A lot of folks are pinning their hopes for a great renewal in American politics on Ron Paul and his ‘revolution.’ Pollsters and pundits don’t give Paul much of a chance when it comes to winning the Republican nomination, despite the unquenchable enthusiasm of his supporters. Their optimism tells them that all the polls and predictions are wrong and that Paul will surprise the world and come from nowhere and win primary after primary and seize the nomination by storm, and then be unbeatable with bipartisan support in the general election. Sure it’s mostly pure fantasy, but it’s a seductively appealing fantasy.
There’s no question that the Paul campaign has offered some surprises. Their fundraising accomplishments are impressive, with a record setting one-day total for their ‘Tea Party’ event on December 16th, and their overall fundraising has been surprisingly strong — not on the level of the top three contenders, but far beyond the other 2nd tier candidates. With momentum building they might have as much to spend in the first quarter of the new year as most of the top candidates, having already almost reached a fundraising target for this quarter of $20 million. They’ve also got a very nice blimp.
Nonetheless, whether they have the manpower or financial resources to pull off a shocking primary coup seems doubtful, with one possible exception. I wouldn’t hold out much hope for the Iowa Caucus on January 3rd, though some polls have Paul at a surprisingly respectable 10%. If Paul is going to pull off a surprise in any of the key early primaries, I think it might be possible in New Hampshire less than a week later on the 8th.
The Iowa Caucus is tightly controlled by the party and crossover Democrats and independents won’t get a chance to vote unless they planned for it in advance. Since they form a lot of Paul’s base, his chances of doing better than 4th in Iowa are pretty slim. In contrast, New Hampshire is holding a real primary, and their voters are probably more receptive to Paul’s libertarian message than voters in any other state in the union.
Particularly significant is that New Hampshire has been the target of the Free State Project which has been recuiting libertarians to move to the state and stage a gradual political takeover. Their goal is to build up a critical mass of libertarian voters and get candidates elected to local, state and national offices. They have over 8000 members right now, though only a fraction have actually moved to New Hampshire. They form a nucleus of voters and activists who are overwhelmingly likely to support Paul. Of course, the reason they’re moving there is even more significant. They picked New hampshire because it’s a state which already has a very strongly libertarian-leaning population and because of the political prominence it gains from its early primary date.
Libertarians usually do well in New Hampshire elections. There are currently 9 elected Libertarian Party members in the state, and in the past there have been a lot more, including 4 state representatives. Perhaps more significantly, libertarian leaning Republicans do very well there, holding a number of seats in the state house, and led by US Senator John Sununu who regularly scores as one of the 10 most libertarian-leaning national legislators and actually scored even higher than Ron Paul in 2004 on the Liberty Index of the Republican Liberty Caucus. Senator Judd Gregg also scores well as a libertarian Republican. Paul ought to fit right in.
Paul’s supporters tend to dismiss the polls, but they are the one thing whcih seems to be going against him. Despite the clear potential for success in New Hampshire, most of the polls don’t show him doing terribly well there. Recent polls have him somewhere between 4% and 9%, behind Romney, McCain, Giuliani and Huckabee who just barely edges him out. His numbers have been rising steadily, but so have Huckabee’s and Romney’s. Polls don’t mean everything and they have sometimes been dramatically wrong, but with the primary just over a week away, it would be nice if there were some sign of a Paul surge.
With the combination of money, momentum, enthusiastic support and the right audience in the right state, Ron Paul stands a real chance to stage an upset in New Hampshire. I think it’s possible for him to win, though it’s still a longshot. If his $20 million suddenly turned into a really clever one-week advertising campaign that absolutely saturates the state, then a miracle could happen and he could win.
Even if he doesn’t blow his whole warchest in New Hampshire, Paul really ought to be able to mobilize more votes than the polls are suggesting. I don’t think it would be at all surprising to see him beat Huckabee and Giuliani who are only a few points ahead of him. A third place showing based mostly on grassroots support and little spending would be respectable, but it’s really not sufficient.
As a ‘dark horse’ candidate, Paul really needs to pull off a surprise win in New Hampshire and it’s the one state in the early primary process where he can potentially do it. He ought to spend every cent he has and turn out every supporter he can to win the state. Never mind that it will leave his warchest empty. If he wins New Hampshire there will be plenty of new money flooding into his campaign from all over the nation as those who have been reluctant to take him seriously come on board and start to contribute.
If Ron Paul wins anything at all, it’s going to start with New Hampshire. There’s no more fertile ground for his libertarian message. Conversely, if he doesn’t win New Hampshire he’s certainly not going to win anywhere else either, and that’s the real peril.
Anything less than 2nd place in New Hampshire won’t be startling enough to promote him to the status of top contender, and even getting second might not be enough. The way the primaries are structured there aren’t really any other good opportunities for Paul to pull off that kind of surprise win, and none of the other early primary states except for maybe South Carolina are particularly friendly to Paul’s message. If Paul doesn’t make the top three in New Hampshire then it might be time to drop out, or mend fences and start campaigning for Vice President.
A win in New Hampshire might lead to an endorsement from libertarian-leaning South Carolina governor Mark Sanford which could add more momentum and result in a second primary win in South Carolina. Two early primary wins would give Paul enough legitimacy to also win other liberal or libertarian oriented states like California, Texas and Arizona. If he wins those three states then he actually is a real contender and would enter the convention with at least a quarter of the delegates, and no one would be laughing at him, that’s for sure. It would certainly make for one hell of a Republican convention if nothing else.
So yes, I do think there’s a small but real chance of Ron Paul winning the Republican primary in New Hampshire. If that does happen, then all bets are off and it could lead almost anywhere, even to the White House. I may be crossing my fingers and hoping, but I won’t be holding my breath. It’s still a long shot.