[Overseasview]Why spoilers runRon Paul generated headlines Nov. 5 by raising a jaw-dropping $4.3 million via the Internet in a single day. “Ron Who?” wondered most of the electorate. “Forget it,” answered many pundits. “He has no chance of winning the Republican nomination for president.”
No, the Texas congressman and dark-horse candidate will never be the GOP standard-bearer, much less president of the United States. But he might yet play a big role in the outcome next November.
Paul’s fund-raising haul was not exactly a bolt from the blue. An army of passionate followers has championed his cause across the World Wide Web, punctuating statements of support with capital letters and exclamation marks for the past several months. Unwilling to take no for an answer, they organized to drop more money on Paul’s campaign than any Republican has earned online in a 24-hour period during this race.
The numbers caught even the candidate by surprise. In fact, his campaign did not organize the drive. Credit for that goes to a Paul fan named Trevor Lyman ― and the 37,000 donors who answered his call. These followers, who appear unmoved by questions of “electability,” will not simply vanish when Republican primary voters shun his candidacy. They will generate intense pressure on their man to run for president in the general election as a Libertarian.
Might he give these people what they want? He’s done it before. Paul was the Libertarian candidate for president in 1988. True, he won a mere .47 percent of the vote against George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, but memorable performances in this year’s Republican debates have amplified his small-government, anti-war message; elevated his public profile; and stoked growing interest in his campaign.
For the moment, Paul says he has no intention of launching a third-party run, a predictable response from a candidate still hoping to woo Republican voters. But during a GOP debate in Dearborn, Michigan last month, he raised eyebrows and fired up his fans by signaling that he wasn’t yet prepared to simply toe the party line.
Asked if he would pledge to back the eventual Republican nominee, he replied, “Not unless they’re willing to end the war and bring our troops home, and not unless they’re willing to look at the excessive spending. No, I’m not going to support them if they continue down the path that has taken our party down the tubes.” Not exactly the response of a GOP loyalist, but precisely what his admirers hoped to hear.
If he does decide to extend the life of his candidacy beyond the GOP primaries, how might a third-party bid impact the election next November? Forget the parsing of “microtrends.” A Ron Paul run would spell bad news for the Republican Party.
In 2000, after eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, a small percentage of Democrats voted for Ralph Nader to register their anger at a party that had strayed from (what these voters considered) core principles. Republican voters, sick of the Clinton administration and hungry for victory, unified behind the candidacy of George W. Bush.
In 2008, after eight years of the Bush presidency, a small percentage of Republicans who are not happy with their party’s nominee might register their disappointment by supporting a small-government conservative like Ron Paul. Democrats, sick of the Bush administration and hungry for victory, will likely unite behind the Democratic nominee. If a third-party candidate’s impact is felt in key states, as it was in 2000, the result could swing a close election to the Democrat.
There is historical evidence to support this view. Over the past century, relatively popular third-party candidates have almost always hurt the nominee of the party that holds the presidency. Strom Thurmond’s run in 1948 could not help Dewey defeat Truman. But Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, George Wallace in 1968, Ross Perot in 1992, and Ralph Nader in 2000 helped (to varying degrees) to push the party in power from the White House.
Why is this so? Major third-party or independent candidates emerge only when the public is unusually eager for change. That certainly appears to be the case this year. Change often means a change of party. What might a Republican voter see in Ron Paul? Ask Mr. Lyman. “I like some things about Republican ideals, but it goes back to the Constitution for me. Those ideals are all about small government, even if the party in recent years has not been,” he told ABC.
If Republican voters nominate Rudy Giuliani, the effect might be even more obvious. Ron Paul strays from Libertarian ideals in one noteworthy way: He opposes abortion rights. Some social conservatives, angered that the pro-choice Giuliani is the GOP candidate, might embrace Paul as the race’s only authentic conservative.
Most third-party candidates are well aware they have little chance of becoming president. They run to advance an agenda they feel no other candidate will champion. They need a passionate (if small) following to raise money and spread the word. They need some level of name recognition. Paul fits the bill on the first two counts, and his multimillion-dollar haul and fiery debate performances suggest he’s well on his way to the third.
It would be foolish to try to predict whether a person you’ve never met will run for office. Congressman Paul may not have begun to devote much thought to the matter. But he’s well worth watching. And if he does push his candidacy all the way to November, he’ll matter much more than he does at the moment.
*The writer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy.
by Ian Bremmer