Ron Paul can’t win the Republican nomination for president unless the mainstream of the GOP changes direction.
The Texas congressman is not going to come to them, and if you’re wagering that he will prevail, you’re betting that Republican voters will collectively slap their foreheads, drop what they’ve done for years and throw in with someone who has made his public career out of telling them they’re wrong about almost everything.
Paul is popular, smart, experienced and, so far, able to successfully duck anti-Semitic and racist writings that appeared in newsletters under his name in the 1980s and 1990s. He’s done well in the primaries, raised money and made his points.
He just can’t get voters outside of his core group to take him seriously.
Paul doesn’t make the list of the Not Romneys. Reports from the South Carolina primary race dissect the operations of Newt and the remaining Rick — calling Gingrich and Santorum the contestants vying for the support of Republicans who don’t want to vote for the front-runner.
Paul, who finished third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire, hardly gets a mention.
Part of this is about past performance. Paul is very popular with a smaller group of Republicans. Mitt Romney, as an example, is sort of popular with a larger group of Republicans.
The knot Paul has to untangle isn’t about money, the intensity of his support, or his core values and positions. It’s about how to bring more Republicans into the fold. He’s being written off because there has always been a ceiling on the number of people who will support him in a Republican primary.
The competition in the primaries — and the advertising, news coverage and attention that come with it — works against him. With his small but intense following, a shrunken turnout here or there could be good news. His people are energized — they’re off to the polls, come rain, sleet or snow. The other Republicans might have numerical advantages, but Paul’s supporters will show up when others waver. In later primaries with smaller turnouts, the candidate with the highest number of inspired voters can overcome a candidate dependent on fair-weather followers.
Paul did well in the first two rounds, even with all of the candidates banging away and with voters paying attention. As more candidates drop out, the attention is on who will be the Not Romney to face off with the front-runner.
It won’t be Paul. But he’s likely — if his past races are any indication — to remain in the race even after the Romney/Not Romney question is answered.
Although the other candidates are dependent on good finishes in South Carolina and Florida and so on down the calendar, Paul’s machine runs on his personality and message. His fundraising is steady and robust — he’s not working off of the normal boom-bust business model that guides the other campaigns.
Paul is a strong niche player and has been for his entire career. It happens to work particularly well in the age of the internet, which gives small, noninstitutional players the same organizational clout as their institutional counterparts. Look him up on a search engine and you’ll find a vibrant and active political community that doesn’t get nearly the amount of attention as the smaller and less important group of voters that captures the nation’s attention every four years in Iowa.
It’s like two parallel political universes. In one, the institutional candidates — the former governors, senators and House leaders — vie for an institutional blue ribbon that will take them to the November presidential election. In the other, an iconoclastic and strangely charismatic congressman — a sits-alone-in-the-lunchroom type — steadily draws one of every four or five voters away from the institutional characters.
Paul is not in the mainstream of the national Republican Party, and he’s the candidate least likely to change his positions or emphasis in order to attract more voters. He’s waiting for them to come to him. That’s his appeal and also the reason he’s such a long shot for the nomination.
Republicans, though they seem to like some of his ideas and admire his supporters’ intensity, think of him the same way he thinks of himself. He’s not one of them. He’s an outsider.