Back in the beginning, throngs of youth supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire looked as though they could make a big difference for Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Their passion and dedication attracted media attention. And while Paul didn't win either of the first contests, he walked away with a majority of the youth vote. [See pictures of the 2012 GOP presidential candidates.]
In recent weeks, though, while Paul's continued to attract thousands at college campus rallies in California, Wisconsin, and Maryland, he has dropped to third in total youth votes this primary season behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Tuesday night in Wisconsin, Romney won the youth vote. In Maryland, Santorum carried the 30-and-under crowd.
"I think the media always seriously exaggerated Ron Paul's youth support," says Peter Levine, the director of CIRCLE, a research program at Tufts University that explores youth voting trends. "They were mixing up the scale. Ron Paul's strongest constituency was young people, and without them he wouldn't have been a contender at all. They were his strongest constituency, but that doesn't mean that he is going to get them all."
Levine argues that Paul supporters are voting. They just are not a large enough group in big states to make an impact. Levine says Paul did well among voters under 30 in smaller states. In Iowa, for example, 4 percent of the youth population showed up at the polls and nearly half supported Paul.
In New Hampshire, where 15 percent of folks under 30 voted, Paul again eclipsed even primary winner Romney in youth support by 20 points. But Paul's luck ran out in Florida, where Levine says the youth vote was three times the size of that in earlier state South Carolina.
"He doesn't have the numbers to compete at that scale," Levine says.
That, of course, didn't stop Paul's campaign from trying to build on its early success. The campaign launched Youth for Ron Paul, a coalition that has attracted more than 50,000 students in 591 campus chapters nationwide.
Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist, says Paul's message in 2012 has been spot-on for many young voters fed up with the political status quo. "Young voters want to be left alone, and he represents that," Mackowiak says. "His lack of political calculation is refreshing to young voters who are cynical."
But Mackowiak says Paul's grassroots efforts haven't been enough to take full advantage of the congressman's youth support.
"You have to be running a big, sophisticated campaign to turn out the youth vote," Mackowiak says. "Turning out the youth vote takes time and money. Having young people put bumper stickers on and having them show up to a rally is one thing, but actually getting them to participate in a solitary act of voting is very different."