Here’s a fact I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere: Ron Paul has come in first among voters under the age of 30 in all three Republican nominating contests this cycle. He won Iowa with 48%, New Hampshire with 46%, and South Carolina with 31%. In 2008, in contrast, he came in third among under 30s in Iowa and New Hampshire, and a weak fifth in South Carolina.

What’s going on here?

Well, mostly he’s just doing better with everybody. Paul’s numbers have always been highest among young voters, and they’ve generally been rising among under-30s more or less in proportion with how they’ve risen in the electorate as a whole.

But even so, the sheer magnitude of Paul’s youth support has got to be a little worrying for the party. Assuming that he’s not going to wind up the nominee — and everybody in the Republican establishment is making that assumption — that’s a lot of young people to bring back into the fold in November. And with Obama putting up huge numbers among under-30s in national polling on the general election, the GOP is going to need every young voter (and campaign worker) it can get.

The most obvious cause for panic in the Ron Paul youth polling, of course, would be a possible third-party run. But while Paul hasn’t unequivocally repudiated that idea, most observers think it’s not going to happen. (Here’s one really big reason why not.) Even with him on the sidelines in the fall, though, some of his young supporters may hesitate to pull the lever for Romney or Gingrich.

And there’s another reason for concern too. In Iowa and New Hampshire, youth support for Paul rose at about the same rate as his share of the overall vote — in Iowa, for instance, he got 2.1 times the votes in 2012 as in 2008, while his youth support was 2.3 times higher this time than last. In South Carolina, though, he tripled his support overall while quadrupling it among the young. If this trend continues and we see an accelerating youth rejection of establishment candidates, that could mean bigger headaches in the general.

Paul took 3% of the Florida vote in 2008, winning 5% of the youth vote. He’s polling at 9% there now, which is pretty much in line with his cycle-to-cycle improvement in the first three states, so assuming he winds up with about that total, we’d expect him to get something like 15% of young voters — and that’s with him largely ignoring the state.

If his Florida youth numbers are a lot higher than fifteen percent we could be seeing the start of something interesting.

January 31 Update | Exit polling has Ron Paul at 9% overall and at 26% among youth voters. That’s a tripling of his 2008 numbers for the whole electorate, and a quintupling of his numbers among youth. At this point I think it’s fair to say that the GOP has a Ron Paul problem with young voters.