When Obama failed to sidestep politics as usual, many disillusioned young voters found a refreshing alternative in Ron Paul.
In 2008, Moses Caballero was a 21-year-old activist in New York City who couldn’t wait to cast his first presidential vote for Barack Obama. He canvassed around Harlem, he proselytized to his friends, he attended rallies and meetings downtown. Coming from a family of hardcore Puerto Rican and Brazilian-American Democrats that voted for Charlie Rangel every election cycle, he “really couldn’t give a fuck about a Republican.” He was happy that Obama planned to get our troops out of Iraq. He liked the sound of making government more transparent.
“I really loved the idea of finally becoming part of the political process,” he says. “Like it mattered what I thought about government issues.” The fact that Obama was biracial topped it off. For his Harlem neighbors and family members, having a president of color “was monumental,” Moses says. “It felt important for us to back him. I thought he would support us.”
Fast-forward to 2012. The best way Caballero can describe the way he feels is “heartbroken.” Betrayed and lied to. “I haven’t felt this pain about any other politician,” he says. He began to lose his faith in Obama when the president waffled on the wars, after he reaffirmed the PATRIOT Act, and especially when he signed the National Defense Authorization Act back in December. “He conformed to what the puppets on Capitol Hill wanted him to be,” Caballero says, with disgust. “He didn’t care about his constituents.”
Then one day a friend suggested he look into Ron Paul. Caballero watched hours of Paul videos on YouTube. He learned as much about Paul as he could, and agreed with almost everything he read and heard. He didn’t tell any of his Democrat friends, partly because he didn’t fully understand what was happening.
“It was kind of like a culture shock, to hear all that stuff about the Constitution,” Caballero explains. “He seemed like the only candidate that was being absolutely and utterly honest. It was almost like I was falling in love.”
Young people have been Ron Paul fans since the mid-2000s. They list reasons that echo Caballero's: He’s anti-war, he’s anti-surveillance, he’s pro-“liberty.” Post-recession, some Millennials are indignant that so much money has been spent (on social welfare, on wars) without us reaping the benefits of it, so Paul’s anti-spending language resonates. They usually don’t share his conservative social beliefs, but give him a pass because Paul supports the rights of states to decide on their own. They also love his consistency—“just look at those videos of him from the late 80s,” Caballero suggests. “He’s saying the same things.” He won’t trick us like those other guys will, they think. He won’t lie to us.
In 2008, a lot of young people trusted Obama the same way. They saw him as someone who would go to Washington and shake things up rather than become part of the machine. Now, a lot of previously energized young voters like Caballeros are breaking up with Obama—and, to mend their broken hearts, they’re rebounding with Paul.
Ron Paul’s base of young supporters has grown impressively this primary season. In Iowa, Paul won 18-to-29-year-olds with 48 percent of the vote, compared with 23 percent for Rick Santorum and 13 percent for Mitt Romney. In New Hampshire, he got 46 percent of the youth vote. Even in South Carolina, a state far less welcoming to Paul's libertarian brand, he surpassed Newt Gingrich's share of the youth vote with 31 percent. Still, it’s been hard to get specifics on these numbers—how many of his supporters are conservatives sick of toeing the party line, how many are newly politicized college kids going through their Ayn Rand phase, and how many are former Obama supporters for whom the honeymoon is over?
The moment I decided to stick my toe in the pool of the last group, I was pulled in headfirst. After my tweet asking for Obama-turned-Paul fans was eagerly retweeted by more than 50 Paul advocates, the responses I got were emotional, confessional, and passionate. Like Caballero, they described a love affair gone awry: “I donated my hard earned $8-an-hour income to [Obama’s] campaign when I was 19,” one woman wrote me, “only to have more of my money snatched and donated to TARP, and my poor American heart broken. I CRIED for the guy when he got elected.” Or else they described a conversion experience, a sense of feeling lost, then being shaken to the core. I read email after email from people who admitted to becoming “obsessed” or “addicted” to watching Ron Paul YouTube videos after feeling disappointed with Obama. One guy told me that he was “consumed” with listening to Paul speeches in his car and had started secretly reading libertarian literature at work.
Matthew Stanford was one of the Obama voters whose mind was blown by Paul. In 2008, he was a 25-year-old hippie who was in the habit of wearing a tie-dye T-shirt that proclaimed “Deadheads for Obama.” He was appalled by the war in Iraq, and he watched with horror as people lost their jobs and homes while the cost of living rose. “If you’re going to spend money outrageously, might as well spend it on the people here, like on health care and stimulus packages,” he reasoned.
When the Republican primary race began last year, he thought it was a big joke. He watched it mainly for “entertainment purposes,” observing the antics of Rick Perry, Michele Bachman, and Herman Cain. That’s when Stanford accidentally got introduced to Ron Paul.
Stanford found himself nodding his head along to Paul's debate rebuttals. It freaked him out—he’d always been a liberal, but Paul was speaking with a matter-of-factness he’d never seen before in politics. He started researching, eventually becoming fixated on absorbing all things Ron Paul. Every night he’d lie in bed watching YouTube videos on his iPhone with his headphones on, his girlfriend sleeping by his side.
“I started to think, ‘Just because Obama is spending money on the people doesn’t make it right and doesn’t make it a good idea for this country, because we simply can’t afford that, either,’” he says. Plus, Paul was against the war. He was against the PATRIOT Act and SOPA and NDAA. And, unlike Obama, Stanford felt like Paul was keeping it real. “His whole M.O. is that he’s not full of it,” he says.
It’s tempting to pit a truth-teller against a “liar” when we’ve had four years to evaluate the relative honesty of our current president. Dave Weigel, a political reporter for Slate who closely followed Ron Paul supporters in 2008, thinks part of the reason Paul is getting so many props from former Obama supporters is because Paul is running on some of the same promises that Obama failed to deliver.
“Obama talked about reducing military spending in 2008,” says Weigel. “He said during his campaign that he would cut the deficit in half. He said he would close Gitmo…in general, there are a lot of people who think the guy lied to us.” Back in the Bush era, Weigel says, libertarianism was concentrated on protecting civil liberties. Now that Paul is talking about reining in spending for wars abroad and drug enforcement, framing it in a recession-based isolationism, it appeals to Obama supporters who feel duped.
“The focus has shifted to an ‘old right,’ much more fundamental, America-first patriotism,” says Weigel, a patriotism that fits with the urgency of an economic crisis.
Other “Ronverts” are exchanging one outsider for another. Part of the reason why young people rallied around Obama is because he seemed to sidestep politics as usual. Alfredo Rios, a 32-year-old former Marine from Milwaukee, volunteered to canvass for Obama not only because he was against the war in Iraq but because, after seeing him on television, he thought, “Dude looks cool, and he doesn’t look like any of the other presidents we’ve ever had.” For Rios, who started looking into Paul shortly after Obama’s victory, Obama became just another acquiescent, robotic politician.
Groups like Youth for Ron Paul and Blue Republican (former Democrats who switched party affiliations to vote in the primary) abound on Facebook and Twitter. But Paul’s young supporters aren’t just hunched over their computers. Stanford, for instance, was so moved by Paul that he booked himself a hotel room in Concord, NH for few days and volunteered at Paul’s campaign headquarters. He had been impressed by the Occupy movement, but wanted to do more than “sit there and complain.” Going to work for Paul, he explains, “was my way of occupying something.”
Many of Paul’s events and groups are organized by young people. Caballero is wrangling supporters for a New York City rally on February 25. Several other groups, including the Blue Republicans, are organizing a rally in D.C. February 20. Rios started the Ron Paul 2012 Milwaukee Area Activists; out of 200 members, he says he's recruited about 40 of them personally.
Paul has quenched the thirst of young people looking for a grassroots movement they can own; if you ask them, the Paul buzz is more authentic than even Obama’s ascension. As one 28-year-old, self-proclaimed feminist named Erin Monda put it, Obama was “generic”— people were “espousing this kind of ‘change is good!’ rhetoric without knowing what they were supporting,” she says.
Obama was a big-media darling, after all; Paul material mostly lives on YouTube, Facebook, and message boards, where people can choose their level of involvement. Most of the supporters I talked to came to understand Ron Paul through some sort of private evangelic moment, or had a person they trust convince them of his greatness. It’s a more deliberate—and contrarian—process than getting caught up in the collective fervor of Obama. Even Paul’s suggestion of settling social issues among states opens up opportunities for activism.
“I’m pro-choice,” Monda says. “And if a state outlawed abortion, I would be extremely active in my community to get that overturned. I would speak out against it and petition. I think it would feel good to be able to wield that kind of power.”
Several other people told me switching from Obama to Paul was their way of proving they could think for themselves. Ronverts aren’t necessarily the stereotype of those college kids searching for a libertarian demagogue; in a way, they’re rejecting that model altogether. With Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, their effort would get swallowed up by SuperPACs and euphemisms. With Ron Paul, they’re on their own—and they like it that way.