Congressman Ron Paul at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2011.

Rep. Ron Paul in 2011 (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

WASHINGTON— It seems counter-intuitive that a 76-year-old gynecologist with plans to wipe out federal environmental agencies has the highest proportion of youth support among GOP presidential candidates.

However, Ron Paul defies the odds. Paul, a 14-term congressman from Texas, is running on a strong libertarian platform.

At a time of disappointment with youth unemployment, as well as with the carnage left by the Iraq war, young Americans are dissatisfied with their government.

This unhappiness has created a sense of urgency propelling youth to look beyond environmental issues – the traditional forte of young voters – in the 2012 election.

According to a December poll released by the Harvard University Institute of Politics studying 18 to 29-year-olds, 62% disapproved of the job performance of Democrats in Congress. The survey of 2,028 respondents found that 72% disapproved of the Republicans.

Instead, many young people have an appetite for an alternative. They have pushed the environment down on their list of priorities in 2012 and seek the most nontraditional candidate to get the government back on track. Paul’s radicalism is attractive, specifically in terms of the economy and his stances against the war in Afghanistan and the recently concluded conflict in Iraq.

“Despite young voters being much more inclined to do something about the environment, really what priorities voters have across the board are drawn from the economy,” said Isabelle Riu, president of the George Washington University environmental student group Green GW.

“Truth be told, not one of the candidates has an extraordinarily strong stance on the environment, so you’re picking your poison if the environment is really your priority in voting,” she said.

The Power of the Youth Vote

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, 46 million young people are eligible to vote in 2012.

They have the power to significantly impact the election.

One reason for Paul’s strong base of youth support, despite his proposals to remove many environmental regulations, is his campaign’s focus on youth outreach, said Abby Kiesa of CIRCLE.

In September, Paul’s campaign launched its nationwide youth initiative, “Youth for Ron Paul.” Since then, he has held rallies at universities to mobilize his campus supporters.

Looking at the results from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, it is clear that his youth initiative has been effective. CIRCLE data shows that Paul received the highest proportion of the under-30 vote in the Republican field in all three states.

“If you pay attention to young people and actually reach out to them and get them involved in a campaign, that’s both a short term win for the campaign and a long term win for the party,” Kiesa said. “Young people have turned out for Ron Paul and kept him up high.”

Environment vs. Economy

In times of a weak financial market, many Americans put economic development and military issues ahead of environmental protection. Paul’s non-interventionist stance on international affairs and free market approach to the economy is consistent. To young people, this consistency is attractive.

Even so, a Gallup and USA Today poll conducted after the 2008 election of 903 adults ages 18 to 29 showed that 67% of young adults said global warming and protecting the environment still influenced their vote, although they weren’t the top issues.

Nick Troiano of Americans Elect, a nonprofit aimed at nominating a nonpartisan presidential candidate, said that environmental issues might not be the main concern in the 2012 election, but young voters still consider them significant.

“There’s a sense that we’re facing really large problems, whether it’s our budget problems, education or the environment,” Troiano said. “Our leaders in Washington aren’t really demonstrating a capacity to solve these issues. That’s why I think a lot of young people have grown disillusioned with our political process.”

The Paul Policies

One theory for the millennial attraction to environmental protection stems from the connection between young people and idealism, according to Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center.

Millennials are characteristically idealistic, and environmentalism is a subject that resonates with idealism because of its orientation towards improving the future, Keeter said.

Yet, Rep.  Paul’s free-market beliefs contradict current, future-thinking environmental legislation. He does not believe climate change is happening and wants to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.

On his campaign website, Paul says “polluters should answer directly to property owners in court for the damages they create.” This approach would in turn save tax dollars by doing away with the need for federal regulation, according to the Paul argument. If elected president, he would “lead the fight” to remove government regulation on coal and nuclear power.

In Paul’s “Big Dog” campaign advertisement, five government departments explode into mushroom clouds. The message is direct: he will cut spending by closing federal agencies including the departments of Energy and the Interior. Animated, colorful and set to mutinous rock music, the TV ad seems directed at young voters.

Lauren Sleezer, a 20-year-old student at Pepperdine University, does not agree with all of Paul’s positions. However, she is willing to set her disagreements aside in belief that electing him is the best option for dealing with the issues she considers most pressing.

“For me right now, it’s more important for this moment in history to vote for someone who can potentially get the government back on track and focus on bigger things,” Sleezer said. “I’m more interested in the military and I just don’t think that one politician can necessarily eliminate all those things. Electing him would just push the government in the right direction.”

On the other hand, some youth voters feel threatened by Paul’s atypical environmental policies.

Jeremy Iloulian, a 20-year-old environmental studies student at George Washington University, said Paul’s proposal to eliminate government agencies would be “absolutely disastrous.”

“Young people are seeing some benefits but not all of the positives,” Iloulian said of Paul. “People are supporting him as reactionary as opposed to if he actually seems like a good choice for the way forward in government.”

Considering Paul’s current standing in the early GOP elections, it seems unlikely he will win the Republican nomination. But regardless of the election’s outcome, Paul’s youth appeal is noteworthy. His libertarian values have proven advantageous for attracting the youth vote, and his campaign speaks a new tune to the two-party political process.

“It is a breath of fresh air to hear someone that doesn’t have the same big party politics as other candidates, guided under the wings of either Republican or Democrat,” Sleezer said. “I think a lot of young people can relate to that.”