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Can Ron Paul win Iowa? Yup.

at 11:54 AM ET, 12/19/2011

Fifteen days out from the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses there’s one question on the collective mind of the political world: Can Ron Paul actually win?

The Texas Republican is, without question, far better organized in the state than he was in 2008 when he placed fifth in the state’s caucuses. And, he has been on television for months with commercials that are a vast improvement over the this-looks-like-it-was-done-in-my-parents’- basement ads that he ran in the last race. (The improvement in Paul’s ads is due to the underrated Jon Downs.)


Republican presidential candidate U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) speaking at a Town Hall meeting during a campaign stop in Marshalltown, Iowa, December 10, 2011. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes
That Paul will take one of the top three spots is beyond question. What even the most veteran Iowa operatives acknowledge they don’t know is whether he will win, place or show.

“Ron Paul is a real wild card,” said Dave Roederer who managed the Iowa efforts of President George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

The best (only?) way to understand whether Paul can win is to look back at how he did in 2008 and extrapolate from there.

In 2008, Paul got 11,817 votes, which amounted to 10 percent of the overall vote. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee won the caucuses with 40,841 (34.4 percent). The total number of votes cast was 118,696 — a high point in the last two decades of the state’s caucuses.

The two critical questions for Paul going forward: How much can he grow 2008 base, which we are assuming starts at around 12,000 votes, and how many people will ultimately turn out?

Let’s tackle the second question first.

Almost no one in Iowa Republican politics expects turnout to be as high or higher than the 120,000 (or so) who voted nearly four years ago. The level of interest in the race is significantly lower — due in large part to a general lack of excitement about the field. (In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted earlier this month, 51 percent of Republicans said the GOP field is just “average”.)

The question is where does turnout ultimately wind up. Is it similar to 1988 when 109,000 people voted? Or 1996 when 96,000 people attended the caucuses? Or could it dip all the way to 79,000 when George W. Bush won almost 36,000 votes and cruised to an easy 11 point victory over businessman Steve Forbes?

Experts are estimating that turnout will be in the neighborhood of 100,000 although, in truth, no one really knows for certain due to the lack of significant political organizations in the state. (Without traditional campaign operations identifying their voters, it’s much more difficult to get a firm grasp on how many people might show up.)

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume the 100,000 number is roughly right.

The lowest winning percentage for any candidate in the past two decades is 26 percent, which is what then Kansas Sen. Bob Dole got in 1996 when he narrowly beat back a challenge from his conservative right in the form of populist Pat Buchanan.

Assuming that is the floor for what Paul would need to get to win, that means he needs to find roughly double the number of votes he won in 2008.

Paul allies are confident they have 20,000 supporters identified right now. “I think we do not have as many id’s as Romney has, but we have more solidity in our id’s,”said a source familiar with Paul thinking

The Paul operation’s goal is to get to 25,000 votes, according to the source. While that number has never been enough to win a caucus before —Dole got 25,378 votes in 1996 — it’s possible that the combination of a very fractured field and lower turnout could allow Paul to eke out a win next month.

While conventional wisdom is that Paul benefits from a smaller overall turnout — making his loyalists a larger share of the electorate — his supporters insist that is not necessarily a correct assumption.

As evidence they point to the Ames Straw Poll earlier this year where Paul came within 152 votes of beating Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann despite the fact that turnout (almost 17,000) was the second highest in the history of the event. “I think turnout going higher is actually good for us as it means more younger voters and independents,” said the source familiar with the thinking of the Paul campaign.

A Paul victory in Iowa is still not the most likely scenario. But, a look at the math he needs to win — or come close — suggests it’s nowhere near as outlandish as scenario as many people (still) think.

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