Can't Hear the rEVOLution


Daniel Larison responds to my piece on the end of the Ron Paul presidential campaign, zeroing in on my argument that Paul wasted time going after the anti-immigration vote, which was split between five candidates, instead of the anti-Bush vote, which ended up going, as Matt Welch has shown, to McCain.

In state after state, he routinely fell behind both McCain and Romney among antiwar voters, when both stated clearly their intentions to prolong the war. This means that there was something very strange about Paul's natural constituencies–they may have been against Bush and the war, but they did not place a terribly high priority on opposition to either one.

No, Paul's voters did. They definitely did. I met hundreds of them at rallies and somewhat less than a hundred at their homes, being canvassed or meeting the candidate. You couldn't count the grievances they had (the national security state, dollar strength, the North American Union, to name a few), but at the center of those grievances was an anger at George W. Bush and his brand of politics. At some point in the campaign every candidate, even the pathetic Romney, criticized something about Bush, but only Paul could say "Hey, registered Republican or Republican-leaning independent who feels betrayed by Bush. I feel the same way. You want to register your disgust? Vote for me." Paul's only real competition for this vote was with McCain, who had obviously run against Bush eight years earlier and could make a powerful, subliminal "toldya so" argument. I heard a number of Iraq-disgusted New Hampshire voters going for McCain for that reason, that they voted for him eight years ago and, damn it, they were right then. But Paul should have claimed the rest of these voters.

It also means that a restrictionist electorate that could bring itself to back McCain, Huckabee and Romney in large numbers is either generally poorly informed or fairly irrational in its candidate preferences, and the same could be said for antiwar voters. When restrictionists refuse to vote for one of only two candidates (the other being Hunter) who had any real credibility as a restrictionist by the time of New Hampshire, there is not much that a campaign can do.

Yes, that's why Paul wasted his time going after restrictionist votes. Every candidate was taking a dive on that issue, including Romney and Huckabee, who completely flipped their positions to win these votes. No one else was making the "sick of Bush?" argument.

Unlike the restrictionist voting pool, which could sometimes swell to 50% or more of the primary electorate, anti-Bush and antiwar voters consistently made up roughly a 30% minority of GOP voters, which meant that Paul was always fishing in a relatively small pool.

But it was a pool he should have had all to himself. And 30 percent, after watching Paul score an average 4.5 percent vote in these primaries, sounds awfully huge.

Arguably, restrictionism was one area after Tancredo's withdrawal where Paul could have conceivably gained some purchase, since he had some real credibility in opposing mass immigration in a field crowded with latecomers and opportunists. It was an attempt that did not pay dividends, but it was a reasonably smart move considering that it was the perception of Huckabee and Romney as hard-liners on immigration that continued to keep them viable with conservative voters who should have regarded both with suspicion on this and other issues.

Two things. One, this would have made sense if Paul was working in a vacuum and if every voter was not meeting these candidates for the first time. The Paul campaign seemed to fall under its own spell: its candidate was so obviously honest, and had been talking about this stuff for so long, that surely the voters would realize this and spot him in a sea of phonies. But that isn't how campaigns work.

Two, restrictionist voters and anti-war/Bush voters in the GOP primary expected different results from their votes. Restrictionist voters wanted to elect a president who would close the border. They wouldn't take a dive for another Jorge Bush. Tancredo, remember, quit the race and endorsed Romney because he wanted to beat McCain. Anti-war/Bush voters, though, realized they would not elect an anti-war candidate. Paul didn't even think he'd win. He, and his voters, wanted to make a huge, un-ignorable statement, grab delegates, shift the party their way so that the inevitable terrible nominee was at least looking over his shoulder at them.

I assume Weigel and others have seen the high unfav ratings Rep. Paul had in every early state; these high unfav ratings were the result in large part of Paul's principled and correct foreign policy position, so it seems likely that an even more intensely foreign policy-based campaign would have been the cause of higher unfavs and would have been even less successful electorally.

This is true, but his low favorable rating was about 40 percent: Again, he'd have loved a percentage like that in any state. Paul was not facing a two-way race like John Ashbrook or Pat Buchanan '92 had faced. He was running in a badly divided, weak field, and there were many states were 30-35 percent of the vote would have given him honest-to-God wins.

As frustrating as it is to admit, thoroughgoing non-interventionism or a general "mind our own business" attitude in foreign affairs is not terribly popular among Republicans, and perhaps has not been for at least ten years. Focusing even more intently on this part of the campaign was not going to boost Paul's share of the vote.

It would have done that and it would have made Paul's movement matter this year.

Headline explained here.