Close your eyes and mentally pan the stage during the 2008 Republican presidential primary debates. All the GOP heavyweights stood in the middle. Rudy Giuliani was going to bring his no-nonsense brand of New York politics to the field. John McCain was an experienced politician and revered war hero. Fred Thompson was going to dazzle voters with his star power and southern-fried charm. Mitt Romney looked like a president; Mike Huckabee’s sugary lexicon captivated evangelicals, keeping him in the race well beyond expectations.
Then, almost off the edge of the stage, stood a small, elfin figure wearing a jacket that appeared to have been purchased for Dirk Nowitzki. If in the middle of the debate he’d sat down on the edge of the stage and eaten a Cup O’ Noodles, nobody would have been able to tell. And when Congressman Ron Paul was finally asked a question, he would explain the “tri-lateral commission” (in which the Death Star is conspiring with the International League of Justice to undermine America’s sovereignty and make us watch the WNBA) while the other candidates looked at the floor and shuffled their feet.
Yet in New Hampshire last night, that fringe candidate received 23 percent of the vote in the Republican primary. A week ago, Ron Paul received 21.4 percent of the vote in Iowa — almost doubling the totals received by governors, congresswomen, and former speakers of the House. And yet, these results are generally met with a sigh and a shrug from rank-and-file Republicans.
You see, we’re supposed to pretend Ron Paul isn’t really there. He’s like the kid in the high-school yearbook who missed portrait day, and is represented by a shady outline with the words “picture not available.” Ron Paul is an electoral chalk outline.
If an individual flew to America from, say, Germany, they would immediately remark how strong a candidate Ron Paul seemed to be. (Right after they asked “Where does David Hasselhoff live?”) But despite the strong vote totals, American electoral observers uniformly affix an asterisk to Paul’s support.
GOP voters say the big margins he’s running up in primaries don’t really count, since his voters aren’t actually Republicans. Droves of fanatic new voters show up to vote for Paul because they either demand more domestic freedom, or want less U.S. intervention overseas, or because they are Vince Vaughn.
Paul is further dismissed because everyone can see the obvious: Ron Paul will never, ever be president of the United States. Paul could live to be 850 years old and he still couldn’t be elected. The only way he will ever see the Oval Office is if he signs up for the White House tour.
Yet it is a mistake to simply remove Paul from the equation and pretend that the rest of the primary would have gone on, as-is, without him in it. Like it or not, Paul is now a power broker in the Republican party. He is currently siphoning votes away from other, more plausible candidates. The race would look very different if he were somehow surgically removed from the vote count.
But Paul supporters say that electing the congressman to the presidency isn’t the point. (This chagrins Republicans, who think that a GOP presidential primary should maybe have at least something to do with picking who their presidential candidate will be.) Ron Paul Revolutionaries know that the GOP primary is the one place where issues like the gold standard, ending the Federal Reserve, and legalization of drugs will receive a national hearing. And a 2012 Paul candidacy makes the electoral soil a little more fertile for a future libertarian candidate, much like the 2008 Paul candidacy did for the Ron Paul of 2012.
Of course, GOP primary voters have been subjected to single-issue candidates for years. Whether it’s Gary Bauer on abortion, or Tom Tancredo on immigration, or Alan Keyes on how awesome Alan Keyes is, marginal candidates usually have their say, and exit when people stop listening.
But Paul suddenly doesn’t have to be relegated to that scrap heap of former GOP oddities. #more#Now, in the wake of the debt explosion and the Obama health-care overreach, Paul has some juice in a party of which he really isn’t even a member. This is why, even when it came to light that Paul had been publishing newsletters warning of a coming race war, other Republican candidates refused to attack. They know they will need Paul’s voters when he eventually drops out.
Even more importantly, they know they need to play kissyface with Paul to prevent him from running as a third-party candidate in the 2012 general election. A good number of those primary voters will follow Paul to the general election, if he decides to go it alone — and in a presidential election that is bound to be tight, bleeding the Republicans of just 1 percent of the vote could be fatal. (According to Rasmussen, 10 percent of voters would consider voting for a third-party candidate in a Romney-vs.-Obama matchup.) Knowing he still has some chess pieces to play in the GOP primary, Paul has refused to rule out a third-party run.
Eventually, Paul could use his leverage to carve out a permanent spot for libertarians within the Republican party. This would not be unlike “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, whose band of progressives merged with the conservative (or “stalwart”) wing of the Republican party at the beginning of the 20th century. (As a result, the GOP became the dominant party in places like Wisconsin for the first half of the century — between 1923 and 1929, there were no Democrats in the state senate. The 1925 Wisconsin assembly featured 92 Republicans, one Democrat, and seven Socialist Party members.)
As much as Republicans want to close their eyes, hold their breath, and wait for Ron Paul to go away, he still has plenty of ammunition left. He will once again distort the vote in South Carolina, perhaps giving Mitt Romney a much smaller percentage than he would have otherwise. But Ron Paul’s real effects could be felt long-term in the GOP, if someone is willing to walk the path he has cleared.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and a co-author of the 2011-2012 Campaign Manager Survey.