Could Ron Paul actually win the nomination?
The race for the Republican Presidential nominee in the USA is getting interesting. Last Tuesday the good people of Iowa voted for their favourite Republican, with no clear outcome. Willard “Mitt” Romney won the popular vote by eight over Rick “please don’t google my surname” Santorum, but the actual allocation of delegates is unknown since Iowa uses a complex caucus system that no normal person understands. The only certain consequence from the Iowa vote is that Michele Bachmann has dropped out, leaving six serious contenders.
While all of the remaining candidates have an interesting story to tell, it is the rise of Ron Paul and a growing libertarian voting block that has the biggest long-term consequences. When I wrote about Ron Paul for “the drum” a month ago he was still being largely ignored by the mainstream media (MSM) despite consistent good polling and fund-raising. That is slowly changing. Given that Paul came 3rd in Iowa (with 21% of the vote), is currently polling 2nd in the next voting state of New Hampshire (~20%), and is the only candidate other than Romney with money and campaign infrastructure around the country, some people have started paying attention.
With a higher profile, Paul has started to cop some heat from opponents. He has been attacked over some 20 year old racist articles that were most probably written by James Powell, and the war-mongers have called him dangerous because he doesn’t want to attack Iran. However, these don’t seem to have done much damage in the polls, since Ron Paul is clearly not a racist and most of his supporters are already aware that Paul believes in peace. Over the last month Paul has moved from 8% to 12% in the Gallup daily tracking poll.
Nonetheless, most mainstream commentators continue to say that Ron Paul simply cannot win the nomination. They are probably right. The libertarian message is a hard sell, and most people find it difficult to believe that the party of George W. Bush would endorse a candidate who wants to end the war on drugs, ban torture, close Gitmo, trade with Iran and Cuba, bring home US troops, and protect civil liberties, even if he was the only candidate to have predicted the housing bubble and bust. Recent polling shows that 52% in New Hampshire have an unfavourable view of Paul. But what are the alternatives?
Besides Ron Paul there are five options available for the Republicans. If we consider each candidate on their own, the most obvious conclusion is that they cannot win the nomination. And yet one of them must. The chances of Ron Paul being the candidate are slim, but with the weak field and current economic turmoil, it is worth considering.
In the next few weeks, we are likely to see two more candidates drop out of the race. Jon Huntsman got less than 1% in Iowa, is polling 2% nationally, and has no money or national campaign infrastructure. His main problem is that as a “moderate” who is supported by the Republican establishment (and a Mormon) his niche in the race was already taken by Mitt Romney. Huntsman has put all his hopes in New Hamsphire were he has about 9% support… and if he fails to “surge” in the next few days then he will be out of the contest.
Rick Perry is only in a marginally better position. He got 10% in Iowa, is polling 6% nationally and only 1% in New Hampshire, but he does have a bit of money leftover from his earlier fundraising so he can’t be ruled out of the race just yet. Perry is skipping New Hampshire and putting all his hopes in the South Carolina primary on 21 January, where he is currently polling at 5%. The Perry strategy now is simply to pray for other anti-Romney candidates (especially Santorum) to fall over… and if that fails to happen in the next two weeks then he will be out of the contest.
That leaves us with four potential nominees — Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul.
The most obvious option is Mitt Romney. He may well end up being the candidate because, as suggested in a fake Romney ad, “I’m all you’ve got left; game over baby”. Romney won in Iowa with 25%, is currently leading in the national polls with 27%, and leading in New Hampshire with 41%, he does the best in match-ups against Obama, and he has more money and campaign infrastructure than any other candidate. The intrade odds suggest he has an 80% chance of being the eventual nominee, which sounds about right.
And yet the simple truth remains that a majority of Republicans just don’t like/trust Romney. He seems to have a solid floor of about 20% support and also a ceiling of about 30% support in most states, with the other 70% desperately looking for any other alternative. This restless base has jumped from Bachmann to Perry to Cain to Gingrich to Santorum, but they refuse to get behind Romney. This might be because of his pro-choice past, his preference for big government, his religion, or simply a perception that he is “fake“. Whatever the reason, the anti-Romney sentiment leaves open the possibility that another candidate could put together a large enough “anti-Romney” coalition to steal the nomination.
The latest anti-Romney to surge in the polls has been Rick Santorum, after scoring a close 2nd place in Iowa. He has now shot up from 4% to 15% in the Gallup national poll and his numbers continue to climb as he makes the case that he is the real conservative in the race. But there are several reasons to be skeptical of the Santorum surge. First, Santorum has no money or national campaign infrastructure, which makes it very difficult for him to run an effective national campaign. At the same time, his new frontrunner status will attract increased scrutiny as other candidates point out that Rick Santorum believes in big government and bridges to nowhere. Regarding electability, Santorum’s strong anti-gay position makes him unlikely to win over independent voters in the general election, and he does worse than the other Republicans against Obama in polling (except for Rick Perry).
If Santorum doesn’t win, the only other option besides Romney and Paul would be Newt Gingrich. Newt surged to the top of the polls in November, with a peak of 37% in the Gallup national poll. However, since then a lack of money and increased scrutiny on his record have seen his numbers fall steadily so that he is now down to 19% and dropping. He scored a disappointing 13% in Iowa and is polling 9% in New Hampshire, and has one of the highest “unlikeable” ratings of all potential candidates. Gingrich has said that his campaign rests on a good showing in South Carolina, where he has just fallen from 1st to 3rd in recent polls. Like Perry, Gingrich’s strategy now is to pray for other anti-Romney candidates (especially Santorum) to fall over.
Given a field of unpopular and under-funded candidates, it is possible that the vote may stay fractured until the Florida primary (31 January) and beyond, which would be ideal for Ron Paul. It would give him a legitimate chance of winning some states, and further explain his policies and philosophy in the hope of persuading more people towards his libertarian and constitutional approach.
As the “Ron Paul army” grows, this creates an ever-bigger libertarian problem for the Republicans. Either they start to embrace libertarian policies, or they risk alienating a large and growing section of their own support base. This problem was highlighted recently with a national opinion poll that showed Obama on 43% against Romney on 41% and Gary Johnson earning 9% as a potential Libertarian Party candidate. If Ron Paul was the Republican nominee, that libertarian vote would shift to the Republicans.
Under normal circumstances, Ron Paul would have no chance of winning the nomination. But these aren’t normal circumstances.