To most pollsters and pundits, any mention of Ron Paul typically comes with an implied asterisk. Whether they say it outright or not, they don’t think the Texas congressman has a chance of being the GOP presidential nominee. Too far outside mainstream, tea party, or born-again socially conservative Republicanism, they say. More libertarian than anything else.
And yet Rep. Paul soldiers on, and you know what? As other candidates – Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain – dash forward hare-like only to stumble or be run over by the next new thing, Paul is the perpetual tortoise in the race, mild-mannered, confident and unwavering in his positions (no flip-flopper he), advancing steadily toward the first real test in the Iowa caucuses six weeks from now.
Consider these recent headlines:
“Niche Voters Giving Paul Momentum in Iowa Polls” (New York Times)
“Ron Paul’s 19 percent in Iowa may indicate a path to the nomination” (Daily Caller)
“GOP outsider Ron Paul gaining traction in Iowa” (Associated Press)
“Ron Paul And Libertarians Can't Be Discounted” (Forbes)
A Bloomberg News poll this past week shows a four-way scrum for the lead in Iowa, with Paul in second place. (Cain gets 20 percent, Paul 19 percent, Mitt Romney 18 percent, and Newt Gingrich 17 percent among likely caucus goers.)
“A caucus state like Iowa is tailor-made to maximize the vote for a candidate like Ron Paul,” University of Virginia Center for Politics director Larry Sabato told The Daily Caller. “He has a dedicated band of supporters who will show up to vote in three feet of snow.”
That dedication shows up two ways in the latest poll in Iowa
Among likely caucus-goers who say their minds are made up, Paul leads with 32 percent, followed by Romney at 25 percent and former House speaker Gingrich at 17 percent, Bloomberg reports. And Paul’s campaign leads for voter contact, with about two-thirds of respondents saying they’ve heard from his campaign.
“Paul gets labeled a fringe candidate. But in this era of a closely divided electorate, anyone who commands the allegiance that Paul does from an activist libertarian movement must be accounted for in the political calculus,” pollster John Zogby writes in his regular Forbes column.
Dedicated allegiance has paid off for Paul in a string of straw polls.
The State Column, an online source of state political news, notes that Paul took second place in the Ames Straw Poll in August (finishing just 1 percentage point behind Bachmann), and he won a Values Voter Summit straw poll in October and a California Republican Party straw poll in September.
He also won an Ohio GOP poll with 53 percent of the votes, an Iowa straw poll at the National Federation of Republican Assemblies in Des Moines with 82 percent of the votes, and an Illinois straw poll with 52 percent of the vote – more than Romney or Cain.
Much of that can be attributed to a hearty band of Paul loyalists – many of them young supporters – who do the most important thing in such contests: show up and vote.
In a way, Mr. Zogby points out, Paul is like Ralph Nader, even though he’s running as a major party candidate and not a third party outlier.
“In both cases, the support for Paul and Nader is a rejection of both parties,” Zogby writes. “Don’t expect Paul to endorse one of his GOP rivals, or for it to matter very much to libertarians if he did.”
Paul’s advantage is that rejecting both parties is a huge part of the tea party movement (at least before it started running its own Republicans in 2010) as well as of libertarianism. His challenge is that electability – finding the candidate most likely to defeat Barack Obama – has become the main thing Republicans are looking for in whichever champion they finally settle on.
Much of what Paul advocates is appealing to at least one faction of the Republican Party (mainstream, tea party, and socially conservatives), whether it’s about abortion, the definition of marriage, government regulation, foreign aid, military actions abroad, health care, or immigration.
He describes himself as “a constitutionalist” in ways that could appeal to civil libertarians. (He advocates an end to the Patriot Act, warrantless searches, the TSA, and the “war on drugs.”)
But it’s hard to imagine a Republican Party presidential candidate these days who would not support a constitutional ban on abortion, would cut defense spending by nearly a billion dollars, would shutter at least a half dozen departments of federal government, would leave it to religions (and not government) to define marriage, or who would end all US aid to Israel.
Still, Ron Paul keeps moving steadily toward a position of strength in the early voting – especially in Iowa. So he may yet surprise the pundits writing him off today.