to address. Surveys show the base is mostly young, white men. Which is true of Uneberg. But it isn't true for the older man I met that served during Desert Storm or the married couple in their mid 30s, or Zayida Baker, a 31 year old, black, female, Harvard educated, tea party advocate.  She recently picked up the cause and a picket sign for Ron Paul at one of the weekend's "sign bombings."

Baker is used to surprising people and is ready when I ask her about Paul's scandal over some of his old campaign newsletters that used bigoted language. She tells me, "even if he doesn't love black people, I think that he would make the presidency less powerful so the biases of an individual president would mean less under someone like him."

Not many are able to separate their personal from their political identities. Which is one reason Baker is rare in the conservative world.  She's also against government programs that many minorities depend on.  She sees welfare and benefits to single mothers as government programs that hasten the decay of black families, saying, "I think you have to explain the inequalities somehow at some point, you know, if black people aren't making gains: Why? And I think it's partly because some of the incentives for self-uplift have been taken away."

The CIRCLE research shows young conservatives here look different than those in the last three states.  South Carolina's primary was 98 percent white, while more than a fifth of young Republican voters here are expected to be people of color.

Alex Posada is the son of two Cuban immigrants, a member of the FSU College Republicans, and supports Ron Paul. He boasts about the diversity of the Paul camp, "that's what's so amazing about it- I may be Hispanic, and someone else may be African American, someone else may be white, that doesn't really matter at the end of the day, is that we're all together, we're all united for the same cause and that is: fiscal sanity."

It's unlikely that Paul will advance this presidential season.  But as these young people carry their political passion into their adult lives, it's likely these ideas won't be considered fringe forever.

Originally published on
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