In the wake of his second-place showing in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night, Texas Rep. Ron Paul declared: “We are dangerous to the status quo of this country”.
He’s right. And that could be a very bad thing for a Republican party hoping to take back the White House this November.
A look at exit polling from New Hampshire suggests that Paul has a significant — and steady — following that exists almost entirely apart from the Republican party and is, in many ways, based on a disgust with the GOP.
Two numbers from the exit polls jump out.
1) Almost seven in ten people who voted for Paul on Tuesday in New Hampshire said they would be “dissatisfied” if former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was the Republican nominee.
2) Fully 78 percent of Paul’s New Hampshire support came from those who are dissatisfied or angry with the Obama administration — not surprising given the low regard in which the current president is held by Republicans. But, consider this: 77 percent of Paul’s Granite State supporters in 2008 were similarly upset with the Bush administration. In fact, half of all Paul’s votes four years ago came from voters downright “angry” with Republican president.
Combine those two data points with the fact that Paul’s vote total more than tripled between 2008 (18,308 votes) and 2012 (56,000 votes and counting) and it’s clear that the Texas Republican’s support is not only primed and ready to follow him wherever he leads but it is also growing.
That double-barreled dose of reality leads naturally to a discussion of a possible third party bid in 2012 by Paul. He’s been asked any number of times about it and always demurs, insisting that it’s nothing he’s planning on doing. (In an interview with Fox News Channel’s Greta van Susteren Monday, Paul said: “That thought doesn’t cross my mind. I’m not thinking in those terms.”)
We believe him. But, circumstances change.
Imagine this scenario: Between now and Super Tuesday — March 6 — Romney wins enough primaries that he becomes the de facto nominee. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and the rest of the field bows to the inevitable and gets out. Paul, on the other hand, stays in the race — continuing to accrue delegates and strengthen his negotiating position for a larger voice in the party (if that’s what he wants).
The Republican party will then be faced with a choice. Do they bow to Paul’s demands — a speaking slot at the convention or perhaps more? — or do they simply ignore him in hopes he goes away.
If the party takes the latter course, Paul may well adjust his thinking on a third party bid. (Remember, he has already done it once: he ran as the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 1988.)
And, some of his rhetoric on Tuesday night certainly suggested that Paul viewed his candidacy as the leading edge of a much larger movement. “I think the intellectual revolution that’s going on now to restore liberty in this country is well on its way, and there’s no way they’re going to stop the momentum that we have started,” he said.
Should Paul decide that his cause is best championed via a third party bid for president, the impact would be disastrous for Republicans next fall.
How disastrous? Take a look at the Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in mid-December. In it, President Obama and Romney are tied at 47 percent in a traditional two-way race. Add Paul in as a third party candidate and Obama takes 42 percent, Romney 32 percent and Paul 21 percent. That’s a pretty stark difference in potential outcomes.
There is one x-factor that may lead Paul to accept a negotiated detente with the GOP rather than go to all-out war as a third party candidate. And that x factor’s name is Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican senator and son of Ron Paul.
It’s no secret that Rand, who was elected to the Senate in 2010, has national ambitions. (There was even some talk he might run instead of his dad in this election.)
A Ron Paul third party bid in 2012 would almost certainly tank Rand’s chances of being taken seriously as a candidate for the Republican nomination in 2016 or 2020 (or maybe ever). The Paul forces know that and it may ultimately be a major reason why Ron Paul decides that a deal with the establishment is the more prudent course of action.
Make no mistake: What Ron Paul decides to do over the next few months will be watched with a mixture of fascination and trepidation by the political world. And that makes him the most dangerous man in (and to) the Republican party.