The candidate speaking at a Youth for Ron Paul event in Las Vegas. (Photo by Gage Skidmore.)

Justin Clements, a 21-year-old finance major at the University of Washington, believes “we are on an unsustainable path with regards to energy.” He thinks government subsidies to the oil and gas industry hold renewable energy back, and he’s disgusted by the power corporations wield over elected officials.

But Clements doesn’t want the federal government to fix these problems. Cap-and-trade, he says, “is absolutely disastrous, and would not accomplish the goal of solving global climate change … [carbon] is not a tangible asset.”

Clements puts his faith in the power of a genuinely free market to set the real cost of resources. And, like a surprisingly large cohort of voters in his generation who have grown disillusioned with government, he also puts his faith in Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul — the Texas congressman who has a libertarian answer to every political question.

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How is it that the oldest candidate in the race — Paul is 76 — has captured the imagination of so many young voters? Though Paul has yet to win a single primary or caucus, he enjoys a plurality of support from Republican-leaning voters aged 18 to 34, according to a Jan. 23 Gallup poll (31 percent prefer him as a candidate, compared to 26 percent who favor Mitt Romney). Although Paul is a 35-year veteran of Congress, he has cultivated a reputation as a GOP outsider — both by voting according to what he sees as constitutional principle and by championing libertarian ideals.

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It’s true that some of Paul’s rallying cries, like his call for abolishing the Federal Reserve and restoring the gold standard, don’t exactly match the agenda of your typical campus activist. If anything, they bring to mind the “crazies — like, ‘I have 50 guns in my attic and a yard full of silver,’” as Clements describes the common stereotype of Paul’s following.

But Paul also opposes foreign military intervention and the death penalty. He wants to legalize drugs. His position on marriage equality is murkier — he thinks the issue should be removed from federal jurisdiction entirely. (Though this approach gives states power to restrict same-sex marriage, many of Paul’s young supporters interpret it as treating marriage like another personal-freedom issue, akin to gun ownership or drug use.)

Positions like these have earned him second looks from liberals over the years, even as his limited-government constitutional fundamentalism dictates hands-off policies on some issues, such as climate change, where progressives typically embrace federal action. Though Paul asserts that “if oil were allowed to rise to its natural price, there would be tremendous market incentives to find alternate sources of energy,” his skepticism of climate science aligns with Pew research showing that 63 percent of libertarians say there’s no solid evidence of global warming. Paul supporters say the skeptics among them are reluctant to admit the reality of climate change because they’re paranoid of the government intrusion (in the form of cap-and-trade or other energy policy) associated with mitigating the problem. That puts libertarians out of sync with broader public opinion (where about the same percentage [PDF] think global warming is happening). It also doesn’t help Paul’s image as a magnet for crazies.

Ryan Neal, a 24-year-old student at Columbia University, was briefly enthralled by Paul in 2008, but backed off after investigating his platform more deeply. “It’s really easy for young liberals to get attracted to his policies and not look past the surface,” Neal says. “They ignore why certain federal regulations were invented in the first place. Civil rights would have never happened if it weren’t for federal involvement. People are really into the Constitution, [but] you also have to remember that the Constitution said women couldn’t vote, and black people counted as three-fifths of a vote.”

After all, millennials can’t remember a time before the Environmental Protection Agency (which Paul believes is unconstitutional and wants to abolish) or the Civil Rights Act (Paul was the only member of Congress to vote against a resolution honoring its 40th anniversary).

It’s tempting to view Paul’s appeal to young voters as solely a product of his uncompromising personal-freedom stance — and the drug-war pacifism that comes with it. But at least as important for Paul’s attraction is his symbolic status as an “outsider.”

“Tons of people who get elected, I think they genuinely care, and want to make change — same thing with Barack Obama,” Clements says. “But they just get sucked in so quickly. Ron Paul has been in Washington a long time, but I wouldn’t consider him an insider. You can really see that he’s been consistent in following [his] philosophy.”

Four years ago, the newcomer mantle Obama wore seemed to offer hope for an administration untainted by corruption and insider politics. To his supporters, Ron Paul’s decades of unwaveringly principled voting in Congress suggest the same thing.

“The fundamental emotional response to Ron Paul is the same as [it was to] Obama in 2008,” says Andrew Pilloud, 22, a computer programmer in Seattle who supports Paul. “He is the candidate for change. I personally think he’s more likely to bring around change than Obama was. Once he gets into the White House he’s going to do less compromising of his principles.”

Carlos Alfaro, a 21-year-old junior at Arizona State University, voted for Obama in 2008, but has since transferred his loyalties to Paul. “Obama … swept the student vote,” Alfaro says. “I think because [students] were so involved [in the 2008 election], they were also really involved in seeing what went wrong. They felt that betrayal.”

Youth disillusionment with politics is nothing new. But for the generation that propelled Obama to victory, the hope-filled high of his campaign and election has had a particularly rough comedown. A Harvard Institute of Politics survey [PDF] found, in December of last year, that young Americans aged 18-29 believe, by a 4-to-1 ratio, that the country is headed in the wrong direction. That’s up from a 2-to-1 ratio in March 2011. As the blogosphere relentlessly warns, this increasingly bleak outlook could have consequences for Obama: The Harvard survey reported an 11-percent drop from late 2007 in the number of 18- to 24-year-old voters who said they’d “definitely” be voting in this election (61 percent to 50 percent). As if to fulfill the prophecy of their inaction, more young voters believe Obama will lose reelection than win (36 percent to 30 percent; 32 percent are not sure).

“I feel [Obama] is not going to have the same sort of youth support in this election,” says Pilloud. “He turned out to be just another politician once he got elected.”

Whether voters feel duped by the promise of change they assumed Obama would bring, or whether they were skeptical of the president to begin with, Paul undeniably offers something outside the mainstream — a powerful attraction for a generation soured early on mainstream politics.

Plus, the economy. This generation faces an abysmal job market and crushing student-loan debt, and to some of those who are disgusted by income inequality and corporate influence in politics, Paul’s hardcore commitment to cutting government spending sounds like the kind of tough-love strategy the country needs.

“Spending only what we have, only what the government’s taking in, that doesn’t seem extreme to me,” Pilloud says. “The fact that [Paul] is becoming so popular means that maybe people are seeing that [government] is so corrupt that maybe the only way to fix it is to get rid of a large portion of it and start over.”

Stephen Silvestri, a 24-year-old waiter in New York who supports Paul, calls the bank bailouts “the shining example of government welfare,” and says Paul is “the most appealing [candidate] toward young people dealing with unemployment.”

“I think [Paul’s economic platform] really resonates with the youth,” Clements says. “[Paul] is saying, look, we need to take control of our future, because it’s been squandered and gambled by previous generations.”

Policies like decimating the defense budget, ending drug prohibition, and removing corporate tax breaks can appeal to young voters as a way of taking back that control. But then there’s the flip side of Paul’s government-shrinking zeal: Can we really envision a sustainable future without renewable-energy investment, federally funded public transportation projects, or safety nets for society’s most vulnerable?

Silvestri acknowledges the risk of swift and severe government reductions, but says, “What balances out my concern about [Paul’s] total deregulation of the U.S. is that this country is seriously in a very bad spot, and it’s because we’re continuing systems that are completely unsustainable.”

That trade-off may be harder to accept for those who are not, like the majority of self-described libertarians, white, male, and financially secure. “[Paul supporters] argue that contradictory remarks he makes, things that sound racist or homophobic, take a backseat to economic realities,” says Joanna Chiu, a Columbia classmate of Ryan Neal. “For women, people from the working class, people of color, I feel like we don’t have the luxury to entertain more drastic political movements that might take away existing rights.”

At a fundamental level, the dividing line between liberals and libertarians could be boiled down to a disagreement about human nature and how government deals with it. Travis Irvine, a 28-year-old Columbia student who has run for Congress as a libertarian, says, “This is where my arguments with my liberal friends always get to. They say, ‘Well, people are shitty and they can’t do things themselves.’ I would like to believe that we don’t need laws to tell people not to be racist, not to litter or pollute. We want people to be doing things because they are good.”

Of course, that’s what everyone wants. Libertarians have faith that human beings — like financial markets — will do the right thing if we’d just leave them alone. Liberals remember the long history of progressive changes in American life that could only have taken place with government backing.

Despite their skepticism of his policies, both Chiu and Neal argue that it’s important to have a candidate like Paul in the race — and both would rather see his ideas debated than ignored. “I do think Ron Paul has interesting policies that could lead to productive conversation about what dramatic changes could be made to the government,” Chiu says. “I think he’s raised some very important questions.”

One of those questions could be: What does it mean that a candidate whose views fall all over the political spectrum, defying classification as right- or left-wing, inspires such enthusiasm? As Neal puts it, “What Ron Paul’s campaign has really shown us is that the two-party system isn’t sustainable for much longer.”

That’s something that Paul supporters and critics can agree on. “I’m just really sick of Republicans and Democrats,” Silvestri said. “They’re part of the same money-grubbing game.”

“We have two parties that both stand for different factions of the elite,” Pilloud echoed.

Paul’s ardent supporters will vigorously promote his full range of libertarian policies. But the wider appeal of Paul’s ideas to young voters springs not from a sudden burst of popular interest in Austrian economics but rather from a deep-seated political alienation.

Ron Paul is probably not the answer to everything that’s broken about America, but our present two-party system doesn’t offer any such answer, either. Younger voters’ enthusiasm for a candidate as arguably radical as Paul is noteworthy but not alarming in and of itself. What’s alarming is that American politics apparently offers no one else substantial to fill the void between Democrats and Republicans.