Rand Paul looks to students for his path to the White House

Story highlights

  • If the historical numbers are any indication -- Paul's strategy could pay off on caucus night
  • But experts caution Paul can't take anything for granted -- and the competition for the student vote could be much more intense this time around

Washington (CNN)Trying to find a path to the Republican presidential nomination, Rand Paul is going back to school.

The Kentucky senator is looking to build on his father's strong finish in the 2012 Iowa caucuses this presidential cycle -- and he's hoping Iowa's large student population can be his secret weapon.
The organizing has already begun. Friday night, Paul is at Iowa State University for a Stand with Rand student rally -- where he announced that his campaign had more than surpassed its goal to open 300 new Students for Rand chapters in 30 days.
    The effort was announced in August, and on Friday, Paul announced that his campaign has 339 student chapters nationwide, days ahead of schedule.
    In Iowa, the campaign has 16 college chapters, including its inaugural chapter at University of Iowa and other units at Iowa State, University of Northern Iowa and Drake University.

    Following his father's example

    If the previous numbers are any indication, Paul's strategy could pay off on caucus night. His father won nearly 50% of the youth vote last cycle, propelling him to a close third-place finish in the caucuses.
    But experts caution Paul can't take anything for granted -- and the competition for the student vote could be much more intense this time around.
    In 2012, the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses were held when colleges were on winter break, meaning many out-of-state young voters weren't on campus. This cycle, the caucuses have been moved back to Feb. 1 -- meaning students will be in session.
    The Paul campaign thinks if they mobilize right, that could make a huge difference for the 2016 campaign.
    "The ideas that Rand stands for are what get youth excited, and we are going to build this infrastructure in a way that we can take that excitement and build it into actual votes so Rand can win this nomination," said Cliff Maloney, the national youth director for Paul's presidential campaign.
    In 2012, Ron Paul came in third place in the caucus, with just over 26,000 votes. Nearly one-third of that support came from caucus-goers under the age of 30, according to The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts University. Ron Paul got 48% of the under-30 vote that night, with turnout overall in that demographic at 4%.
    Paul trailed the top two finishers, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, by about 3,800 votes. The next-highest finisher was 10,000 votes behind Paul.
    The math, at least, is on Rand Paul's side. There were 55,700 registered Republicans aged 18 to 24 years old in the 2014 midterm election, 35% of whom actually voted. In the 2012 general election, the last presidential cycle, there were 61,551 registered Republicans in that age range, 64% of whom voted. Iowa also allows same-day registration -- a huge advantage for organizers convincing students to show up at the last minute.
    With 16 candidates in the primary this time, experts agree that a few thousand votes could be a major boost in the caucus.
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    Paul's campaign is calling it the Iowa 10,000: The goal is to get that many college and high school students to caucus for him.
    "If we get 10,000 students to caucus for Rand, we're going to be in a very good position," Maloney said, declining to predict a finishing place.
    But his strategy could pay off big, said Alex Smith, national chairwoman of the College Republican National Committee.
    "There is a huge, huge opportunity for young people to be reached by these campaigns, because altering those (Iowa) numbers even just slightly, especially when you're talking about the difference between first and second or second and third, you could alter the whole balance of the election by just tinkering with those few votes," Smith said.
    And, she noted, she's seen some of the right moves from the Paul campaign.
    "You can't send direct mail or advertising to an 18-24 year old on a college campus, that's just not going to work," Smith said, emphasizing the importance of tailored, personal outreach. "But if you look at Rand Paul, he was one of the first candidates to be on SnapChat ... he often visits college campuses, which not many candidates do, and those are two examples of where he's taking his message, again a relevant message to this generation, directly to them."

    Shifting the Iowa caucus

    The current and former Iowa GOP chairmen both note examples of past candidates who have shift the Iowa caucus by bringing in new demographics. In the 1980s, Pat Robertson permanently remade the electorate by turning out evangelical Christians, said former Chairman Matt Strawn and current Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. Last cycle, Ron Paul successfully capitalized on the youth vote, they said, and President Barack Obama famously sent shock waves through the 2008 primary by turning out young people in strong numbers to take the Iowa caucus from Hillary Clinton.
    At the same time, those examples are notable because they defied the norm.
    "I think that it is still very much an open issue whether Sen. Paul can replicate the success his father had in bringing new participants to the caucus that are more libertarian-oriented," Strawn said, noting that the Feb. 1 caucus date will help.
    "But while Sen. Paul may have an advantage with the caucus calendar, there is a Bernie Sanders-sized challenge that he has to overcome on college campuses," Strawn added. "In 2012, the hipster campus culture thing to do was to caucus for Ron Paul. So far this season, the counter-culture campus thing to do is campaign for Bernie Sanders."
    And it's not just Sanders competing for the youth vote, Strawn and others noted. Campaigns are recognizing the importance of Millennial this cycle. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced his own campus push on Thursday, saying he had 135 chapters in 36 states. His goal is 450 campus units.
    And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is also making a strong play for the libertarian-leaning voter, offering an anti-Washington message. There's also mogul Donald Trump, who attracts a wide range of traditional and nontraditional voters.
    "I'm sensing competition this year for those libertarian younger voters, and actually if I could be more general, I'm sensing more competition for those libertarian caucus-goers," Kaufmann said. "I think Ted Cruz is putting on a pretty vigorous offensive for those voters, I think Donald Trump is dipping into that pool, so I think this year there's going to be more competition for those voters than when Ron Paul ran."
    So what's the best way for Paul's campaign to make sure those students show up?
    "That's the secret sauce," Maloney said. "Let's just say it's all about the infrastructure and the excitement."