Posted by: Joshua Green on December 29, 2011
It’s getting hard to imagine a plausible scenario in which Mitt Romney does not wind up as the Republican presidential nominee — he has the money, experience, and staff the other candidates lack, and enough dull appeal to remain competitive throughout. Plus, the Republicans who surpass him have the longevity of Spinal Tap drummers. The latest is Texas Representative Ron Paul, who holds a narrow lead in most recent polls of Iowa and so stands the best chance of beating Romney next Tuesday.
Paul’s late emergence is universally regarded as a stroke of good fortune for Romney, and a Paul victory in Iowa would be seen as merely delaying, rather than denying, Romney’s eventual coronation. In fact, many commentators are already dispensing with the usual pretense of calling him a ”long shot” and stating outright that Paul won’t become the nominee. They’re probably right — but at the same time, Iowans famously cherish their status as the first to weigh in on presidential candidates, and few would knowingly waste their vote.
So what’s going on? The best explanation could be that the diverging views of Ron Paul actually reflect different understandings of what a vote for him would signify.
Members of Congress and the national press view Paul as an amiable crank, more willing than most to stick to his libertarian principles - he once cast the lone vote to deny Mother Teresa the Congressional Gold Medal because the Constitution doesn’t expressly authorize the expenditure - but chiefly concerned with making a point. As David Fahrenthold noted in the Washington Post, Paul has sponsored 620 measures in his lengthy congressional career, only four of which even made it to the House floor, and just one of which became law. Paul also embodies the implacable extremities of the Tea Party, a fading movement inside the Beltway that last week lost the big fight it had provoked over the payroll tax, and has come to be regarded as slightly passe.
Furthermore, many of Paul’s positions, such as his isolationism, are out of step with today’s Republican Party. These positions, along with his ties to the political fringe, would probably disqualify him were they better known. Just this week, a number of newspapers highlighted the vile, racist newsletters that Paul published in the 1990s, which, among other things, accused blacks of ”racial terrorism” and asserted that AIDS victims ”enjoy the attention and pity that comes from being sick.” (Paul claims he did not write them.) And as the caucuses loom, the other candidates have started drawing attention to these weaknesses. Paul has been written off because Washington observers assume that no one could survive such ugly revelations.
But most Republican caucus-goers in Iowa don’t have the same familiarity with Paul and still hold firm to the values that gave rise to the Tea Party. According to a recent Iowa State University poll, the most important issues to the respondents were ”jobs and the economy” (35 percent), ”the size and role of the federal government” (24 percent), and “the national debt and the deficit” (22 percent). By a healthy margin, respondents were also looking for a nominee who would ”take a strong stand” over one who seemed more electable in November. Not surprisingly, Paul was the voters’ first choice. Even those who do not support him routinely say they view him as the most consistent potential nominee.
In light of how the race has developed, it’s also unsurprising that Paul’s support has been steadily building up. Candidates like Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, who were initially touted as staunch conservative alternatives to Romney, have been exposed as apostates on issues ranging from immigration and individual liberty (Perry) to health-care mandates, lobbying, and the government’s role in the housing market (Gingrich). Paul is the natural repository of support from voters frustrated by these revelations.
But influential as these voters are in determining who wins the caucuses, they’re only a sliver of the electorate - historically, about 3 to 5 percent of Iowa’s adult population. That may be why, as seriously as Iowans take their duty, the caucus winner rarely goes on to seize the nomination, and is more likely to spontaneously self-combust like that unfortunate Spinal Tap drummer.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.