Rand Paul has a moment, millennials shrug

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Article Highlights

  • Paul -- the face of this libertarian moment -- didn't do especially well among young voters.

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  • Paul's brand of Republican politics has done roughly the same as the generic version.

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  • A public dissatisfied with the status quo may be newly attuned to the libertarian worldview

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While I was on vacation, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story on the possibility of a "libertarian moment" in politics. The idea was that a public dissatisfied with war, government surveillance and excess regulation, while increasingly liberal on some social issues, may be newly attuned to the libertarian worldview.

One question author Robert Draper took up was whether the Republican Party could increase its appeal to young voters by moving in a libertarian direction, specifically by relaxing its opposition to gay marriage and pot while asserting its defense of individual liberty and free markets.

Senator Rand Paul, whose face graced the cover, frequently says so. He might be right. But it's worth noting that in his only election so far, Paul -- the face of this libertarian moment -- didn't do especially well among young voters.

The Kentucky senator was elected in the 2010 Republican congressional wave, getting 56 percent of the vote. According to exit polls, voters younger than 30 went narrowly for his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway. Paul got 48 percent of them. That's not much better than fellow Republicans Roy Blunt of Missouri (who got 44 percent the same year) and Rob Portman of Ohio (45 percent). And it's worse than John Boozman of Arkansas (51 percent).

Maybe the raw percentages are misleading, because we need to correct for the partisan leanings of the states and the strength of the opposing candidates.

So let's look at the gap between how well the Republican candidates did among the under-30 set and how well they did among seniors. If Paul had a distinctive appeal to young voters, his gap should have been significantly smaller. In fact, the differences among the candidates were microscopic. Paul did 10 percentage points better among seniors than among the young, Blunt 12 points and Boozman 11. (Portman had a bit more of a gap, at 16 points.)

Maybe Paul would do better with young voters as the Republican nominee in 2016 than any of the other possibilities. He makes a plausible case that his brand of politics -- skeptical of military intervention, the drug war and domestic surveillance -- ought to find favor with them.

In its one electoral test so far, though, Paul's brand of Republican politics has done roughly the same as the generic version.

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About the Author


  • A senior editor for National Review, where he has covered national politics and public policy for 18 years, Ponnuru is also a columnist for Bloomberg View. A prolific writer, he is the author of a monograph about Japanese industrial policy and a book about American politics and the sanctity of human life. At AEI, Ponnuru examines the future of conservatism, with particular attention to health care, economic policy, and constitutionalism.


    • "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life," Regnery Publishing, 2006

    • "The Mystery of Japanese Growth," AEI Press, 1995

    Follow Ramesh Ponnuru on Twitter.
  • Email: ramesh.ponnuru@aei.org

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