At this point it is clear that Rep. Ron Paul is not going to be the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. Yet it seems likely that he will outlast all his rivals but for Romney, and that he will have a substantial bloc of delegates at the convention. Paul has the money, and the grassroots support, to make it all the way to Tampa—and beyond.
It’s when we get to the “beyond,” however, that things get interesting.
What, exactly, is Paul’s endgame? What does he want? This is the question the pundits are asking, and the answer is maddeningly elusive.
On the one hand, Republican primary voters are increasingly open to his message of real free markets (as opposed to the crony capitalism championed by most Republicans), the defense of civil liberties (against largely Republican antagonists), and a noninterventionist foreign policy (an idea opposed by the leadership of both parties). He is regularly getting around 20 percent of the vote in GOP primaries, and his supporters are mostly (albeit not exclusively) young, independents inclined to vote Republican, and not that well off (under $50,000 per year).
His support grew by the day, in spite of a media blackout—and when simply refusing to report on his campaign didn’t put a dent in his support, the mainstream media turned to smear tactics. That hasn’t worked, either.
On the other hand, Paul’s support within the GOP has a definite ceiling: I’d be surprised if his poll numbers exceeded 25 percent in any state’s primary. This is a commentary not on Paul, but on the evolution of the Republicans, whose brand has been sullied by eight years of George W. Bush’s big-government conservatism. Since many Republican presidential primaries are closed, Paul’s political fortunes are left in the hands of those who are registered members of a party committed to eternal war, corporate subsidies, and the cult of the presidency. The political independents and disaffected Democrats who make up half his base are prevented from voting for him in closed GOP primaries, which is why we see polls showing him in a dead heat with Barack Obama in the general election juxtaposed against other polls showing him in the upper teens in the GOP primary pack.
GOP leaders are living in fear of a Paul third-party candidacy in the general election: Polls show Paul would garner 18 percent of the vote as an independent, and as the election draws nearer and scrutiny of Romney gets more intense, I fully expect that number to rise.
Provocatively, Paul hasn’t ruled out a third-party run, but he says he isn’t planning on it, and doesn’t want to do it. Of course he doesn’t want to do it: Who would? After all, even getting on the ballot is a Herculean task; and besides, he’s having too much fun right now running in the major leagues to be sent down prematurely to play third-party “gadfly,” which he did in 1988 with negligible success. So he’s likely to keep them guessing until the very last moment.
If the GOP bigwigs are hoping Paul will eventually endorse the nominee, and bring his supporters into the Romney camp, they don’t know anything about the Texas congressman, who has spent his whole political career fighting the very forces represented by Romney and his backers. Take it from me: It isn’t going to happen. And even if it did—if Ron Paul were suddenly possessed by an evil spirit—he wouldn’t bring very many of his supporters with him. His followers are just like him: principled, cantankerous, and uninterested in merging with the “mainstream.”
The GOP hierarchy thinks it has Paul over a barrel. By holding his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), hostage, the wags inform us that Paul is unlikely to launch a third-party campaign, because it would supposedly end Rand’s career.
Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. This isn’t just a political campaign—it’s a cause. The many followers who have been recruited to his banner are expecting something more than a fizzle-out in Tampa. They have put their hearts and souls—and, more significantly (for libertarians), their cash—into this effort, and they aren’t going to be happy with some anticlimactic end to the Ron Paul story. They want closure. They want to know they at least did everything they could to avoid the apocalypse Paul has spent the last 30 years or so warning us about: an economic downturn that will make the crash of ’08 look like child’s play, and the end of liberty in America.
In my view, a third-party campaign by Paul is the logical outcome of his entire career: After being rejected by a GOP mutated beyond recognition, he and his brigades of fervent followers will not be content until they’ve stormed the gates of the federal Leviathan and made a good-faith attempt at bringing the monster down. It will be Paul’s last hurrah—and, perhaps, the last hurrah of our Old Republic.