If Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) ran against President Barack Obama today, he’d run about even with the incumbent, according a new Gallup poll. Such a performance is noteworthy, as longtime front runner Mitt Romney holds a within-the-error-margin 48 to 46 percent edge against Obama. It’s also a stark change since Paul’s last try in the 2008 election cycle - more than seven in 10 of Republicans and GOP leaning independents couldn’t recognize Paul’s name or offered no opinion of him in an October 2007 Gallup poll October 2007 Gallup poll (dataset available via Roper).

Despite Paul’s increased visibility and competitive general election prospects, his 2008 primary race was marred by poor performances in almost every primary and caucus across the country, begging the question of whether 2012 will be Groundhog Day for Paul. The news media seem to have picked up on this narrative, devoting less time to Paul than most other candidates, including those who trail him in national polls for the GOP nomination, according to Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

So what is the chance Ron Paul will win the Republican nomination? Where did Ron Paul do well (or poorly) in 2008 and how is he polling in the early contests of 2012?

The good news for Paul

Paul consistently earns high single-digit to low double-digit support in national polls of support for the GOP nomination. He also won double digit support in several Midwest and Western states in the 2008 primaries and caucuses. His best showings were in Montana (25 percent, second place), Washington (22 percent, third place), North Dakota (21 percent, third place), Maine (18 percent, third place), Alaska (17 percent, third place), Minnesota (16 percent, fourth place) and Nevada (14 percent, second place).

The bad news for Paul

Paul won none of the 54 Republican primaries and caucuses in 2008 (several non-states, such as Puerto Rico, Guam and D.C. also held contests). And among his best-performing states, only Nevada figures to hold its contest among the early states in 2012. And even there, he faces Mitt Romney, who won the 2008 caucus by a 37 point margin.

Other early states offer little reason for optimism about Paul’s prospects. In 2008 Paul earned fourth place or worse in five of the first six contests. This cycle, Paul holds 7 percent support in Iowa and New Hampshire alike and 9 percent in Florida, according to polls conducted this summer.

Paul rates weaker than other candidates despite much higher name recognition among Republicans this year than in late 2007. He showed organizational strength by narrowly losing the Ames straw poll earlier this month, but straw polls at paid party fundraisers are far less reliable gauges of public opinion than representative sample surveys.

This isn’t to say Paul should be ignored by the media or that he won’t play a significant role in debates and on the campaign trail. Nevertheless, his prospects for winning early nomination contests - and building momentum to win the GOP contest overall - are quite poor and little better in 2012 than they were four years ago. The question remains, what did Paul learn from the last dance, and does he have the inclination to run a different campaign?

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