Rand Paul’s Long-Shot Effort to Attract Millennials
Policy + Politics

Rand Paul’s Long-Shot Effort to Attract Millennials

Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

A new CNN poll showing that young Americans oppose U.S. sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its invasion of Crimea raises a couple of intriguing questions: 

Are millennials isolationists? Even more than their parents? If so, can Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a libertarian who opposes an expansionist U.S. foreign policy, use that to his advantage in fashioning a strategy for seeking the 2016 GOP presidential nomination? 

Nearly six in 10 people interviewed by CNN said they support economic sanctions against Moscow by the United States and its Western allies in an effort to force President Vladimir Putin to remove Russian forces from Ukraine’s autonomous Crimean peninsula. Yet support for such action evaporates in the younger demographic. 

Related: Rand Paul Wins CPAC Straw Poll Again

Fifty-five percent of Americans under the age of 35 oppose sanctions, according to CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. Moreover, almost no support was found in any age group for any form of U.S. military intervention.

“It's possible that generation gap is due to older Americans' memories of the Soviet Union as the chief threat to the U.S.,” Holland explained. “Many younger Americans may have no memory at all of the Cold War and most of those under the age of 25 were not even born when the Soviet Union collapsed."

Paul, a leading non-interventionist voice in the Republican Party, has argued that the United States should seek “respectful” relations with Russia and avoid antagonizing President Vladimir   Putin over the ongoing political turmoil in Ukraine where a Kremlin-backed government collapsed recently.

“Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea,” Paul told The Washington Post.

Related: Rand Paul Takes Short Post-CPAC Victory Lap

Paul’s comments underscore the latest foreign-policy fissure in the GOP, where the party’s libertarian wing and Republican hawks including Sen. John McCain (AZ) and Ted Cruz (TX) have clashed over Putin and the future of U.S.-Russia relations.

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul . . . But I don’t agree with him on foreign policy,” Cruz told ABC News over the weekend.

Paul’s position on the Ukraine crisis and U.S. interventionism more generally plays into his somewhat dubious calculation that he can attract a healthy chunk of more youthful voters by  railing against NSA global snooping, the  U.S. government ‘s frequent efforts to project power and influence overseas, and other policies anathema to libertarians and Fourth Amendment watchdogs.  .

“There are blue parts of the country where Republicans haven’t fared well, and yes, a more libertarian-Republican might be able to start winning in those areas,” Paul wrote last March for the PolicyMic website. “The youth vote could play an integral part in this. Young Americans — conservative, libertarian, independent — are as fed up with big government as their parents and grandparents. A Republican Party willing to address their unique concerns could build a new majority that might finally turn this country around.”

Even before the crisis erupted in Ukraine, growing numbers of Americans believed that U.S. global power and prestige were in decline, and public support for U.S. global engagement had fallen to a near historic low.

Related: Top 10 U.S. Foreign Policy Blunders of 2013

Last December, the Pew Research Center found that for the first time in nearly 40 years, a majority (53 percent) said the United States was playing a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago. An even larger majority -- 70 percent -- said the U.S. was losing respect internationally.

As one dramatic measure of that declining support, 52 percent said the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Just 38 percent disagreed with the statement. According to Pew, this was the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. “minding its own business” in the history of the measure.  

If Paul thought that millennials had stronger views on this topic than older Americans had – and thus would be more receptive to a libertarian message – he was wrong. 

Related: Rand Paul: 13 Things You Didn't Know About Him

Of those surveyed, 53 percent of young people aged 18 to 29 agreed that the U.S. should “mind its own business” globally. But a similar percentage of middle-aged and older Americans agreed with that statement as well.  Among the oldest cohort of people 65 and older, only 49 percent agreed that the U.S. should pull back overseas. 

Other research suggests a more pronounced divergence of views between millennials who grew up in the post-911 era and older Americans.

Another survey by Pew released last week concluded that the millennial generation “is forging a distinctive path into adulthood. Millennials are relatively detached from organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry— and optimistic about the future., Pew says.

The Pew survey shows that half of millennials now describe themselves as politically independent and about three in ten say they are not affiliated with any religion. These are approaching the highest levels of political disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the past quarter century.

Related: Millennials’ Joblessness Costs the Government $8.9 Billion a Year  

Less than a day after winning his second Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) presidential straw poll in as many years, Paul went on “Fox News Sunday” to outline a likely platform that would appeal to young voters. He said he would target more “libertarian-minded voters” who were “fed up” with the National Security Agency tapping into their cellphone records.   

But he may be dreaming.

While millennials choose not to identify with either political party, this generation has stood out in the past two presidential elections as strikingly Democratic – and there is little to suggest this will change any time soon. 

“Millennials stand out for voting heavily Democratic and for liberal views on many political and social issues, ranging from a belief in an activist government to support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization,” according to Pew.

More telling for the future, 48 percent of millennials say their views have become more liberal as they’ve aged, while just 42 percent say their views have grown more conservative. When it comes to social issues, 57 percent said they have grown more liberal as they have gotten older.

Hardly good news for Paul and the Republicans.

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