They filed in by the dozen, hoping to get a glimpse of their preferred presidential candidate.
The crowd at the Gaylord National Convention Center was friendly to Sen. Rand Paul, who was one of a slew of likely presidential candidates at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.
Paul spoke at a reception during the second night of the conference. His audience? Mostly young, libertarian-leaning conservatives. They hung on his every word, cheering when he expatiated on everything from criminal-justice reform to the French philosopher Montesquieu.
“You know, Rand is conservative fiscally, but he’s socially more lenient and libertarian,” Austin Samuelson, a 20-year-old student from Western Connecticut State University, said after Paul spoke. “I think that’s appealing to a lot of young people.”
This is the candidate Paul’s allies have pushed, leading up to his official announcement on Tuesday that he will run for the White House in 2016. He is the candidate who’s so much more than the Republicans who have been beaten in the youth demographic by 30-plus points in the last two elections. Who has won the straw poll among CPAC’s younger, libertarian-leaning crowd three times in a row. Who Snapchats on the reg.
The reality, however, leaves Paul and his campaign team with a set of questions as he embarks on his bid for president. Is he really the candidate who can draw a broader crowd of young people to the GOP? Polls have found mixed results. And does he really share their views? Some Democrats and political strategists would tell you that’s a bit ambiguous.
“There’s no question that there’s a perception that Sen Paul has an opportunity to connect with younger voters — he’s certainly tapped into the libertarian wing of his party and his message seems to resonate with young voters,” said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics.
The youth demographic has typically overwhelmingly leaned left, especially in recent elections. In 2008 and 2012, they turned out in droves to support President Barack Obama. And as she gears up for a run, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has seen inklings of similar support from young people.
Paul thinks this election can be different.
"Young people aren't so wedded to party," Paul said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "The kids are probably adrift somewhat. And I don't think someone who is an authoritarian, or comes from a much more authoritarian point of view like Hillary Clinton, will attract them."
And the perception is that a candidate like Paul can change the party’s recent fortunes among young people. But even last year, as FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten pointed out, the numbers haven’t really backed up that perception. In the median of eight surveys last year, Paul trailed by 17 points more with young voters than he did overall. In fact, he consistently hasn’t been the preferred candidate among young Republicans in recent polls.
- In Fusion’s Massive Millennial Poll this February, Paul finished tied for second among Republican millennials, behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. (It should be noted that Rep. Paul Ryan, former GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, was included in the poll and is not running for president. He finished tied with Paul in the poll.)
- In late January, Policy Polling found Paul in even worse shape among the 18-to-45 Republican crowd. He earned only 4 percent of that vote, placing him tied for sixth. (Romney, who is not running for president, was included in the poll.)
- Clinton led Paul by 11 points in a March poll from Quinnipiac University among voters aged 18-34. The poll showed him in worse shape among young voters vs. Clinton than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (who trailed by 6 points, but is better known than Paul at this point). And Paul’s numbers among young people weren’t statistically significantly different than candidates like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (who trailed by 13 points) or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (who trailed Clinton by 12).
Where some analysts think Paul can make inroads, however, is in his policy prescriptions, which have been responsible for his quick rise as a candidate among young Republicans. They are betting that his ceiling is high once he gets out on the trail and that he can perform better than past nominees like Romney and Sen. John McCain.
“I believe that for a Republican to win the WH, he or she does not need to win the youth vote outright — just be more competitive that McCain and Romney,” Della Volpe said. “And if that’s the threshold — I think its an open question as to which member of the GOP has the greatest advantage.”
Paul has spoken out at length against the National Security Agency’s surveillance apparatus, even going so far as to sue the Obama administration. That earned him a standing ovation recently in front of a crowd in the liberal bastion of Berkeley, California.
He has made criminal-justice reform a pet issue, including reforming drug sentencing laws, which has gotten him face time with young African-Americans. And he reached out to minority voters through steps like establishing an outreach center in inner city Detroit and other cities, which his campaign alluded to in a pre-announcement video proclaiming him a “different kind of Republican leader.”
“Liberal policies have failed inner cities,” he says in the video.
But it’s not yet clear if Paul’s more mainstream positions will allow him to draw in young voters. According to Fusion’s poll, jobs and the economy are the No. 1 issue young Americans want candidates to address. Their No. 2 issue is health care. Immigration is in the top five.
It remains to be seen if young people, who by a 25-point margin say a strong government is needed to solve problems, will latch on to a candidate who supports shrinking that government. It remains to be seen if millennials will come out in broad support of a candidate who wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, when 54 percent say it’s the government’s job to secure quality healthcare for all, according to the Pew Research Center.
And it remains to be seen if young people will turn out to support a candidate who does not prefer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, when they are the generation that most vehemently supports a path to citizenship.
Democrats, at least, are betting they won’t.
"We look forward to Rand Paul’s innovative uses of Snapchat to explain to young people why he opposes marriage equality, opposes letting students to refinance their loans, opposes taking action on climate change, and opposes allowing women to make their own health care decisions,” said Rob Flaherty, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.