Why Ron Paul draws big crowds but fails to catch on

At first glance, Benjamin Stolz would appear to be the perfect prize for Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Stolz, a freshman at the University of Maryland, agrees wholeheartedly with Paul on a range of issues — from seeing foreign intervention as too costly to agreeing that government spending should be cut. Stolz, an enthusiastic 18-year-old who has never voted, also admires Paul’s frankness and the Texas congressman’s ability to draw diverse crowds.

And Wednesday night, Stolz attended his first political rally, waiting in a long line at the Ritchie Coli­seum in College Park to hear Paul speak, joining nearly 2,000 other students who chanted “End the Fed” as the candidate took the stage.

But Stolz, though seemingly easy pickings for the Paul camp, is actually Paul’s problem.

Stolz did not file the right paperwork to vote in his adopted state of Maryland in Tuesday’s Republican primary, when 37 delegates will be at stake. And for all his enthusiasm for Paul’s ideas, which he calls “classical liberalism,” Stolz will not be casting a ballot for him this season, either in Maryland or in his home state of New Jersey.

“I’m waiting until the real thing to make a decision,” Stolz said, referring to the November elections, adding that he would vote for Paul then if he made a third-party run. “The two-party system has collapsed. Paul is better than that.”

That, in essence, has been the Ron Paul story this campaign season: enthusiastic crowds who love Paul’s fierce independence but fail to carry him to victory at the polls. After running in 30 states and gaining a scant 50 delegates, according to the Associated Press, Paul has learned a hard lesson: Crowds don’t vote.

Even though Paul has had a superior ground game in many smaller caucus states and has raised nearly $40 million, he has been unable to grab a victory in any state and has tallied about 1.1 million votes, half Newt Gingrich’s haul and a quarter of Mitt Romney’s.

The problem is this: Although Paul is running to lead a party that looks like him — older, whiter, Southern — his crowds are younger, war-weary, more diverse and less likely to identify with one party or to vote.

The same independent streak that leads the young and the restless to Paul’s libertarian philosophy seems to make it more unlikely that these supporters will pick a side and a party, which is a requirement for many of the primary and caucus contests.

A University of Maryland “Youth for Ron Paul” Facebook page underscores this point, suggesting that party affiliation is best sold as a short-term fling: “If you haven’t yet, PLEASE register Republican (for just a month) to vote for Ron Paul in the MD primary.”

Polls show that 18- to 29-year-olds made up 15 percent or less of voters in every state where exit polls exist and that Paul lost the youth vote in every contest since Florida’s.

And although Paul is often considered to be the grandfather of the tea party, he has struggled to gain a sizable share of those voters. Paul earned single-digit support among strong tea party backers in 11 of 18 contests in which exit poll data were available.

Paul aides call the crowd and vote total disparity a “puzzler,” and they see a hard-core group of supporters who show up at rallies and the polls but a curious, less committed “outer ring” of new converts who don’t show up.

Political observers say Paul, who played above his size in early contests, has underperformed and faded down the stretch.

“He is like an art film that everyone in the artistic film community loves, but it bombs at the box office. He has a small, very passionate following that shouts bigger than its size,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist. “They did well in smaller states, but at the end of the day you have to ask yourself if they really have that much power and if the tea party has that much power. ”

Yet in the GOP primary race, Paul and his aides see a kind of victory that can’t be measured in delegates. They see a party that is very much coming around to Paul’s limited-government, get-rid-of-it approach to almost everything. In rival Rick Santorum’s rhetoric about freedom and the Constitution, which Romney has tried to match, they see Paul’s fingerprints. And they note that Gingrich’s recent comments that the Afghanistan mission “may not be doable” edge close to Paul’s stance of a complete withdrawal.

Paul says that the race isn’t over yet and that there is still counting to be done in the state conventions, which they maintain will add many more delegates to Paul’s column.

“We haven’t counted all the votes yet because the delegate process is ongoing and we have a lot of states that we haven’t won the straw vote, but we’re going to see a lot of delegates come from this,” Paul said, when asked why he draws big crowds, but few votes. “One thing that is noticeable is that young people are more energetic and people notice them. Why we’re not in first place? It just means that this message is not received by everybody, but those numbers are changing.”

Paul certainly expanded his support beyond what he received in 2008, finishing a strong third in the Iowa caucuses and second in New Hampshire.

And although this could be the 76-year-old Paul’s last political race, there is still a second act: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Although Rand Paul, who proclaimed himself the tea party senator when he won his Senate seat in 2010, has only rarely campaigned with his father, he is very much a part of his father’s race.

Among Ron Paul’s top advisers is Trygve Olson, who advised Rand Paul during his Kentucky campaign.

In the younger Paul, tea party voters see something different.

Where Rep. Paul can be long-winded and professorial, Sen. Paul is direct and folksy.

“I would be a Rand Paul supporter in a heartbeat, but I’ve never seen myself as a Ron Paul supporter because I never thought Ron was someone who was able to govern,” said Ryan Rhoads, an Iowa tea party leader. “Ron Paul gets distracted on the podium. But Rand can explain what he believes, and does a better job of going out and trying to enact it.”

Whereas most candidates can at most hand off a list of contacts, Rep. Paul would hand off to his son an infrastructure, an organization (Campaign for Liberty) and a hard-core group of supporters looking to carry on the movement.

“Rand Paul is an omnipresent factor in this campaign. He helps us. It means that every dollar, every vote, every name and every piece of data is not in vain. It gives us purpose, something to learn from, something to improve on,” said Doug Wead, a senior adviser to the Paul campaign. “Even defeats are cherished and analyzed. A defeat, because of Rand, is a curiosity. It’s unspoken, but it’s very much present.”

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