The Ron Paul Effect: What We Can Learn From the GOP Stalwart

This election, the Grand Old Party might not boast an all-star roster, but it’s got a game-changer in its midst. Of the candidates left standing, one is a disgraced, former Speaker of the House, another is too quasi-evangelical for comfort, and frontrunner Romney is a 250 million dollar cocktail of straight-laced smarm. But the candidate that’s got everyone talking – particularly voting-age Millennials – is the same straggler deemed virtually “unelectable” by traditional electoral standards.

Ron Paul, the 76-year old Texan representative – and libertarian tour de force – has emerged as this year’s scrappy underdog, pledging to sustain his bid through the Tampa national convention despite insurmountable odds. That said, it’s difficult what to make of him. Some voters consider him a valiant stalwart – others, a crotchety, pseudo-populist gimmick. The media circuit, on the other hand, has been more decisive in their assessment of Paul, marching the candidate out for spicier sound-bites, but for the most part, dutifully relegating him to “fringe territory.”

True – such dismissal has energized Paul’s base, inviting outraged condemnations of the “media elite” and other “mainstream” institutions committed to delivering Mitt Romney his nomination on a silver platter. The injustice of it all! Paulites like to lament. And they’re right. For all his outlaw “cool,” it’s Paul who trails Romney’s lead in an Obama match-up – not Newt or Santorum – and Paul who’d potentially suck the youth fervor right out from under Obama, come November. Which isn’t to say that a Paul Presidency – or nomination, for that matter – is probable, or even possible; only that he shouldn’t be written off by talking heads as another zero-prospect “right-wing Nader.”

All this is more than just food for thought, especially when considering what kinds of voters comprise Paul’s oddly specific political market. Of prime importance are swing voters,who’ve acted as an elective hinge in more than one historic election, and youth voters, who’ve energized, galvanized, and organized on the grassroots level, for as far back as the ‘60s. Both blocs, pollsters insist, find Ron Paul’s candidacy overwhelmingly more attractive than Romney’s– and in some cases, much more attractive than Obama’s.

According to a mid-January CBS News poll, 47% of independent voters said they would choose Ron Paul against Obama, compared to 45% of independent voters choosing Mitt Romney against Obama. But what about the youth vote? Let’s look at the numbers. Among 18-to-29-year old caucus-goers, Paul garnered 48% in Iowa, 47% in New Hampshire, and 31% in the South Carolina – leaving Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum biting dust.

These are impressive showings, but not enough to earn Paul the nomination – or any number of super-delegates in the primaries to come. But the specificity of Paul’s appeal to young voters could be the key to this year’s impending presidential election. Which leads analysts to this pivotal question: what’s behind Paul’s cult-like following?

Young Paulites paint a pretty picture of their poster boy, envisaging a lone soldier stubbornly beating back the tides of corporate and political corruption. They know, perhaps better than anyone, that Paul is almost certainly unelectable – so much so, that the “futility” of his candidacy and their campaigning efforts, becomes symbolic. Like their leader, they bemoan their “futility” in national decision-making processes, and experience recurring frustration as politicians fail to enact the “change” they’ve promised Americans, one stump speech after another. Thus, Paul’s campaign is powered less by idealism than disillusionment, riding on the belief that a withdrawal from mainstream institutions would prove a cure-all for America’s mainstream problems.

The problem with Paul is that he boasts platforms that are attractive in principle, but almost entirely untenable in practice. For Millennials – both liberal and conservative – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are pyrrhic victories, if they are considered victories at all. These days, that’s a valid – and entirely understandable – sentiment, but it makes young voters susceptible to Paul’s deceptive oversimplifications. Dislike the idea of nation-building? Let’s get out of Afghanistan! Dislike the idea of policing the world? Let’s close foreign military bases and not get internationally involved! And what about “state-sanctioned” assassinations? Let’s capture terrorists alive, not assassinate them! Simplifications, all – and romantic, self-congratulatory ones at that.

Not that Paul doesn’t have his merits. It’s true that he’s branded himself as a sort of sui generis – socially liberal and fiscally conservative in all the right places, just like his youth constituents. He says all the right things when it comes to gay rights, the legalization of medical marijuana, and above all else, enjoys the time-tested status of a Washington outsider.

I don’t buy into what Ron Paul’s selling, but I do believe he’s tapped into something of critical electoral significance – something that could have larger implications for what’s looking to be a Romney-Obama showdown in November. For talking heads, all kinds of questions abound. Where will Paulites go after the GOP nominee is chosen? To whom will they turn – Romney or Obama? We know that idealistic Millennials stormed the polls for Obama in 2008. But four years later, will their disillusionment force them to swerve right – or worse, stay home?

These are the sorts of things that determine elections, particularly one with such a politically disparate playing field. Ron Paul might not breach the finish line, but his campaign – and most certainly his youth following – will have reverberating effects for November contenders.

Read the original column after the jump.

*This article is temporarily unavailable due to the website construction for JHU News-Letter. Please e-mail me for a text version if interested.

(February 2012, JHU News-Letter)

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