The Ron Paul effect: How he is altering Republican primary calculus

Ron Paul can no longer be dismissed as 'fringe' by establishment Republicans. He has the staying power to bring his message to the masses – and transform the Republican conversation.

Eric Gay/AP
Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and his wife, Carol attend his caucus night rally Tuesday in Ankeny, Iowa.

Ron Paul’s strong third-place finish in Iowa and second-place showing in New Hampshire polls have galvanized a movement that’s increasingly difficult for establishment Republicans to dismiss as “fringe.”

The former Texas congressman is exciting young voters, attracting independents to the ballot box, and bringing in the money – $13 million in the past quarter.

Whether or not he can ultimately win the nomination – which most political commentators and even some of his own supporters say is highly unlikely – Representative Paul clearly has the staying power to needle his opponents with attention-grabbing ads and bring his Constitution-centric message to the masses.

So what, ultimately, might be The Ron Paul Effect?

For one, he’s already changed the conversation to a degree – in Republican debates and beyond.

“The candidates talk more like [Paul] on taxes and government than they did in 2008,” says Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, an advocacy group in Takoma Park, Md., focused on election participation and reform. “Ultimately the nominee is going to have figure out what part of [Paul’s] message can be more of his.”

Paul has campaigned on cutting $1 trillion in federal spending – something that has perhaps upped the ante on how aggressively other candidates say they’ll cut.

Several polls have asked about whether likely GOP primary voters have a favorable view of returning the US monetary system to the gold standard – a reflection of how much Paul has championed this idea. He’s also brought to the fore more scrutiny of the Federal Reserve.

Paul has also tapped into deep-seated dissatisfaction with the cost – in dollars and human life – of the past decade’s foreign wars.

His perspective has “deep roots in this country.... His more isolationist view on foreign policy is one that a lot of Republicans have because it goes along with smaller government,” Mr. Richie says.

In the long run, the question is whether those Republican voters who support his views leave the party, or “does the party have a way to accommodate them?” Richie says.

The Republican Party should be careful not to alienate Paul and his supporters, because “in a unique way he’s attracting new people to vote in Republican primaries or caucuses that otherwise wouldn’t ... or might go to a third party,” or not participate at all, says Wayne Lesperance Jr., a political science professor at New England College in Henniker, N.H.

For young potential voters – frustrated with student debt, unemployment, and gridlock in Washington – Paul is the buzz these days. A lot of students were upset when he canceled an appearance this week at College Convention 2012 – the young people's forum that Professor Lesperance organizes, and which made news Thursday when Rick Santorum was put on the spot for his arguments against gay marriage.

Of the under-30 vote in the Iowa caucuses, 48 percent supported Paul, according to CIRCLE, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement in Medford, Mass.

“Paul’s strength shows the Republicans have the potential to attract youth voters,” who historically have leaned more Democratic, says American University government professor Jennifer Lawless. But the youth vote is unpredictable, she says, and if Paul were no longer a candidate, it’s unclear whether they would turn out, and whether they’d vote Republican or be swayed by President Obama in the general election.

Ultimately, Professor Lawless doesn’t envision the Republican Party mainstream embracing much of what Paul advocates, but “if this gets down to a two-person race between Romney and Santorum ... the longer Paul stays in the race, the easier it is for Santorum to do well,” since Paul votes would more likely shift to Romney than to Santorum, she says.

Another dynamic down the road could be Paul throwing his support to a Libertarian candidate.

He has dismissed suggestions that he himself might mount a third-party campaign, though speculation on that front still abounds. But if he were to support Gary Johnson, who left the Republican race in December to contend for the Libertarian nomination, that could potentially influence the outcome of the general election, Richie of FairVote says.

Paul is playing an important role in the election cycle because “he’s giving American voters a choice – for much smaller government, much lower taxes, eliminating government debt, bringing our troops home  – choices the Republican and Democratic Party have refused to give them,” says Carla Howell, executive director of the Libertarian Party.

Not only is he inspiring voters, she says, but he’s also inspiring people with libertarian views to run for office.

He’s also winning over some people with tea party roots. One of Paul’s recent endorsements in New Hampshire came from Jane Aitken, co-founder of the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition.

“It’s not so much about [which political] party anymore – it’s about government out of control,” she says. Paul is a rarity in that he’s “been in Washington but has not capitulated to the powers that be.”

When people suggest Paul is too extreme to be president, her response? “If you are on an extreme collision course you need extreme correction.”

When people portray him as wanting to legalize marijuana, Ms. Aitken says Paul would leave it to the states to decide – and as a doctor, he’s hardly an advocate for recreational drug use.

Aitken says she also admires his personal and religious life, and the way he gave free medical care to people in need as a doctor in Texas. “I know him personally. At times he does try to be a purist, because he has character and tries to stick to what he has said.”

Perhaps his biggest service, she says, is drawing attention to the idea of reining in the Federal Reserve. “Even if just that one issue comes to the fore, we’re lucky to have him doing this,” she says.

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