Paul partisans note with pride that, while an average of six different polls gathered at Real Clear Politics in the week or so before the Iowa caucus had Paul at 7.3 percent, he actually ended up with a result 34 percent higher. Of course, if he only exceeds the current polls by that same amount in New Hampshire, he'll still be coming in at just under 10 percent there.
If the goal of Paul's fans is to see him win the GOP nomination, that obviously won't be good enough. With the special attention both the official campaign and the enormous mass of unconnected volunteers have given the Granite State, there's no reason to assume he'll end up doing better anywhere than there if he doesn't pull off a surprising show--at least top 3. Failing that, the specific momentum of that specific goal will be hobbled.
But one thing I've learned from watching this campaign from even before it really began is that it has exceeded this old libertarian hand's expectations every step of the way, even as it has exceeded Paul's. It has done so because such a wide range of very different people get energized and excited by Paul's basic small government message when they get a chance to hear it unfiltered--mostly via YouTube and his personal appearances.
From the Paul fans I met researching my February reason cover story, I'm reasonably confident that they will not allow their enthusiasm for that message to fade, even if Paul only grazes 10 percent in New Hampshire. Paul will probably have the money to run straight through to the convention whether he wins a state or not. I don't anticipate his fundraising will dry up even through a discouraging beginning. But things Paul told me when I interviewed him for my reason story indicate (though did not promise) that he may drop out of the GOP race when the delegate count shows it's mathematically impossible for him to win.
At that point, well, he may begin considering that which he always says he has not yet considered: some sort of third party run. (I hope he does, though I'm not confident he will.) Whether or not that happens, Paul's movement is newly and deeply engaged in small-government politics, and Paulistas are eager and ready to give their money and time in support of it.
Even if they don't amount to much more than 10 percent of early caucus and primary voters here in January 2008, that is going to mean something strange and probably wonderful for American politics down the line. Think not Goldwater in 1964, who actually and surprisingly won his party's nomination; think Goldwater in 1960, a new force selling a message rooted (mostly) in individualism and liberty and making a splash whose waves wouldn't shake the establishment for years to come--but shake it they did.
In other Paul news, immediately pre-Iowa, the Christian Science Monitor ran a very thoughtful profile that gives a picture of Young Ron Paul and explores his Austrian economics background nicely, and quotes me toward the end.