Normally, a septuagenarian obstetrician with a penchant for lengthy disquisitions on monetary policy would not seem a promising presidential candidate. And in 2008, Ron Paul raised millions of dollars and galvanized thousands of passionate supporters but failed to win a single Republican primary or caucus.
The evidence is nevertheless mounting that the quirky libertarian-leaning congressman from Texas should make another go at it in 2012. Paul came within one vote of besting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC) straw poll. This strong showing came despite reports from the Daily Caller that Paul backers experienced difficulties registering for the conference or voting in its nonbinding poll.
Paul had already beaten Romney, the presumed 2012 frontrunner, in the Conservative Political Action (CPAC) straw poll in February. CPAC is the nation’s largest gathering of conservative activists and, like the SRLC, an early cattle call for aspiring Republican presidential candidates. Paul took 31 percent of the vote to Romney’s 22 percent. Many Beltway right favorites barely registered.
Straw polls are unscientific surveys that have no power to predict how an actual election would turn out, especially this early. But they are good tests of organizational strength and grassroots enthusiasm. The latter the Paulistas always had in spades, as evidenced by their strong showings in Internet polls last time around. Their ability to go toe-to-toe with the most professional campaign operation on the Republican side shows increasing organizational prowess as well.
In 1992, Pat Buchanan took on President George H.W. Bush and lost all 33 primaries in which they crossed swords. Four years later, Buchanan came back, won the New Hampshire primary, and nearly knocked Bob Dole out of the presidential race. Although Buchanan got nearly three times as many votes as Paul, the Buchanan brigades of the 1990s have a similar feel to the Ron Paul revolutionaries of today—except the latter are younger, more diverse, and are trying to build a movement that may outlast the candidate who initially inspired them.
Paul’s son Rand now leads the Republican race for U.S. Senate in Kentucky, where he would be at least even to win if nominated. Paul-endorsed former Congressman John Hostettler is within striking distance in the contest for Indiana’s GOP senatorial nomination and would be the favorite in November if he wins the primary. With leaders like former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, Judge Andrew Napolitano, and New York Times bestselling author Thomas Woods, the Paulites are moving beyond simply being a cult of personality around Ron Paul.
Building on that momentum would be the primary motivation behind another Paul presidential build. By 2012, Rand Paul and John Hostettler will either be just freshman senators or recently defeated candidates. They are not yet ready to take the mantle. It is not clear that Johnson, who is to Paul’s left on abortion and immigration, could hold together the Paul coalition at this early stage. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who could have credibly contested the nomination, destroyed his reputation with a sex scandal.
Only Ron Paul himself is in a good position to represent his libertarian and conservative-constitutionalist followers in the 2012 primaries. Although he remains controversial within the Republican Party—neocons and GOP apparatchiks booed him at both CPAC and the SRLC—the issue environment is far more favorable to his candidacy this time around. Conservatives are warming up to cutting government spending, balancing the budget, auditing the Federal Reserve, and citing the Constitution again. And although the right hasn’t gotten past the Bush Doctrine yet, the GOP may be even more open to debate on foreign policy.
Ron Paul would be unlikely to win the presidency, or even the Republican nomination. But he could add to the more than 1 million votes he drew in 2008. More importantly, he could continue to mobilize the young activists who remain the best hope for a future of liberty, sound money, and a realistic foreign policy. When his supporters beg him to run again—as they undoubtedly will—Dr. No should say yes.