In some ways, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul dropping out of the Republican presidential race Wednesday shows precisely what Reason staffers said back in summer 2014, when The New York Times Magazine annointed Paul the archangel of the Libertarian Moment: that the GOP will have to drift left on social issues if it's to capture millennial voters. Paul drifted rightward during his campaign since then, downplaying civil-libertarian policy goals and going hard on things like a federal abortion ban and banning refugees from "high risk" countries. Meanwhile, millennials (roughly defined as those between ages 18 and 34) have flocked to Bernie Sanders—the most socially and economically leftist of the bunch, sure, but also the candidate closest to holding libertarian positions in arenas from foreign policy to criminal justice to auditing the fed now that Paul is out of the race.
Yet among Republican-leaning millennials, the candidate who dominates is the one with the least libertarian ideals and the biggest intolerant streak: Donald Trump. Could it be that what millennial conservatives really wanted is a candidate that's drifted further right?
Alexandra Schwartz at The New Yorker offers another explanation, one that covers how a libertarian-leaning Kentucky senator like Paul, an authoritarian blowhard like Trump, and a curmudgeonly old socialist like Sanders could be competing for the same millennial cohort: capturing the youngest of the youth vote is predicated on projecting authenticity and political purity. This is where some people thought Rand Paul would shine in campaigning—after all, his dad Ron did it—but Rand failed to do so, for whatever reason. In their own weird ways, however, both Trump and Sanders do.
"The belief in the possibility of true purity might be a delusion for most voters," writes Schwartz, "but it's a privilege of youth"—hence millennial love for Trump and Sanders.
In the Iowa caucuses Monday, 84 percent of Democratic voters under age 30 chose Sanders. In polls, his support tends to be highest among the youngest voters. For instance, a December poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics found 41 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Democrats support Sanders, compared to just 35 percent for Hillary Clinton. But in the 25- to 29-year-old age group alone, Clinton actually came out on top. Schwartz suggests that this older millennial group is "the portion of the age bracket that has voted before, and witnessed the election-to-elected transformation firsthand."
In other words, older millennials learned to temper their political expectations with Obama, who also inspired young voters by convincingly promising to alter the status quo and bring change to Washington. Aesthetically, Sanders is the anti-Obama—elderly, unphotogenic, decidedly uncool, and an old white man to boot—but they both managed to effectively cast themselves as the comparatively radical candidates.
Schwartz senses "a whiff of historical fetishism to the young love for Bernie, a yearning for an imaginary time of simpler, more straightforward politics that aligns with other millennial tendencies toward false nostalgia for past purity, in fashion or food, for instance. The obsession with the banks and the bailout is itself phrased in weirdly retro terms, the stuff of an invitation to a 2008-election theme party."
But such idiosyncrasies seem only to bolster Bernie's cred as an authentic outsider who won't be bought.
Trump, too, offers a fantasy of politics without compromise, and his numbers with millennials show it. In an early January survey of 18 to 34-year-olds, 26 percent said they would vote for Trump, making him the favored conservative candidate with this cohort (in second place was Ben Carson, with 11 percent). The Harvard poll also found Trump leading among 18- to 29-year-old Republicans, at 22 percent support; he was followed by Carson with 20 percent, Marco Rubio with 7 percent, and Paul with six percent.
As Nick Gillespie wrote here in December, "it's a monumental—and intentional—mistake to conflate Paul's electoral fortunes with the persistence of…'the Libertarian Moment,'" which is less about electoral politics than American "comfort with and demand for increasingly individualized and personalized options and experiences in every aspect of our lives." And diagnosing "the failure of a broad-based cultural and commercial shift by tying it to one person is best understood as a defense mechanism by folks deeply invested in perpetuating the played-out politics of left versus right."
But it would also be a monumental mistake for freedom-minded folks to conflate a generation hungry for hope, change, and a departure from party-politics-as-usual with a sure opening among millennials for libertarian-leaning candidates. That slot seems up for grabs each electoral cycle to whoever can leverage their countercultural cred the best. Whatever it means, Trump and Sanders, not Paul, are the candidates who have been best able to do that going into 2016.