Mitt Romney is sliding in the polls, Newt Gingrich is surging (at least for now), and neither candidate excites conservatives. A giant question mark hangs over the Republican-primary field. Washington Post columnist George Will and many others have speculated that the GOP’s apparent disarray could compel libertarian Ron Paul, with his sizeable base of enthusiastic supporters, to mount an independent bid for the presidency.
Naturally, most Republicans shudder at the thought, fearing such a bid would all but ensure Obama’s reelection. They needn’t lose much sleep.
Although Ron Paul can’t do an interview these days without being asked about the possibility of a third-party run, it seems the media can’t take no for an answer. “I have no plans to do that,” he told NBC’s David Gregory. “I’m not even thinking about it,” he said on Fox News. “I have no intention of doing it,” he insisted on CNN’s State of the Union. “I have no plans whatsoever to do it.” Which is what one should expect to hear from any candidate in his position — running for the Republican nomination.
Of course, when pressed to “categorically, unequivocally, authoritatively, unconditionally, swear-on-your-first-born-son absolutely” rule out the possibility, Paul hedges. “I’m not going to rule anything out or anything in,” he told a relentless David Gregory on Sunday. “I don’t talk in absolutes.”
Still, a source close to the Paul campaign tells National Review Online that the media should get over their third-party fixation. “Asking this question over and over again of a candidate who’s actually doing quite well in competing for the Republican nomination is both silly and insulting,” the source says. “Is anyone asking Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich about running third-party if they don’t get the nomination?”
Although the media may refuse to believe it, Paul is in the race to win. “Look, I’m not doing badly right now,” the candidate recently told Fox News’s Neil Cavuto in response to yet another third-party question. “We’re very happy with our polls. . . . We concentrate only on one thing: Keep moving up in the polls, and see how things come out in a month or two.”
Indeed, Paul is consistently polling second or third in early-primary states Iowa and New Hampshire. A Public Policy Polling survey released on Tuesday has Paul within one point of frontrunner Newt Gingrich in Iowa, as support for the former speaker has waned over the past week. Money-wise, Paul has always been a prolific fundraiser. The campaign is holding a “money bomb” on December 16 to coincide with the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. A similar drive during the 2008 GOP primary raised more than $6 million from nearly 60,000 individual donors — in one day.
This year, Paul will almost certainly have the resources to last well beyond the first leg of contests. The campaign recently opened state headquarters in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Washington State — states that hold their primaries in February and March.
There is some hope among Paul fans that, given the party’s dissatisfaction with “Newt Romney,” their guy will be the last man standing at the GOP convention in August 2012. That seems unlikely. (But given the twists and turns of the campaign so far, can it really be ruled out?) Either way, there are a number of logistical factors that would make a third-party run simply impractical.
For starters, even though Paul would be a shoo-in for the Libertarian party’s nomination, its convention will be held in early May — before GOP primaries in 13 states. He would need to quit the race rather soon in order to secure the nomination. Additionally, “sore-loser laws” in some states prohibit candidates from running in one party’s primary and then switching parties for the general election. In most cases, there are ways around these barriers (albeit time- and resource-consuming ones), but in states such as Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas, the legal barriers are reasonably strict. Those states hold their primaries in March, meaning Paul would have to drop out well before then just to get on the general-election ballots there as a third-party candidate.
If Paul’s goal — short of winning the nomination — is for his libertarian views to have their maximum positive impact on the outcome of the 2012 presidential race, he clearly has much more to gain by remaining in the GOP race for as long as possible. Significant changes to Republican-primary rules this year are a main reason why.
Republican primaries used to be winner-take-all affairs, with all of the state’s delegates awarded to the first-place finisher. Now, states holding primaries or caucuses before April 1, 2012, must award delegates on a proportional basis, meaning a candidate who wins with 33 percent of the vote will receive only one-third of the state’s delegates. With his cadre of dedicated and energetic supporters throughout the country, Paul is best positioned to take advantage of this change in the rules. He could conceivably arrive at the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., holding a substantial number of delegates, and thus be able to exert some influence on the eventual nominee.
What that influence would entail exactly is anyone’s guess, but Paul did say on Meet the Press that he was “very pleased” by what he heard from other candidates at the most recent GOP debate. “Some of them are starting to use a little bit of the language I use,” he noted. And while it seems unlikely that Paul would go so far as to endorse a candidate other than himself, strong showings in the early primaries, followed by a string of solid finishes in which he racks up a chunk of delegates, would make him and his die-hard base a political force to be reckoned with at the GOP convention.
Running as an independent, on the other hand, would serve only to further isolate Paul’s brand of libertarianism from the Republican party — and likely breed animosity between the two, particularly if Obama waltzed to reelection in 2012 as a result.
Another reason Paul is almost certain to forgo a third-party bid is that it would likely do significant harm to the ambitions of his son, freshman senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.), who has indicated his interest in running for the White House in the future. In fact, the younger Paul told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that his father’s running as an independent would be bad for the country, as well as for the Republican party.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for the Tea Party to break off — or for my dad necessarily — because I think what it would do is just elect the president again and . . . we don’t want that.”
And, we can only assume, neither does a twelve-term congressman who voted against the Paul Ryan budget because it was too timid. So perhaps the media can cool it with the third-party talk. If they’re smart, they’ll start readying their “Paul wins in Iowa” headlines for January 4.
— Andrew Stiles is the Franklin Center’s 2011 Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow.