Ron Paul's strong showing in Iowa's GOP caucuses creates a dilemma for the Republican Party, which has always treated him like a crazy uncle it would prefer to hide in the attic. Now Paul and his dedicated band of Libertarian followers can't be ignored without jeopardizing the GOP's chances in November. By finishing among the top tier of candidates in Iowa's secret ballot, non-binding, presidential preference vote, Paul has made himself a force to be reckoned with, not just in future primaries but at the GOP's national convention. Moreover, it positions him to influence the actions of the party's eventual presidential nominee or even to bolt the GOP and run on his own in the fall.
Paul's brand of libertarianism appeals to one part of America's political DNA that favors limited government as an abstract philosophy. This ideology leads him to take positions on some social policies, such as removing criminal penalties for using marijuana that attracts younger voters, but also alienates the more conservative, Evangelical base of the GOP. To deal with that problem, his Iowa campaign ran ads emphasizing his opposition to abortion, ignoring the philosophical inconsistency inherent in such a use of government power. Another of his campaign pledges, to "bring the troops home," is more consistent with libertarian beliefs in shrinking all aspects of government. It also drew support from younger caucus goers. However, when they are taken to the extreme of downplaying the threat of a nuclear Iran, his isolationist views further alienate Paul from the mainstream of pro-defense Republicans and assures his future as a second tier challenger. Because of the highly homogeneous composition of those who attended the Iowa Republican caucuses, Paul could safely ignore the second strain of America's political DNA, one that strongly favors specific governmental programs to ameliorate the economic vicissitudes of daily life. As a result, Paul's radical but hardly new ideas were able to attract the support of a significant portion of a segment of voters who already represent a minority of the total American electorate.
While some pundits argue that Paul's showing in Iowa will have little impact on future GOP primaries and caucuses, Paul's emergence from the attic represents much more of a threat than it did four years ago to the Republican Party than they realize. For the second presidential campaign season in a row, Paul has demonstrated an ability to use new media to connect his unconventional message to those searching for something different in ways that will have an impact in contests to come. Unlike 2008, Paul seems to have learned to leverage his online support to raise money and generate loyal ground troops to carry his message to a wider audience. And, like the stubborn old man that he seems to be, Paul appears to be more than willing to use his new found support to pound home his ideas through the nominating convention and beyond.
However, it is in the larger national arena where the fundamental flaws of his candidacy will ultimately be exposed. While Paul was able to deflect criticisms during the Iowa campaign of racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic comments that appeared during the 1980s and 1990s in newsletters bearing his name by asserting he didn't write or approve of them then, the denials won't hold up to the type of media scrutiny his campaign will now have to endure.
His ability to continue to attract members of the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) will also be limited by these statements, since, as young Republicans like Megan McCain and pollster Kristen Soltis argue, even the one-third of Millennials who are Republicans are intolerant of intolerance. In the course of 2012, Paul will eventually come to be seen as the flawed messenger that he is. Those who are firmly devoted to the uncompromisingly libertarian philosophy of Ayn Rand will likely have to look elsewhere for their spear carrier.
Despite this problem, Paul's success in Iowa highlights a major problem that will nevertheless confront the Republican Party this year. In 2012, there will be a standard bearer for the Libertarian Party, former New Mexico Governor and former Republican Gary Johnson, who carries none of Paul's baggage. If Paul's cult can be convinced to transfer its allegiance to a different person without sacrificing their commitment to the ideological cause, perhaps through an endorsement by Paul, the worst case scenario for the Republican Party's general election chances will become a reality.
A spring 2011 Pew survey suggests that pure libertarianism represents the beliefs of about 10% of the overall electorate, and around one-fifth of Republican identifiers. With a potential nominee like Mitt Romney whose ideological consistency is suspect, the chances for a Republican split as great as that between Northern and Southern Democrats in 1860, which enabled the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, becomes a real possibility. The ability of the Republican Party to contain such a split will be limited by the social issue and national security beliefs of most Republican identifiers and convention delegates.
The level of fear, uncertainty and doubt that now permeates the nation, most visibly in the Tea Party and Occupy movements, has emerged in American politics about every eighty years since the country's founding. Each time it has led to tremendous upheavals in the relative standings of the two parties. Sometimes it has even enabled the founding of new parties and led to the demise of others that seemed to be a permanent part of the country's political landscape. In such times, the allegiance of any voter or constituency cannot be taken for granted. Current polling indicates that preferences for Barack Obama over any of his Republican challenges remains strongest among some of the newer parts of the Democratic coalition, such as Millennials and Hispanics, even as more traditional members of that coalition, such as the white working class, search for an alternative to the president.
Among Republicans, the three-way split at the top of the GOP field in Iowa between candidates representing the business-oriented, Evangelical, and libertarian wings of the party suggests this same desire for something both different and purer. This could make it difficult for the Republicans to build the broader coalition that is always required to win a presidential election. The sudden prominence after the voting in Iowa of the party's irascible uncle in the attic makes the task of achieving this type of Republican Party unity both more personal and more problematic than at any time since 1964.