One of the arguments used to dismiss Representative Ron Paul’s viability as a presidential candidate is that he is a libertarian masquerading as a Republican who appeals to a limited but high intensity audience, a popularity which will not translate into victory in most states. This argument is being used by pundits and media spokespeople to explain away his near-tie for first in the Iowa Caucus.
It’s a reasonable argument based on his small but loyal following in the 2008 election, but despite its basis in fact it is not sufficient to explain Paul’s current success. The problem is that Iowa is anything but a state dominated by libertarian-leaning Republicans. In fact, Iowa’s Republicans are 54% evangelical Christians who are strongly socially conservative and have very little in common with more libertarian Republicans. If Paul’s only appeal were to Liberty Republicans then Paul would have done poorly in Iowa where voters are anything but pro-liberty.
One measure of how libertarian Republicans in a state are is how active the Republican Liberty Caucus, which represents libertarian Republicans, is in that state. Iowa is an extremely weak state for RLC membership and involvement. Unlike most states, especially Republican dominated states, it has no active RLC chapter and it offered a single endorsee for office in 2010 and he did not win election. Compare that to New Hampshire where the RLC offered over 100 candidates for office in 2010 and has 81 members in the state House of Representatives.
New Hampshire Republicans lean libertarian and those in Iowa clearly do not. If Paul’s appeal was solely to libertarian voters then Paul would be dominating New Hampshire and would have bombed in Iowa where a libertarian message is not terribly welcome. Yet Paul pulled off a tie in Iowa, receiving the same number of delegates as Santorum and Romney, even better than he is likely to do in New Hampshire where he seems a solid lock for second place. He may also go on to pass the declining Gingrich and take second in South Carolina which has a balance of libertarian Republicans and more socially conservative Republicans.
All of this suggests that contrary to the conventional wisdom, Paul is not a single-constituency voter, but rather a double-threat with two bases of support. He appears to appeal not only to the expected pro-liberty demographic, but also to more traditional conservatives including a lot of religious conservatives. Paul’s balance of libertarian policies and personal inclinations towards social conservatism seems to resonate with both groups, giving him a much broader base than just the high-intensity ideologues most commonly associated with him.
In fact, based on the combination of his personal views and policy positions, Paul may not be the marginal candidate many assume him to be. With the exception of hardcore neoconservatives for whom an aggressive foreign policy is paramount – a viewpoint in disrepute after the failures of the Bush era – Paul has something to offer most of the other constituencies within the Republican party. His hands-off policies appeal to many social conservatives as well as libertarians. His clear personal religious faith attracts religious conservatives. His fiscally conservative policies appeal to both those who want government reform and to pro-business Republicans. In addition, the latest FoxNews poll shows asked voters who was the “true conservative” in the race and 40% answered Paul while 34% answered Santorum. Clearly Paul has created a larger niche as both the most Conservative and most Libertarian candidate in the race.
In Iowa Romney got almost none of the conservative vote while Santorum ended up sharing the conservative vote with Paul. But unlike Paul, Santorum has very little money and even less appeal to voters outside of that hardcore conservative base. Santorum polls very poorly in New Hampshire and without money he lacks the legs to catch up with other candidates. As Santorum’s Iowa surge fades, it’s quite likely that many of his supporters – who may be “anyone but Mitt” voters – will move to Paul with whom he shares conservative common ground.
If it proves to be true that Paul has two bases of support within the Republican Party, winning over both serious conservatives and libertarians, that puts him in position to be the preeminent challenger to Romney’s broad but lukewarm appeal. Though the media may continue to argue that Paul is unelectable, with this clear evidence that his base of support is much broader than originally believed, this may come down to a very close two-man race between Romney and Paul.