It’s hard to imagine a more favorable climate for an opposition party to gain voters than an election year with an unpopular White House incumbent under whose watch the economy has been and likely will continue to be awful. Yet a mere nine days before the beginning of 2012, a USA Today study found that Republican registration in the 28 states where party affiliation is recorded was down 800,000 since 2008, including 350,000 in eight swing states.

Who’s gaining? Not the governing Democrats, who deservedly lost twice as much. It’s the ranks of the unaffiliated that have grown by 400,000, including 325,000 in those eight swing states. Even amid the clarifying up-or-down, Team Blue or Team Red exercise of high-profile politics, Americans are increasingly choosing to jump off the political pendulum, reject tribalism, and declare themselves swing voters. And if the first week of 2012 is any guide, these are the people most likely to support practical libertarian politics.

This issue of reason went to the printer as New Hampshire primary voters were heading for the polls; by the time you read this South Carolina and maybe even Florida will be in the rearview mirror. But even after the initial Iowa caucuses, exit polls showed something extraordinary: Independents are making up for the enthusiasm gap created by the declining rolls of Republicans, and they are breaking hard for the only libertarian in the race, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). 

The Iowa Republican caucuses had virtually the same voter turnout this year (122,000) as in 2008 (119,000), leading to many headlines like “Why the GOP Still Has an Enthusiasm Problem” (as Talking Points Memo put it). If anything, the problem for Republicans is worse than those numbers suggest. 

In 2008 exit polls showed that 86 percent of Iowa caucusers self-identified as Republicans. In 2012 that share was down to 75 percent. The difference? Again, independents, whose ranks grew from 13 percent to 23 percent. And who did they favor? By more than 2 to 1, Ron Paul.

Paul received 43 percent of the independent vote, compared to 19 percent for runner-up Mitt Romney. He also led the field among those who had never previously voted in an Iowa Republican caucus (33 percent, compared to Rick Santorum’s 23 percent) and dominated among voters under 30 (48 percent to Santorum’s 23 percent).

Predictably, this non-Republican support for Paul has led to a lot of sneering among the declining ranks of Republican true believers. “ ‘Mischief’ Voters Push Paul to Front of GOP Race,” said the headline on a Washington Examiner piece by Byron York that went viral among the anti-Paul Republican crowd. Even though Dr. No more than doubled his 2008 take, attracting new, enthusiastic voters into a nomination process led by an unloved candidate running on electability, and even though Romney’s Iowa vote total in 2012 was virtually the same as it was in 2008, the GOP establishment chose to mock Paul’s crossover appeal. “Without the support of these Democrats and Independents,” Leon Wolf wrote at the conservative site RedState.com one week before the Iowa vote, “Paul pulls roughly the same trivial level of support he got in 2008.”

What the critics didn’t mention is that the same charge could have been leveled against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the last election cycle. McCain effectively sewed up the GOP nomination by winning the Florida primary on January 29, 2008, but—amazingly—in neither that election nor any of the ones that came before (including his victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina) did the Arizona veteran ever win even a plurality of votes among those who described themselves as Republicans. In his three winning states plus Michigan, McCain beat all comers among independents, moderates, liberals, those who strongly disapproved of George W. Bush, and (even more amazingly) those who considered themselves anti-war. 

These results can be partly explained by McCain’s lingering attractiveness to non-Republicans, left over from his salad days as a media “maverick” from 1996 to around 2003. But the discrepancy also suggests that at a time of bleeding Republican market share, nontraditional swing voters can hold the whip hand even in closed primary elections; i.e., ones that require party membership. In this atmosphere, and against an incumbent president whose once-soaring approval rating among independents currently sits around 42 percent, one might think Republicans would welcome anyone attracting outsiders into their fold.

But this is no ordinary electoral season. The Republican Party hasn’t yet figured out what it’s supposed to look like in a 21st century that started off so badly under George W. Bush’s big-government rule. Many defense hawks and social conservatives—two legs of Ronald Reagan’s famous three-legged stool of modern Republicanism—worry that Ron Paul’s version of the third leg (fiscal conservatism) is a direct threat to the ideas and government spending they hold dear. A GOP that looks like Ron Paul would go hard after military spending, overseas intervention, the surveillance state, crony capitalism, compassionate conservatism, the drug war, and countless federal programs that have for years enriched politicians, lobbyists, bankers, and industrialists.

The bad news for this legacy GOP is that voters have fresh memories of what big-government conservatism looks like, and they disdain it. The good news for those of us who share that disdain is that our numbers are growing.

After the Iowa vote (which disappointed many Paul fans who believed he might win outright), American Conservative Editor Daniel McCarthy, an occasional reason contributor, made the provocative claim that the Paul movement was producing “an architectonic shift,” analogous in influence to the Barry Goldwater uprising of the 1960s and the religious right upswing in the ’70s and ’80s. “Those are the closest parallels to what he’s achieving, and the change he’s bringing about is arguably more profound,” McCarthy wrote.

Paul’s attraction among young voters in particular, McCarthy contended, “augurs more than just a change in the factional balance within the GOP. It’s suggestive of a generational realignment in American politics. The fact that many of these young people do not consider themselves Republican is very much the point.…What it really means is that the existing ideological configuration of U.S. politics doesn’t fit the rising generation. They’re not Republicans, but they’re voting in a Republican primary: at one time, that same description applied to Southerners, social conservatives, and Reagan Democrats, groups that were not part of the traditional GOP coalition and whose participation completely remade the party.”

Remaking the Republican Party is certainly one hopeful option. “Where we are very successful,” Paul said in a speech after the votes were counted in Iowa, “is re-introducing some ideas the Republicans needed for a long time, and that is the conviction that freedom is popular.” 

But there is another possible outcome that is more plausible. Paul seems headed for the GOP presidential race’s Final Four, and he has both the fund raising and strategy in place to campaign from coast to coast until the Republican National Convention in Tampa, making him a solid bet to finish higher. With the future of the party at stake, the GOP establishment will probably turn vicious against everything he stands for. 

“The ambition of Paul and his supporters is breathtaking,” wrote former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson in The Washington Post on New Year’s Day. “They wish to erase 158 years of Republican Party history in a single political season, substituting a platform that is isolationist, libertarian, conspiratorial and tinged with racism.” This kind of talk could turn a whole generation of potential young Republicans into independents. From where I sit, that doesn’t look like a bad result at all.

Editor in Chief Matt Welch is co-author, with Nick Gillespie, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (PublicAffairs).