With two primary contests down, two things are clear about where Ron Paul's presidential candidacy stands. First, he definitely has managed to build on his coalition of supporters in the years since his 2008 bid. He doubled his number of votes in Iowa and more-than-tripled his support in New Hampshire. But the second thing we've learned is that this improvement, while substantial, is not looking sufficient enough to grab the nomination. While the possibility exists that his caucus state strategy might manage to pull a surprise or two down the road, Paul's main achievement in 2012 will likely be a slew of strong second- and third-place finishes.
But because Paul travels the country with an army of loyalists -- with young, enthusiastic voters swelling the ranks, dedicated to being a disruptive force in electoral politics -- speculation has mounted around the idea that he might run as a third-party candidate. Most of this speculation has little to do with the things Paul has done or said. In fact, he has repeatedly suggested that such a run isn't something he's particularly interested in doing. Despite the fact that he has many viewpoints that make him a pariah figure among the Republican establishment, Paul doesn't seem to want to quit the party. And, as Josh Putnam suggests, that long-game, max-out-the-caucus strategy of Paul's seems specifically geared to get to the end of the nominating process holding leverage:
First of all, the Paul folks are VERY organized. FHQ has something of an inside view of this. For months now, FHQ's 2012 presidential primary calendar has been used by at least two or three Ron Paul sites in either efforts to get the word out about when the various states are actually holding votes or in lengthy tutorials on how to become a delegate. These folks -- whether directly coordinating with the Paul campaign or not -- know the rules and are focused on what I call the back end of the process; the selection of actual delegates (not the binding of them).
Secondly, the business casual orders that came down the line within the Paul campaign to its young volunteers in Iowa hints at something bigger. The campaign, in other words, wants to appear to and actually be a part of an orderly delegate selection process, but a part that gets more Paul supporters a step further in the process in 2012 versus 2008. To the convention in Tampa.
We could conceivably, then, end up with an unknown but fairly sizable number of Paul delegates pledged to Romney or some other candidate in Tampa based on the rules in the various states. Romney in that scenario wins the nomination but the Paul folks become increasingly likely to hold some sway over some planks in the platform. [And just because, I'll add this: They may also influence the nomination rules for 2016.]
Still, because Paul hasn't denied wanting to mount a third-party run emphatically enough -- he has not literally opened an artery and agreed to swear out a ceremonial blood-oath, one way or another -- you can expect the speculation on this concern to continue, if not accelerate, in the days to come. When that happens, reach for this terrific piece from Buzzfeed's Rosie Gray, which in my opinion, puts the notion to bed, permanently. The key to this puzzle, Gray notes, is Rand Paul:
Rand Paul got something closer to a win when his father scored a strong second in New Hampshire, a high water mark for the family. It was a mark that, after decades of being a leading libertarian voice in the country and perennial candidate, Ron Paul had finally battled his way in from the fringe. In the last leg of his career on the public stage, he has broadened his support beyond the hard core, and taken advantage of the Tea Party moment to offer the most durable alternative to Mitt Romney’s Establishment Republicanism. After this presidential run, his campaign has said he’ll retire. And when he does, a generation of loyalists will need a leader.
In the meantime, the family’s dreams for Rand have created something else: A hostage. Terrified Republican leaders worry that Ron Paul will take his rowdy mix of Republicans and independents and run a spoiler third party campaign he hasn’t quite ruled out. Ron Paul, they are making clear, has nothing to lose – but his son’s career.
“The question of Rand’s future hangs over the 2012 race in a real way,” said John McCain’s 2008 campaign manager, Steve Schmidt.“If [Ron Paul] were to leave the GOP it would have a crushing effect on his son’s political career in the Republican Party and would be ruinous to any chance of a serious national campaign under the Republican banner.”
And while Ron Paul hasn’t ruled out a third party bid, his aides insist it won’t happen. Inside the Paul clan, Rand’s generation is rising, and the dream is a new kind of Paul campaign: One that’s dead serious, a tick or two closer to the mainstream, and one that wins.
This really boils down to whether you believe the point of Ron Paul's latter-day political activity is geared toward winning him a term as president or if his larger concern is building a sustained political movement. To my mind, it's the latter -- this will likely be Ron Paul's last go-round on the stage of presidential politics as a candidate, and if his movement can't get him the nomination outright within the GOP's primary process, then realism dictates it's not going to get him to the White House running as an independent.
And for all the hype surrounding Paul's history of seemingly quixotic bids for the presidency, I suspect that he's a good deal more practical-minded than he's given credit for being (the caucus strategy is indicative of this). And if Paul's thinking practically about the movement he's built, then he must be thinking that his son is the guy who can continue to bear the torch. Here's where Steve Schmidt should be heeded -- if Paul the Elder were to run outside the GOP, it would immediately sandbag Paul fils' senate career and set back the movement he's built.
So, if you had to bet, bet against a Ron Paul third-party candidacy.
READ THE WHOLE THING:
The Next Paul [Buzzfeed]
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