In essence, alone among the candidates in the field this cycle, Paul seems to start with a base, and only adds to it. Nationally, Paul is still in third place, far behind both Gingrich and Romney, but his national numbers will rise quickly if he wins in Iowa and gets first or second in New Hampshire. A week before the Iowa caucus in 2008, Barack Obama trailed Hillary Clinton by almost 20 points nationally and in New Hampshire. Within days of his solid Iowa victory, Obama was in the lead in the polls both in New Hampshire and nationally (Hillary’s tearful “I care so much” routine just before the primary may have helped her eke out a narrow win in the Granite State).
Where does Paul go after New Hampshire, assuming he has had a wild and successful ride in the first two contests? Could the GOP voters have such a death wish that they would nominate Ron Paul? In 1992, nineteen million people voted for Ross Perot for president. Nineteen million votes in the GOP primaries would get Paul the nomination.
In the end, I think the GOP will nominate a candidate who is more mainstream. The ardently libertarian branch of the party is gaining strength and has overlap with the Tea Party movement, but the Paul campaign has also attracted a healthy collection of flakes, anti-Semites, and unusually rude supporters who behave like Lyndon La Rouche backers at times. If Mitt Romney were the last man standing versus Paul, I think Romney would win. This is despite the “anyone but Romney” sentiment among some conservatives and particularly among evangelicals (where there is a healthy level of unhealthy anti-Mormon bigotry at work). Romney has the campaign organization and funding to weather a few early blows. Some of the other contenders — Bachmann, Santorum, and Huntsman — probably do not. John Edwards, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd were all gone after Iowa or New Hampshire in 2008. The GOP field will shrink pretty quickly after the first two contests .
Ron Paul has almost no chance, were he the nominee, to defeat Barack Obama in the general election. Head-to-head matchups show Paul would be trounced by 10% or more, despite Obama’s mid-40% approval level. But the bigger problem might be a third-party candidacy, particularly if Paul does not like the GOP standard-bearer. And the chances of Paul going the third-party route (he was the Libertarian nominee for President once before in 1988) grow as his visibility grows in the GOP fight for the nomination. The old obstetrician obviously enjoys the spotlight and the national platform to make his case. Paul has already announced he will not be running to retain his seat in Congress.
Were Paul to run on a third-party ticket, he would do much better than when he ran in 1988. His name recognition is much higher , and he has many more true-believer supporters — an army of sorts built up over the years of campaigns. In a close election, as most everyone expects to be the case in 2012, Paul could insure Obama’s re-election bid with a third-party candidacy, since far more of his supporters hail from the right side than the left side. Paul does attract anti-war isolationists, but they are found on both sides of the political spectrum today.
The serious GOP contenders need to be thinking of how they can win the nomination, and not antagonize Ron Paul too badly while doing it. If Paul becomes one of the final two or three, as I expect will be the case, the mainstream media will have a field day, thrilled to play up how extreme the GOP has become, evidenced by Paul’s success. A long, drawn-out nominating contest between Romney and Gingrich, or some other pairing, will only add to Paul’s above-the-fray appeal. If the other GOP contenders go after Paul hard, it increases the likelihood of his bolting from the party. The longer Paul stays around, the more Barack Obama and his dismal record as president will escape the spotlight. Obama wants to compete in a beauty contest versus the GOP and its nominee, not a referendum on his governing ability. Ron Paul might make that a lot easier.