Ron Paul's Possible Path to Victory

The Ron Paul campaign positions its man to face off against Romney in a two-man race.


“President Paul! President Paul! President Paul!” chanted the 1,000 or so overwhelmingly young Ron Paul campaign volunteers and workers crammed into a ballroom at a Manchester Best Western on Tuesday night. Paul pulled a stronger-than-expected 23 percent in the New Hampshire primary, giving him a solid second place.

With dozens of national cameras pointed at him, Paul gave a great talk full of both raise-the-rafters red meat cheer lines and his professorial approach to monetary and foreign policy, not to mention the fight against crushing debt and the military-industrial complex. When it was over, a Paul volunteer next to me declared, with equal sincerity and irony, “I just had multiple Paulgasms.”

I first heard that “President Paul!” chant in Los Angeles back in September, at the California Republican Party State Convention. Paul handily won a straw poll that day, but got no attention or buzz for it. (A few weeks later Herman Cain did the same thing in Florida, in a straw poll more easily gamed by party insiders, and began his brief media-driven rise to the top. Paul fans thus have some reason to be disgusted by the media.) In L.A., the chant was the idea of Steven Vincent, a Paul grassroots superstar who is also a yoga coach. Vincent had a quasi-mystical take on the chant’s purpose, saying it was positive visualization. If his fans start saying it, if Paul starts hearing it, that will make it easier to manifest in the material world.

The whole world heard “President Paul!” on Tuesday night. But as I predicted, the disappointing media coverage on Wednesday largely missed the importance of Paul’s strong second place and his unique role in the Republican Party. So the world isn’t yet ready to believe that a Paul presidency is possible. But the world should begin to start imagining it.

From Tea Partiers to people seeking consistent pro-life stances to those searching for a principled opposition to state-run medical care and bailouts, and even to those tired of the wars (if you don’t believe they exist, then you don’t understand why Paul has already pulled the numbers he’s pulled), plenty of Republican voters will not be thrilled with having to go Romney. And they may shortly have nowhere to go but Paul.

The Paul movement is growingâ€"he pulled more than twice as many votes and more than three times the percentage as last time around in New Hampshire. Already, Paul has collected more than 25,000 total votes cast over his nearest competitor below him, Rick Santorum. No other not-Romney has any apparent hope of actually mounting a professional national campaign with funding and working bodies for much longer. Paul has always been, appropriately, a candidate of slow steady growth, not media or panic-driven bubbles and busts like Santorum or Newt Gingrich.

Paul’s specific achievements in Iowa and New Hampshire were built on an efficient, thoughtful, and very well manned machine of phone calls and door knocking, which backed up months' worth of personal candidate appearances. You know, Paul’s famous “strong ground game.”

Whether the Paul campaign will have either the money or the manpower to duplicate its months of extensive effort in the two early states remains to be seen. The campaign is going to have to hope for a bit of perception momentum from being such a close third to Romney and Santorum in Iowa and such a leading second to Romney in New Hampshire.

While Paul’s people still have the will and desire to continue volunteering for him in the next wave of states, as I learned from talking to dozens of them this week, they won’t necessarily have as much time outside the college winter break window of the last days before Iowa and New Hampshire. Paul’s political director Jesse Benton says the campaign still has plenty of volunteers on a waiting list and should be well manned for South Carolina and Nevada. Benton made a bold P.R. move after trouncing all non-Romneys in New Hampshire, declaring that the others really ought to drop outâ€"and he got front page headline placement on conservative rank-and-file thought leader the Drudge Report for his efforts.

Unlike what has happened with other candidates with momentum this season, the media isn’t spinning the story of an on-the-rise Ron Paul. He unquestionably has the ability to fundraise whether or not he’s winning primaries. His dedicated mass of volunteer laborâ€"and a professional operation competent enough to get him on all the ballots with a repeatable and strong get out the vote strategyâ€"makes it likely that he’ll be the last non-Romney standing.

But what will he be able to do with this position? If the question of electability against Obama is ever dealt with using actual data rather than the oft-heard assertion “everyone knows there is no way Ron Paul could beat Obama,” the campaign could point out that Paul gets more independents than Obama right now in a one-to-one matchup, and that he’s in a statistical tie with the mighty Romney against Obama as well. And a small percentage of progressives who care about war and civil liberties above income redistribution might come Paul’s way against Obama as well, making him potentially stronger than any other Republican candidate.

Tuesday afternoon, an eager Paul sign-waver at a Manchester polling place first hipped me to a rumor: Romney might consider Rand Paul, junior senator from Kentucky and son of Ron, as a vice presidential pick in order to keep Paul’s coalition on board with the Republican Party. By Wednesday, Neil Cavuto was talking the same rumor on Fox News. A source close to Paul tells me he overheard, in a friendly-jokey colloquy between the Pauls and the Romneys at one of the weekend debates in New Hampshire, Romney saying it was now just all about whether it would be Romney-Paul or Paul-Romney. Romney and Paul have not abused each other much, and pundits have noticed how even a winning Romney will need Paul people in November. 

Paul’s campaign has been ambivalent about how much to put into Floridaâ€"some Paul insiders have hinted that it just isn’t cost effective to spend the millions it takes to really compete for the state's only-50 delegates. But post-New Hampshire, there is now chatter to the effect that giving Florida some love is back on the agenda. At any rate, the campaign has its grassroots and at least some money for mail in the state.

It will do Paul little good to be able to fight it out to the end of the primaries without being able to pick up some or even most of the not-Romney vote that has been going to Gingrich and Santorum, neither of whom are likely to remain in the campaign much longer. For Paul to realize his possibilities moving forward, he needs to be a player in South Carolina on January 21. He’s currently polling a very distant fourth there. It’s supposed to be a very trad-conservative state for the Republicans (though they have a history of going for the anointed leader).

South Carolina’s popular junior Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, a libertarian-friendly social conservative and ally of Sen. Rand Paul, is openly calling for the Republican Party to respect and embrace Paul’s libertarian ideas. Paul himself has already moved on to South Carolina. He spoke at a rally there this week. And while he has no scheduled events there for the next few days, the campaign still has next week to send the candidate around the state, plus nearly a million dollars squirreled away to spend on TV ads. The campaign has also got a South Carolina-centered moneybomb planned for Saturday.

The Paul team has already been airing a couple of very right-wing-appealing ads in South Carolina. One features old patients of Paul's obstetrics practice talking about his unwavering pro-life beliefs and his steadfast integrity over the years. Another features Vietnam veterans praising Paul for being a vet and for helping them get commendations they deserved from the government.

Neither ad hit on what Paul talks about in personâ€"generally war, money, spending, and civil liberties. A gap between Paul’s personal messaging and official campaign ads and literature is common. The campaign's basic New Hampshire door-hanger targeting voters it had already identified as Paul supporters had six major divisions, and none of them was foreign policy. That subject is only mentioned under “spending,” with the line “stopping foreign aid, ending foreign wars” amongst a longer list of spending cuts.

Paul is also running ads meant to chip at Santorum, painting him as an out of control spender and fake conservative. The campaign will also roll back out the notorious “Big Dog” ad for South Carolina, which aggressively talks up Paul’s government-cutting mania in monster-truck-rally tone.

As these ads show, it isn’t hard for Paul to sincerely sell himself to traditional southern Republican voters. Paul can even play right-wing cornpone honestly. Some Paul workers say, with some humor and some seriousness, that Carol Paul’s Ron Paul Family Cookbook, a pamphlet of recipes from and pictures of Paul’s children’s families that she distributes, won a lot of grey-haired Republican lady votes in the early states.  

Paul has the historic bonafides as the intellectual father of the Tea Party movementâ€"the original gangster of insurrectionist objection to not just taxes but spending and bailouts as well. But is there still a meaningful Tea Party movement? I’ve seen almost no evidence of it in Iowa and New Hampshire, and on TownHall.com this week syndicated right-wing radio host Kevin McCullough declared "from the looks of things the Tea Party died."

But as Paul’s campaign manager John Tate put it, “the issues that the Tea Party brought to the forefront are still important, and economic, spending, taxing issues” are still of key importance to that body of voters, whether or not the Tea Party banner is still widely waved. Even polls of pure pro-lifers, Tate says, show them listing economic issues as their number one priority now.

And Paul, with his trillion dollars in one year spending cut plan, a balanced budget in three years, and an impeccable record of not voting for unbalanced budgets or debt limit raises, will be reasonably well positioned to capture that group, which has clearly yet to coalesce around one candidate and will resist doing so around Romneyâ€"unless the wave of apparent inevitability overwhelms their stated ideology.

But what about foreign policy? Paul’s New Hampshire campaign chair Jim Forsythe, an Air Force vet and state senator, had a great summation of Paulite foreign policy that he delivered from stage Tuesday night: It’s “a foreign policy about defense for America.” How Republican! Possibly.

Still, Paul’s problems with many Republicans remain. Chatting with partisans and activists for other candidates around Iowa and New Hampshire, I found they can mostly manage to be polite about Paul. Their biggest concern with him is a sense of lack of party discipline or teamwork: seeing Paul constantly asked if he intends to run third party on TV seems to have achieved its purpose of undermining his campaign. Many other Republicans say they think it’s likely, and this worries them. This never makes them think the GOP should strive to satisfy Paul’s fans; it just makes them angry and mistrustful of him.

Paul fans should understand why Paul gets those questions, even beyond the fact that he’s run as a third party presidential candidate before. Paul and his fans figured out the loophole in the two-party system. If you are brave and smart, and have a message with national traction, you can succeed in a major party without really being of it. Paul makes it clear he can’t give his sanction to a fellow Republican who is not solid on his core issues. His core activists are certainly more dedicated to Ron Paul’s message than they are to the Republican Party.

For Paul to win states or get to the convention with an unignorable number of delegates still qualifies as unlikely with just the data in front of us. But coming strong out of New Hampshire, campaigns can and do go in unexpected directions.

I was talking on Tuesday to Gary Franchi, one of the principals of the Paul-supporting Superpac RevolutionPAC. That PAC spent $100,000 in New Hampshire airing an ad called “The Compassion of Ron Paul” (three times during the Saturday night debates), showing an old patient of Paul’s speaking of his generosity in giving himâ€"a poor black man with a white wifeâ€"free medical services. The Superpac also ran an all-day event of pure grassroots action out of a Manchester pool hall on Saturday, coordinating and sending out over 100 mostly out-of-state Paul road warriors to literature-drop and sign wave for Paul throughout New Hampshire. The PAC is also hoping to have enough money to launch a new foreign policy ad for the South Carolina market.

Franchi was frustrated with the first-day media spin he detected after Paul’s solid second. He sees pundits acting like it’s still really a contest between Romney and the likes of Gingrich or Santorum. But remembering some recent history encouraged him.

“You know who else had come in second place in New Hampshire?” Franchi asks, and then answers. “The last three presidents.”

The day after the New Hampshire primary, the social networking and email lists where Paul activists gather were full of organizing and plans for collecting every Ron Paul road sign they could find in the Granite State, renting a truck, and driving them on to other states, to the next battlefields in the Ron Paul Revolution.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and the forthcoming Ron Paul’s Revolution (Broadside).