This week, Ron Paul supporters and detractors alike have been gloating over the same basket of statistics showing that Paul's candidacy is predicated on the support of people who self-identify as independents, Democrats, or otherwise non-Republicans. "'Mischief' voters push Paul to front of GOP race," was how the Washington Examiner's Byron York headlined it. At HollywoodRepublican.net, meanwhile, Tom Donelson hailed the arrival of "Paul's Invisible Army."
Mostly missing from the commentary were two salient points in American politics as we lurch into 2012. First, there is an immediate precedent for winning the GOP nomination by triumphing among non-Republican and anti-war voters in early-state primaries and caucuses: It's exactly what John McCain did in 2008 (yes, even the anti-war part, hard as that is to believe).
McCain didn't win a plurality among self-identified Republicans in any early state last election cycle, but garnered enough independents and Democrats to eke out victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida, knocking out most of his competitors and establishing himself as the front-runner going into Super Tuesday. (For more on this unprecedented turn of events, see the afterword in the paperback version of my book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.)
The Republican electorate (like U.S. politics in general) has only gotten more fluid and unpredictable since then. Which leads to the second point: As USA Today put it in an article last week, "Voters [are] leaving Republican, Democratic parties in droves." Excerpt:
More than 2.5 million voters have left the Democratic and Republican parties since the 2008 elections, while the number of independent voters continues to grow.
A USA TODAY analysis of state voter registration statistics shows registered Democrats declined in 25 of the 28 states that register voters by party. Republicans dipped in 21 states, while independents increased in 18 states.
The trend is acute in states that are key to next year's presidential race. In the eight swing states that register voters by party, Democrats' registration is down by 800,000 and Republicans' by 350,000. Independents have gained 325,000.
Independents like Ron Paul for the stone-obvious reason that he is significantly different than 99 percent of other politicians, who they've grown to loathe. And, as Nick Gillespie and I point out in our book The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America, and in the chapter excerpt/adaptation we ran in Reason, Americans are becoming statistically more libertarian, especially independent voters. Given that Ron Paul has exceeded just about every electoral and political expectation for well over 50 months now, it's reasonable to infer that his attraction among alienated voters is consistently underrated, and potentially quite powerful.
While the McCain/independent route is Paul's roadmap to the Republican nomination, his odds are still long. As New York Times poll-reader Nate Silver has pointed out in a smart couple of posts, independent-bent New Hampshire looks set to deliver Mitt Romney a resounding victory on January 10th. In fact, Romney may ultimately benefit from a strong Paul showing, since the Texas libertarian could help knock out other competitors, while driving Republicans spooked by Paul's foreign policy and perceived crankery into the arms of the slick management consultant running on a platform of comparative electability. (This may help explain why Romney has been considerably gentler on Paul than has Newt Gingrich.)
Though predicting elections is a mug's game, especially these days, my guess is that a Paul nomination would require something like this: Bigger-than-projected victory in Iowa slingshots him into a closer-than-projected 2nd place finish in New Hampshire (or even a win), while the rest of the field clears out into an essentially three-man race, in which the third (say, Newt Gingrich) lands enough blows on Romney to derail the electability argument, setting up a three-way slugfest to the finish. Stranger things have happened, though not many.
But looking at the primary season merely through the lens of winners and losers misses an essential point about Ron Paul, I think. Winning the GOP nomination (and maybe even the presidency!) may be this year's goal, but the ultimate, oft-stated purpose to Paul's 35+ years in public life has been to spread the message of freedom, of constitutionally limited government. Even a losing primary season—say, like Jerry Brown's underdog role against Bill Clinton in 1992—becomes a prime opportunity for salesmanship. Paul, unlike the rest of the non-Romney field, has the money and stamina for such a fight.
Another objective, as Silver points out, is that Paul "could certainly control a substantial enough minority to become a power broker at the Republican National Convention, something that is an explicit goal of his campaign." In my sporadic conversations with Paul insiders, the convention/delegates strategy has come up every time. If they can't prevail in a brokered convention, the Paulities at least hope to get a prime-time speaking slot, a hand in the platform-writing, and more besides.
A final motivation may be to clear the way for Paul's son Rand to make a run at 2016. It is not hard at all to imagine a scenario in which, after nearly four years of all American politics tilting in the direction against bailout economics and big-government policies, the Republicans manage to nominate a flip-flopping individual-mandate enthusiast with no credible plans to cut federal spending, whereupon he loses to the deservedly unpopular incumbent, and then an infuriated GOP grassroots looks for someone who finally means what he says about limiting government.
So Ron Paul's in it for the long haul. Republicans gearing up for a post-Iowa purge festival should be asking themselves one question: Do they really want to alienate the enthusiastic supporters of the only GOP candidate who either talks convincingly about cutting government or appeals noticeably to the non-Republican swing voters who tip most modern elections? The answer to that question may determine the future of the Republican Party.
Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine, and co-author (with Nick Gillespie) of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (PublicAffairs).