Back in 1988, social conservatives rallied to Pat Robertson in Iowa … and in the process of doing so there and elsewhere, wound up taking over the formal structure of the Republican Party. The results? It rapidly became very difficult, and in most states impossible, to win a Republican nomination for anything higher than dog catcher without a perfect pro-life position. And yet the electoral implications beyond nomination politics haven’t been particularly severe. Social conservatives have brought Republicans some issues that have played well in general elections, some that have hurt them and others that appear to have had little effect one way or another.

Now, a new group — the Ron Paul crowd — is taking over some formal GOP structures, including in Iowa. Ed Kilgore has a great post detailing some of the wackier things they’ve put in the official Iowa Republican Party platform — for example, eliminating the Agriculture Department. In Iowa. Oh, there’s plenty more, including phasing out Social Security and Medicare; overall, it has called for a federal government half the size of what Paul Ryan has advocated. 

The problem with this for most Republican politicians is that unlike the Robertson Republicans, the Paul crowd are advocating a program that, overall, is just spectacularly unpopular with the general public. Many libertarians have fooled themselves into believing that the American people are with them on their basic program, but if that were the case, Ron Paul would have been a viable presidential candidate, not someone who finds it hard to break 15 percent in primaries. Nor would the polling on government spending be mixed, with majorities for cutting spending overall (good for libertarians!) and for increasing spending on most programs (disaster for libertarians!).

Normally, I’d tell you that individual issues just aren’t that important, but this isn’t a normal situation; the idea that a party would suddenly swerve toward the fringes of public opinion isn’t something that standard electoral analysis really considers.

What all of this means is that it was relatively painless for many Republicans to adopt Christian conservative positions in the 1980s and 1990s but that they will not be able to incorporate the Paul platform without risking major trouble. If the Paul faction winds up taking over significant numbers of state parties, something is going to have to give: The Paulites are going to have to learn to compromise and settle for 10 cents on the dime, the rest of the party is going to have to confront them in what could be a very ugly fight or Republicans are going to risk turning themselves into a minority party.

Kilgore suggests that reporters press Republican candidates in Iowa for their views on the nutty platform. That’s a reasonable suggestion, but what’s really going to be interesting is if there are a dozen platforms like this across the nation and at least a few highly visible fights over Paulite positions in the national platform this summer. In which case the question will be what Mitt Romney has to say about it — and what the Ron Paul forces will do if, as I’d expect, he dismisses the importance of party platforms.