Can Ron Paul Pull Off a Youth Revolt in Iowa?

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Brendan Hoffman / Prime for TIME

People listen as Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul holds a campaign rally at the SteepleGate Inn on Monday, January 2, 2012 in Davenport, IA.

Newton, Iowa

David Richardson, clad in his black leather Led Zeppelin jacket, rode his bicycle into the middle of the Iowa Speedway in Newton. There were no drivers on the track, but there was a different kind of race under way in a small building at the center of the facility — one fueled by money and votes instead of gasoline. Texas Congressman Ron Paul was there on Wednesday afternoon to make his case for becoming the next President.

One look at Richardson, a 28-year-old factory worker, and it was clear he had already been won over. Along with a thick nose ring, he sported a Paul beanie and a Paul T-shirt bearing Iowa’s state motto: “Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.” Richardson is one of many young people rallying to the 76-year-old Republican’s candidacy. Some, like Richardson, have volunteered for him and are committed to voting for him; others are just intrigued. But the appeal is undeniable, and it could well determine where Paul finishes in Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Despite his age, there is an air of rock ‘n’ roll around Paul. One supporter even flashed the rock-out-horns sign when asked on Thursday whether he was sold on the candidate: “Hell, yeah, for Ron Paul!” he said. “The message of liberty is really appealing to younger people,” says Richardson, a heavy-metal fan who got interested in politics through battles over music censorship. One can spot dreadlocks or “Paul is my homeboy” T-shirts in the crowd at his campaign events. American Idol pop star Kelly Clarkson recently endorsed Paul on Twitter.

And there are parts of Paul’s stump speech that communicate youthful earnestness and optimism. “What you want to do with your life, what your religious beliefs are, what your intellectual pursuits are, what your private habits are — that’s part of freedom,” he said in Council Bluffs on Thursday. Paul’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, says young people have an “amazing BS meter,” and they often say they see Paul as more sincere, more reliable than the other candidates. “He’s somebody that will solve the problems going on right now,” says 17-year-old Aaron Schoppe, who will attend his first caucus this year. “They haven’t had time to become cynical yet,” says Benton.

It’s not just stylistic. Paul’s antiestablishment policies can be every bit as bewitching as his antiestablishment rhetoric. “I never thought I would see the day when it would be cool to be a libertarian on a college campus, but it is,” says Blake Whitten, a statistics professor who sponsors the group Youth for Ron Paul on the University of Iowa campus, where the student newspaper endorsed the candidate this month. “We have all these kids running around with T-shirts that say ‘End the Fed,’ and a lot of them don’t completely understand what the Fed is.” When asked what piqued his interest in Paul, a 22-year-old Atlantic cook who caucused with Democrats in 2008 cited “regaining value to the U.S. currency.”

The list goes on. Paul is a strict noninterventionist, opposed to all foreign aid and in favor of pulling U.S. troops back worldwide. “I’m not a typical conservative in that I don’t like war,” 28-year-old Ryan Sjaarda said at a town hall on Friday. “I think it’s bad. I appreciate Ron Paul for that.” There’s also the so-called war on drugs that Paul no longer wants to fight — he believes states should be allowed to legalize everything from marijuana to heroin, another hit with the under-30 crowd. Despite personally opposing gay marriage, Paul’s belief that the decision should fall to states makes him a friendlier Republican for those interested in gay rights — an issue that young people, conservative and liberal alike, increasingly support. The Pew Center found, for example, that 37% of Republicans in the millennial generation support gay marriage, compared with 21% of those ages 30 and older.

But for all Paul’s youthful support, there’s still some question as to whether he can transform it into concrete electoral results. In 2008, voters ages 29 and younger turned out in droves to help deliver a stunning victory for Barack Obama in Iowa. Half as many, just 11% of the total, showed up on the Republican side, breaking 40% in favor of Mike Huckabee, the victor; 22% for Mitt Romney, who’s now the front runner in the latest Iowa polls; and 21% for Paul. GOP youth turnout could be bigger this year with no Democratic contest; and Paul is performing well with Democrats and independents in the polls, but that doesn’t mean Paul will get the kind of volunteer brigade Obama did.

Paul’s campaign team is trying hard to build one. It’s taken hundreds of young people to Iowa to canvass for Paul over the holidays, and his campus support organization, Youth for Ron Paul, has 1,300 members in Iowa alone. Many young people have been spending their winter vacations knocking on doors and huddled in phone banks. Relying on young caucusers has its challenges — many of them are first-time voters and college students’ residential status can complicate matters. Benton said the campaign is sending many of its e-mails and making many of its calls to young people to make sure they know where to go and what to do on caucus night. “It would probably be slightly easier for us if the caucus were on Jan. 24 and all the college kids were back in town,” Benton said.

The political engagement of young voters in the Hawkeye State gives the campaign some cause for optimism. A report released this summer by the nonpartisan group Rock the Vote found that young Iowans ranked second in the nation for voter participation: 63% of them cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election. And recent polls, like this one from Fox News, have shown that Paul’s support doubles among voters under 50.

Richardson is doing his small part. After listening to Paul speak at the speedway, he hopped on his bicycle and pedaled toward home. After descending a hill, he suddenly stopped and turned around. He rode back to the building at the racetrack, where he picked up an armful of yard signs. Richardson didn’t need one for himself — he said he still has the giant lawn sign he put up in 2008. Even though the placards would be trying to carry on his bike, Richardson was determined to take them home for his neighbors — a small price to pay for spreading the gospel of Paul.