The Iowa poll results took a while to sink in. Mitt Romney is leading in Iowa, but Ron Paul is well within striking distance of an upset win. The commentators are coming out of the woodwork to define Rep. Paul as someone on the fringes, but it may be too late with the Caucuses just a day away and everyone’s attention focused on the holidays.
Ron Paul may be the big wildcard in the election cycle, but not just because of this stunning poll result. The more he and his supporters are marginalized and underestimated, the more powerful they become. The game of expectations is clearly favoring a surprise on his part – and that could define the rest of this election season.
Support for Paul may not be centered firmly in the Republican Party, but rather more among independents. His positions on the budget are about as hawkish as they come, as is his call for the dissolution of the Federal Reserve (a position similar to the opposition to the Bank of the United States that defined the Jacksonian Democratic Party 190 years ago). Yet his overall isolationist call for the US to withdraw internationally is roundly derided by the party hierarchy as “1960s radical” or even worse.
Should the party be afraid of Paul? The answer is a firm yes, but only because they have empowered him by ignoring and marginalizing his (very) loyal supporters.
The Republican nomination cycle is defined in the early stages by Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. These three together will narrow the field and show who is viable going forward. If Ron Paul gains a strong second or even wins in Iowa, he goes on to New Hampshire where Romney should score an overwhelming victory – but Paul is in second, 41-15 percent. South Carolina will probably back the Christian evangelical candidate, currently Santorum, but the race for second place is much less clear. Another strong showing for Paul there and he will survive to go on.
The reason this candidacy is important is that the Tea Party contingent, for lack of a better term, could rally around Paul and stay strong going through the process all the way to the convention. If Romney can’t possibly lock it up, the Christian vote will probably do the same thing. A deadlocked 3-way split would equal chaos in the Republican field.
Sound unlikely? The problem with Ron Paul is that the hardening of his supporters makes his candidacy a crusade – something they will want to take to the convention if they possibly can. He represents a natural fault line in the party that is growing as the establishment (like the Democratic establishment) seems increasingly out of touch with mainstream voters. If the Christian vote takes the same path there may not be an y consensus candidate that unites the whole party.
Support for Paul has been hardened by the attempts to first ignore and now marginalize his positions. Isolationism, for lack of a better term for it, is probably growing among voters as the Depression sinks in. Why should we take care of the rest of the world when we have trouble taking care of our own? A free and open discussion of our role would answer that question and place the USofA in an appropriate global context – but that isn’t happening. Paul, and his positions, have been simply shot down as irresponsible without much explanation. That may not sit well with people who don’t necessarily share Paul’s views but are at least intrigued by them. What is the establishment afraid of?
Naturally, once we pass the early stages there will be plenty of time to engage in the debate that Paul will force. But if they don’t take Paul and his loyal fans seriously, they risk empowering him even more going forward. It is potentially a huge mistake that could cost them dearly.
We will all see. But for now, what the nation and the Republican Party needs is an open discussion of Ron Paul and his libertarian brand of conservatism. Is it popular enough that ignoring it will only give it room to grow? What do you think?