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Is There a Path for Ron Paul to the Republican Presidential Nomination?

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House Representative Ron Paul of Texas, currently running for the Republican Presidential nomination, presents an unusual case: here is a candidate who gets the third largest amount of campaign contributions among GOP Presidential hopefuls (behind former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry), who spoke to the causes of the Tea Party long before the modern Tea Party was born (and when doing so often meant being a lone voice, and frequently ridiculed), who consistently polls higher than former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum combined (and consistently higher than Rick Perry, but for Perry’s initial surge) and who has been consistent about his positions throughout his twenty-two years in public office, rather than adopting positions for the sake of popularity among voters of the moment. Ron Paul also polls well against President Obama in theoretical head-to-head match ups, beating every other candidate except Mitt Romney (and Ron Paul beats Obama among independent voters by 48% to 39%, according to this Public Policy Poll). At the same time, Dr Paul gets an inordinately low amount of media coverage: witness his eighty-nine seconds of air time at the South Carolina candidates debate on foreign policy, or, as we previously reported, his lack of coverage after finishing second in the Ames, Iowa straw poll (missing first place by just 152 votes out of 16,892 total votes cast). This is a candidate the media, and the establishment, clearly dismisses (see too the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism study of media coverage of candidate Paul).

Most “pundits” are of the opinion that Mr Paul’s support is “a mile deep but an inch wide”. In other words, his supporters are few but passionate. It is also assumed that Representative Paul has a “ceiling” on his support, somewhere around 10%, above which he cannot climb.

But multiple recent polls show Ron Paul in a virtual tie in Iowa and in second place in New Hampshire (trailing Mitt Romney). So today we ask: are there a set of circumstances whereby Representative Paul could win the Republican Presidential nomination?

So far, the course of the nomination campaign has made clear that there are really only two votes: Mitt Romney or someone not Mitt Romney. Consider this: Mr Romney consistently polled around 23% when Rick Perry entered the race with polling numbers in the forties. After Mr Perry’s numbers receded dramatically (down to the high single digits currently), where was Mr Romney left? Around 23%. The same thing happened while former lobbyist Herman Cain experienced a significant surge and subsequent decline (thought Mr Cain’s decline appears not yet finished): as voters’ support left Mr Cain, it did not go to Mr Romney. The latest “anti-Romney” candidate has been former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has seen his poll numbers rise dramatically as Mr Cain’s have fallen (and as Mr Perry’s continue to fall). But Mr Gingrich’s period in the spotlight as the “anti-Romney” is as fragile as was Mr Cain’s, and Mr Perry’s before him: new revelations that Newt Gingrich accepted between $1.6 million and $1.7 million from Freddie Mac (the amount was previously thought to be $300,000, the figure used in the Michigan debate) could seriously harm Mr Gingrich (who claims these funds were not for lobbying purposes but rather for “historical consultation”). The former Speaker also has a style which, while initially appearing amusingly acerbic, often reveals itself to be more akin to a method of deflecting some inconvenient truths – witness Gingrich’s response when pressed by Mitt Romney about Mr Gingrich’s support of a personal mandate for health care coverage (“We got the idea [for a personal mandate in Massachusetts] from Newt Gingrich”): Mr Gingrich denied he favored a personal mandate several times, before, finally, conceding that he was indeed in favor of an individual mandate for health care (for the record, Newt Gingrich had this to say in 1993: “I am for people, individuals — exactly like automobile insurance — individuals having health insurance and being required to have health insurance.”). If Newt Gingrich’s polling numbers collapse like Rick Perry’s did and like Herman Cain’s are, where does that leave the “anti-Romney” voters?

Michele Bachmann, who won the Ames, Iowa straw poll, but who has seen her polling numbers shrink dramatically since, doesn’t seem a viable alternative to Mitt Romney. Statements like this one, from the South Carolina debate, don’t help: “It seems like the world is gearing up for a world wide nuclear war against Israel.”

Jon Huntsman, former Ambassador to China under President Obama, is running on a platform somewhere to the left of Mitt Romney. That’s hardly going to appeal to that significant portion of Republicans who are opposed to Mr Romney for being too far to the left.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum hasn’t often polled above 1%, and when he lost his re-election bid for the senate, he lost it very convincingly: his loss to Democrat Bob Casey Jr. was by the largest margin of defeat ever for an incumbent Republican Senator in Pennsylvania (which makes Mr Santorum’s statement at the Las Vegas debate particularly amusing: “I can win Pennsylvania, and if we win Pennsylvania, we win the election!”).

That brings us back to Representative Ron Paul.

There are currently somewhere around three quarters of Republicans who do not wish to see Mitt Romney as their candidate for President. Many of those same Republicans do not wish to see Ron Paul as the candidate. If the only real options come down to Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, the race will be decided by three things:

  • Will the “anti-Romney” Republicans be more likely to hold their noses and vote for Mitt Romney, or similarly hold their noses and vote for Ron Paul?
  • Will other “anti-Romney” candidates like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich siphon off enough votes from Mitt Romney to allow Ron Paul to squeak out a win with 20% to 25% of the vote (it seems far easier to imagine a Romney supporter switching to Gingrich or Cain than it is to imagine a Paul supporter making that same switch)?
  • What role will independents play?

If, as it increasingly looks like, Tea Party supporters are left with a choice between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, and the remaining candidates take votes from Romney but not Paul, and enough “anti-war” independents register as Republicans and support Ron Paul, there may indeed be a path for Dr Paul to the nomination.

Largely, this race has come down to “establishment versus anti-establishment”, with Mitt Romney firmly representing the “establishment” and other candidates temporarily (but ultimately unsatisfactorily) representing the “anti-establishment”, except for candidate Ron Paul, who has been “anti-establishment” for over two decades now (with about 99% of his campaign contributions coming from individuals, versus 56% for Mr Romney).

Can Ron Paul pull off a surpise upset? We’ll start to find out in less than seven weeks.

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