Ron Paul is a powerful man.

Republican presidential contender Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) speaks at a restaurant at the Polk County GOP summer picnic event held at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that an independent bid from Paul would garner 18 percent of the national vote. Perhaps more important, it would swing the popular vote toward President Obama by a large margin — 44 percent to 32 percent in a hypothetical three-way matchup that also includes former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

In a head-to-head race with Romney, Obama leads by a far more narrow 49 percent to 43 percent.

“Dr. Paul has strong crossover appeal, and could do very well as an independent,” Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton told The Fix. “He has, however, decided to remain in the GOP, as he has for over 20 years in Congress, and use that appeal to beat President Obama as the Republican nominee.”

But, what if Paul doesn’t wind up as the GOP nominee? It’s not hard to see how a Paul third-party candidacy could create a nightmare scenario — albeit an unlikely one — for Republicans.

As we’ve discussed previously on this blog, a third-party bid is a very difficult undertaking, and there are relatively few politicians — we’re thinking Paul, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and self-promoter Donald Trump here — who could actually pull it off. A politician essentially needs vast personal wealth, name recognition or an extremely devoted following — and ideally all three. And, even then, they have precious little chance of winning.

Even so, new polls show that there is a sizeable chunk of the electorate that says it is willing to consider options outside of the two major parties.

Given that polling and the candidates mentioned as third party nominees — all of whom have ties to the GOP — it seems more likely that Republicans would bear the negative brunt of an independent candidacy.

Now, that’s not to say that such a scenario will come to pass (it probably won’t) or, even if it did, that Paul would actually take 18 percent of the vote (he probably wouldn’t).

Paul’s campaign has left a bit of wiggle room when it comes to going the independent route, including when asked by The Fix earlier this year and in an interview over the weekend. Paul said Sunday that he has no intention of running as an independent, but he stopped short of a Sherman-esque, ‘I will not run,’ statement.

At the same time, there is little reason to believe he would actually do it, and the particulars of getting a third-party bid off the ground would make such a candidacy difficult.

It could also be argued that 18 percent would be a high water mark for a candidate like Paul. After all, voters want to back a winner, and while respondents in the poll may be registering their distaste with Romney but would rally behind the former Massachusetts governor if he was the party’s nominee against President Obama next fall.

But that fact that nearly one in five voters say they favor Paul over Obama and Romney should not be ignored. With disapproval of Congress and Washington near record highs, voters are liable to do almost anything to send a message to politicians in Washington. And that could include casting a vote for a prototypical political outsider like Paul.