Ron Paul is likely to win the Iowa Republican caucuses next week. What can that possibly mean?
Ron Paul is something of a crank. He's a libertarian with extreme anti-government views. He wants to abolish the Federal Reserve system. And the federal income tax. And cut spending by one trillion dollars in the first year. And end all foreign aid (including aid to Israel). And bring home all U.S. forces stationed overseas.
He dismisses a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to the U.S. He has said he would not have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 2007, he was the only Member of the House of Representatives to vote against creating a National Archives exhibit on slavery and Reconstruction. He was also the only Member to vote against giving a Congressional Gold Medal to Pope John Paul II, Rosa Parks, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Paul published newsletters that included inflammatory contributions by white supremacists, anti-Zionists and far right extremists. The newsletters bore his name -- The Ron Paul Political Report, The Ron Paul Survival Report -- but he says he was not responsible for the contents and may not have even read the articles.
Paul ran for President in 1988 -- 24 years ago! -- as the candidate of the Libertarian Party. He got less than one half of one percent of the vote.
Paul is ahead in the Iowa polls right now. But, at age 76, he is never going to be President of the United States.
So what does it mean?
There is not much evidence that Paul has moved toward mainstream Republican conservatism. Instead, the Republican Party has moved toward him. The Tea Party insurrection has certainly pulled the GOP in that direction. But Paul is not a Tea Party favorite. In a recent CNN poll, 53 percent of Republican Tea Party supporters nationwide said they would not support Paul for the party nomination "under any circumstances."
Paul is to the right of the Tea Party, particularly on foreign policy. The Republican Party has moved so far to the right, it is in danger of falling over the edge of sanity. Because Paul says such outlandish things, voters think he's honest. Asked by CNN which Republican candidate "is the least likely to act like a typical politician," Paul was ranked first.
The simplest explanation for Paul's strength in Iowa is the weakness of the rest of the field. Iowa Republicans have had six, count 'em, six frontrunners in the last eight months: Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and now Ron Paul. It's like a game of whack-a-mole. Every time a frontrunner sticks his head up, he gets pounded down. Paul just has the advantage of being the latest.
Paul's led also says that organization matters in Iowa. And Paul doesn't just have an organization. He has a cult. His cultish following -- which includes a lot of young people who like his antiwar views and his opposition to drug laws -- gave him a strong second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll last summer.
Organization matters in Iowa because the Iowa contest is not a primary. It's a caucus. A primary is an election. A caucus is a meeting. It takes a lot more effort to attend a meeting on a freezing winter night than to stop by a polling place and cast a ballot. Organized groups -- churches in the Republican Party, unions in the Democratic Party -- arrange rides and provide babysitters in order to get their supporters to the caucuses. According to one independent Iowa voter interviewed by the Des Moines Register, Paul "has an amazing organization, no question. . . . They're out there giving out signs, signing people up, following up with supporters and it's paying off."
Many observers idealize the Iowa caucuses as the ultimate expression of democracy: good citizens gathering in their neighborhoods to decide the fate of the country. That's nonsense. Caucuses are public voting. You have to stand up in front of your friends and neighbors and God and everybody and declare your support for Ron Paul or Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry or whoever. Ideological activists love to do that. Normal people don't bother.
The former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party recently wrote this characterization of Iowa Republican caucus participants: "It's hard to talk about real issues when three quarters of the audience wear tin foil hats."
Compare turnout in the Iowa Republican caucuses and the New Hampshire Republican primary. In 2008, Iowa had more than twice as many registered voters as New Hampshire (1,630,000 in Iowa, 756,000 in New Hampshire). But turnout in the New Hampshire Republican primary was about twice as large as turnout in the Iowa Republican caucuses (235,000 in New Hampshire, 119,000 in Iowa).
Reports suggest that some of Paul's biggest applause lines in Iowa come when he denounces foreign aid and U.S. military intervention overseas. He may be tapping into a long tradition of Midwestern isolationism. In the 1930s, the Midwest was a hotbed of American First sentiment opposed to U.S. involvement in World War II. That sentiment never entirely died on the right. More recently, it has been joined by left-wing antiwar sentiment generated by Vietnam and Iraq. That strain of isolationism horrifies mainstream conservatives.
If Paul wins Iowa, he is unlikely to go much farther. The Republican establishment will stop him, just like they stopped Patrick Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. The one establishment Republican who will be happy to see Paul win Iowa is Mitt Romney. Paul is his least threatening opponent on the right.
Iowa is where Republicans get their thrills. They date flashy suitors who have sexy come-ons. But in the end, they settle for a good provider. That's what Romney is counting on.